FOXBOROUGH — Madelin Beardsley is a 15-year-old with cerebral palsy. She also has selective mutism.
Sometimes, in unfamiliar settings, she clams up.
So when she planned on attending Patriots training camp last week, her parents suggested what they often do: Make a poster.
“It’s a way for her to make herself known,” Madelin’s father, Scott Beardsley, said. “For her to stand up for herself and communicate what she really wants to say.”
Last Monday night, the Beardsleys gathered in their Virginia Beach home with markers and white oak tag.
Madelin selected the text: “Tebow we came 600 miles to see you, please come see me.”
On Thursday in Foxborough, he did.
Tim Tebow — the Patriots’ renowned third-string quarterback — met Madelin after practice. He smiled. He told her he loved the poster.
“A handful of players signed autographs for Madelin,” said Scott, who grew up a Patriots fan in Beverly. “Tebow was the only one to ask her name. I can’t tell you what that meant to her. There’s something about him, something that can make someone feel so special. Even if they meet for 10 seconds.”
Tebow sometimes has trouble connecting on passes on the field. His purpose in New England’s offense this season — or in the future — is unclear.
But the way he connects with people transcends football.
After each practice, a handful of Patriots sign autographs. It’s a predetermined group, usually by position. They interact with fans for about 15 minutes near the sun-baked, metal bleachers.
Tebow, unlike most players, has signed nearly every day.
After a practice under the lights at Gillette Stadium last Saturday, Tebow stayed nearly 45 minutes to sign. He was one of the last players off the field.
“It’s a very little thing that can go a long way,” Tebow said. “I know, because when I was a young boy and I got Danny Wuerffel’s autograph, or Emmitt Smith’s autograph, what it meant to me. You want to be a good role model, someone that a young boy or young girl can look up to.”
“He doesn’t have to do that,” said Justin Wallace, a 19-year-old from North Attleborough who wore a Tebow Broncos jersey on Tuesday. “But that’s what makes him unique. People here are starting to get on the bandwagon. They’re seeing what he stands for and seeing how he just connects to people.”
Take Thursday for example.
Practice ended at 4:43 p.m. The team stretched before trickling off to media interviews or the locker room.
By 5:07, the field emptied.
One player remained.
Dozens of fans spilled behind a roped-off corner, leaning as close as they could to the field. They waved footballs, hats, and programs.
They called his name, again and again. They sounded like a flock of seagulls.
“Tee-bow!” they cried. “Teee-bow! Teeee-bow!”
The quarterback strolled over, his spiky brown hair drenched with sweat. He started on the far left.
“Hi, how are you?” Tebow said as accepted a Sharpie and signed a football.
“This is so cool,” said the football’s owner, a pre-teen boy, jumping up and down.
“How are you?” Tebow said, moving down the line.
He did not skip a fan. He made eye contact with each person.
When he posed for pictures — 23, in total — he hunched his shoulders slightly. He has the same squinty grin in every photo. It’s almost mechanical.
“Thanks, Tim!” a young girl squealed after he signed her white and pink Tom Brady jersey.
“You’re very welcome,” Tebow responded.
His voice remained a calm even pitch. He side-stepped down the line at a steady, graceful pace.
“I was at the ’08 game against Florida,” a middle-aged man proclaimed, after asking Tebow to pose with his family.
“Thank you, that’s very cool,” Tebow responded. Same squinty grin.
“Hey Timbo, welcome to New England!” a man shouted.
“Thank you very much,” Tebow replied, with a soft chuckle.
After six minutes, a Patriots official — hovering behind Tebow the entire time — announced there could only be a few more autographs. Tebow had to attend a meeting soon.
The quarterback did not flinch. He kept moving down the line.
Finally, five minutes later, the Patriots employee excused Tebow.
“Thanks guys,” Tebow said, waving as he jogged off the field. “And God bless.”
“My heart is still pumping,” said Alaina Doyle, a Maine resident who posed for a picture with Tebow, her husband, Drew, and their 2-year-old son.
“Framing it, blowing it up, I don’t even know,” Alaina said. “It’s definitely going up in our house.”
“I’m really glad he’s on this team,” said Drew, a second lieutenant in the Army. “As a father, you want a role model out there who can teach these aspects of sports.”
Tebow, a devout Christian, was raised on a farm in Jacksonville. A quarterback prodigy, he signed his first autograph when he was 15.
At Florida, he became the first sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy.
Over time, the folklore grew. Chiseled with steel blue eyes, Tebow once graced the cover of GQ. His name became a verb, slang word, and cultural phenomenon.
Cult-like followings sprouted wherever his football career took him.
At Florida, the university attempted a new policy asking Tebow not to sign autographs because of the “overwhelming number, which compromises his ability to handle his rigorous schedule as a successful student-athlete.”
Tebow still signed.
When he played for the Broncos, two visiting reporters were booted from the locker room after asking the quarterback for an autograph — a big no-no for journalists.
At planned public appearances — such as a 2010 signing in a Jacksonville mall — Tebow has charged up to $160 per autograph, with a large portion of the proceeds going toward the Tim Tebow Foundation.
Worth it, say his biggest fans.
“He’s just unbelievable,” said Wallace. “I fell in love with him right away in college. I just love the way he carries himself.”
Tebow starred at Florida and Denver. In New England, he is third string to Brady (three Super Bowl rings) and Ryan Mallett (25 years old, just like Tebow).
“I really don’t know what he’ll do on the field this year,” Scott Beardsley said. “But if he keeps interacting with fans like this, he’ll win a lot of hearts in New England.”