FOXBOROUGH — The pocket had been established.
The 15-odd television cameras, some of their operators perched on stepstools, were trained on an empty spot of grass, and the reporters, bearing microphones, iPhones, and old-fashioned recorders all at the ready, were pressed uncomfortably together, waiting for that spot to be filled.
The man they were all waiting impatiently for, Tim Tebow, slowly approached the media mass, talking quietly with Patriots vice president of media relations Stacey James.
Before Tebow could get to the carefully constructed spot, the crowd lurched forward, causing the now out-of-position cameramen to begin shouting and reporters to begin shoving anew.
As the jostling continued, Tebow himself tried to calm things down, telling the group that he would be sure to talk loud enough for everyone to hear. He gave a 34-second statement, saying he was thankful for the opportunity the Patriots were offering, calling it an honor to play for the franchise, and ending, as always, with “thank you and God bless.”
Somewhere between 80-90 credentialed media were at Gillette Stadium on Tuesday, the first day of the Patriots’ mandatory minicamp, with reporters from CNN, ESPN, NFL Network, USA Today, four of New York’s daily newspapers, and even NPR on hand.
An 80-member press group isn’t out of the norm during the postseason, but it is almost unheard of for a June practice.
But this is Tebowmania, the odd, fervent fascination with a player who is undoubtedly a good human being, but who has much work to do to become a good NFL quarterback.
Everywhere Tebow goes, he is an attraction. Even as a third-string quarterback, which he is with New England.
It began on Monday night, when news came that the 25-year-old Florida native was signing with New England. NFL-centric Twitter users made Tebow’s name and the Patriots trending topics nationally, as comment after comment about the move was posted.
Hours before the Patriots had officially announced the signing and before he had even been issued a number (he’s No. 5), the team’s online pro shop began selling replica Tebow jerseys at $95 a pop.
And then came Tuesday morning. Around 9:20, the team sent out the e-mail announcing the signing, and 90 minutes later Bill Belichick, whose disdain for most press conferences is well-detailed, walked to the podium on the red level of the press box, surveyed his super-sized audience, and smirked.
Belichick talked for less than nine minutes, about half as long as he typically would, and most of the 32 questions sent his way were specifically about Tebow.
What went into your decision to sign Tebow? How do you plan to use him — what position? Could he be used on special teams or defense? Can you talk about your relationship with him? Will you have an objection to him “Tebowing” if he scores?
On and on it went, with some prototypical Belichick pauses before responding, the clicking of his tongue and pursing of his lips.
By the time that “Tebowing” question came along, Belichick did his best to direct the press conference somewhere else, answering, “I think we’ve already talked enough about him.”
But the Tebow queries continued.
Have you been thinking about signing Tebow for a while? Have you had any conversations with Urban Meyer (Tebow’s coach at Florida) in the last 48 hours? How much does Josh McDaniels’s background with Tebow help — did McDaniels have a part in this decision?
That one drew perhaps the most unintentionally humorous answer of the session from Belichick, who responded, “I don’t know.” As Broncos head coach in 2010, McDaniels made Tebow a first-round draft pick.
A short time later, James called for one more question, Belichick answered, and then walked away from the podium, his deliberate stride taking him to the elevator that would bring him to field level for the start of the day’s practice.
Brandon Spikes and Aaron Hernandez both played with Tebow at Florida, and know the cult-like following the quarterback has. Spikes does not think Tebow will be a distraction for the Patriots, nor will he be distracted by the hype.
“Honestly, I think he already has a lot on his plate, so I’m pretty sure he’s going to be in his playbook for the most part,” Spikes said. “It’s out of my control, but it’s definitely good to see a Gator in the building.”
Hernandez gave a similar answer: “If you let the media become a distraction, then that’s your fault. Obviously in this program we don’t let that happen and we just worry about playing football and taking care of ourselves.”
Even though he didn’t take questions, letting Tebow make a statement rather than keeping him away from cameras during minicamp will go a long way toward thinning the crowd on Wednesday and Thursday — there isn’t much more to say, and Tebow likely won’t be talking again, at least not until training camp.
So maybe Day One of the Patriots’ Tebow experiment will be the apex of the media madness. Maybe.