FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - It was raining when Tim Tebow finished his first practice as a New England Patriot Friday. But the backup quarterback was in no mood to peel off his shirt and jog across the field toward the television cameras, as he did last year when he was at training camp with the Jets.
Fully clothed and understandably somber, Tebow met with reporters for a little less than 10 minutes Friday. Instead of taking only softball questions about his first practice or being asked to comment on the hardcore fans who could be heard yelling his name, Tebow found himself defending the University of Florida football program while trying to dodge a barrage of questions about Aaron Hernandez, his former college teammate, who was charged with murder in late June.
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"It was heartbreaking and sad and we've been advised not to comment on an ongoing legal investigation," said Tebow, who was Hernandez's teammate for three years at Florida and a little more than two weeks in New England. "I'm not going to comment further. But it's just heartbreaking and sad, and all my thoughts and prayers go out to the families involved."
When asked if he was praying for Hernandez, the deeply religious Tebow said, "Of course I am."
It was supposed to be a happy reunion, two former Florida Gators reuniting in New England to try to win a championship -- as they had in the 2008 season, when Hernandez caught five passes from Tebow in the BCS National Championship Game.
But instead of recalling those glory days, Tebow found himself defending his college football program and its then-head coach, Urban Meyer.
"I feel like coach Meyer is a great man, one of the best I've had the privilege of being around," Tebow said. "He's someone that not only tries to win football games, he's someone who tries to invest in young men's lives and helps young men grow. He cares very deeply about that. That's one of the reasons why I'm so close to him and why I'm proud of him."
There also are indications that Tebow was close with Hernandez, or at least spent some time with him.
Tebow declined to answer when asked if he has spoken with Hernandez since he was arrested in connection with the murder of semipro football player Odin Lloyd. A report earlier this month in The Wall Street Journal gave details from a 2007 police report that said Tebow tried to be a peacemaker in a bar fight between the then-17-year-old Hernandez and the manager of a bar called The Swamp.
Though Hernandez's arrest has cast a long shadow over the team's training camp, the Patriots still got to see a persistent sliver of the Tebowmania that threatened to overtake Jets training camp last year. When the third-string quarterback ran onto the field at a little before 9 a.m., the crowd erupted into a loud cheer. His name was chanted throughout the afternoon and he spent 30 minutes signing autographs and talking with fans in the rain after practice ended.
Said Tebow: "It's good to be back on the football field."