The Florida Sports Hall of Fame membership jumped past the 250 mark on Wednesday with a First Coast flair when a record-breaking and beloved college quarterback, a dazzling, multi-skilled running back, a baseball player with uncommon loyalty to one team, a pioneering sports administrator and an inspiring LPGA golfer were inducted in front of packed banquet room at the Sawgrass Marriott.
University of Florida Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, Florida State running back Warrick Dunn, Atlanta Braves star Chipper Jones, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem and the late Colleen Walker entered the elite of sportsmen and sportswomen with ties to the Sunshine State.
And in the case of four of the inductees, ties to the First Coast.
Tebow was raised in Jacksonville and shattered state high school records at Nease. Jones played high school baseball at Bolles before embarking on a 19-year career with the Braves. Finchem oversaw unprecedented growth on the PGA Tour during his 22 years as commissioner and was the driving force in establishing the FedEx Cup, the World Golf Championships, The First Tee, international tours in China, Latin America and Canada and continued growth of The Players Championship and the TPC Sawgrass.
Walker, the first native of Jacksonville to reach the LPGA Tour, won nine times, and was the first Florida State golfer to win a women’s major. She passed away in 2012 at the age of 56 after a courageous struggle against breast cancer.
“It means a lot. … It’s something special,” Tebow said before the ceremony. “Florida has been home for so long and so many of my best sports memories are here in this state, from high school and the journey to the University of Florida. Even in Denver [his first NFL stop], one of my first starts was in Miami.”
Jones agreed that the Florida Hall of Fame was meaningful.
See also: Photos: 2017 Class of the Florida Sports Hall of Fame
“This is my home state. … It’s been a long time since I’ve been back in Jacksonville,” Jones said. “I don’t get back here as much as I should. It’s fitting we do it here, and this class is pretty awesome.”
Tebow, who was recently inducted into the Florida-Georgia Hall of Fame, threw for 9,285 yards and 88 touchdowns and ran for 2,947 yards and 57 TDs in four years at Florida. He won the Heisman Trophy in 2007 and helped the Gators win national championships in 2006 and 2008.
Dunn gained 3,956 yards and scored 37 TDs for FSU before going on to a professional career with the Tampa Bay Bucs and the Atlanta Falcons. Dunn had five 1,000-yard seasons in the NFL and made three Pro Bowls.
Jones batted .303 and hit 468 home runs for the Braves, was an eight-time All-Star and the National League MVP in 1995.
Finchem presided over dramatic increases in purses, TV ratings and charitable donations at the PGA Tour, with stars such as Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Ernie Els and Jason Day emerging during his tenure.
Walker parlayed a successful college career at Florida State into a solid professional career in which she won her major championship, the du Marier Classic in 1997, 10 months after giving birth to her son, Tyler — who was in attendance at the induction ceremony.
One thing the five inductees have in common is their contributions off the field of play in their respective sports.
Under Finchem’s leadership, the PGA Tour reached $1 billion and later $2 billion in charitable contributions through its events. The Players Championship has been responsible for $84 million since 1977.
Tebow’s foundation has assisted special-needs children for years, and his charity golf tournament is held annually at the TPC Sawgrass. Dunn, a past NFL Man of the Year, has helped more than 150 single parents achieve home ownership. The Jones Family Foundation assists children’s charities, and while Walker was battling breast cancer, she was working to raise awareness of the disease at LPGA events.
That’s why Dunn, for example, took his honor with a dose of perspective.
“I’m thankful people look at my career and it gets recognized,” he said. “The things I’m interested in are not necessarily what happened 20 years ago. I look at my life now and it’s not necessarily about sports. It’s more about changing lives.”
Finchem touched on the common thread among the inductees and thanked the Florida Sports Hall of Fame for telling the stories of their accomplishments off the field.
“It’s important those stories be told,” Finchem said.
Tebow pointed out that Jones has helped his charity tournament, which the Tour has given a home and expressed admiration for Dunn’s efforts to find housing for single mothers under his Home for the Holidays program that he created 20 years ago in honor of his mother, Betty Smothers, a Baton Rouge, La., police officer who was killed in the line of duty the year before Dunn came to FSU.
“Chipper has been super-supportive of our golf tournament, and the PGA Tour has been supportive by letting us playing at the TPC Sawgrass,” Tebow said. “I give [Dunn] a hard time for being an FSU guy, but what he represents is so much more than football. I’m proud of him for the lives he’s changed.”