Only weeks after their wedding, former minor-league baseball outfielder and NFL quarterback Tim Tebow shined the shoes of young men with special needs in Albania. And his new wife, the 2017 Miss Universe Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters, helped young ladies apply their makeup.
The newlyweds tied the knot Jan. 20, 2020, in Demi’s homeland of South Africa, and then celebrated the occasion with an exotic trip to the Maldive Islands. From there they made their way to Albania in early February—but not for an extended honeymoon. Instead, they shined shoes, applied makeup and danced through the evening during Night to Shine, a global event created by the Tim Tebow Foundation to make people who have disabilities feel like kings and queens at a unique prom night.
Afterward, the Tebows launched the event in Paris and Rome before heading back to the United States to celebrate Night to Shine events along the Eastern Seaboard.
“It was such a special way to start our marriage,” Tim says.
A love story begins
Demi’s sister, Franje, was born with an underdeveloped cerebellum. As Miss Universe, Demi often spoke to the media about her sister and about her love for people with special needs. Tim heard their story and invited Franje, Demi and their family to the first-ever Night to Shine event in South Africa.
Unfortunately, Franje was unable to attend due to her health. But her parents volunteered as chaperones, and Demi communicated with Tim to help arrange the evening.
Even after that Night to Shine event came and went, its impact on Tim and Demi lasted. Their phone calls and messages continued. Even before they met in person a few months later, their conversations drifted to matters of the heart.
“Look below the surface,” Tim says. “When people look at me and Demi, they say, ‘Well, he’s been an athlete. She’s been in pageants.’ Do you know how many times in the first three months we talked about football or baseball or pageants? I don’t know if it came up.”
What drew the couple together wasn’t their accomplishments. Rather they bonded over their faith and their passion to help those who are often marginalized. Tim says, “God really paved the way in our hearts, before we ever met, to have that really big link with special needs in our relationship.”
‘God broke my heart’
Tim’s compassion for others began more than a decade before he met his wife. “God broke my heart when I was 15,” he says.
Tim was born in the Philippines to missionary parents. But at 3 years old, he moved back to the United States with his family. He didn’t return to the Philippines until he was 15, when he went on his first mission trip to the country.
In a remote jungle, he met Sherwin, a young boy born with a deformity. “His feet were on backward,” Tim says, “and his village looked at him as cursed and insignificant.” But before leaving the island, Tim and two of his friends led Sherwin to faith, showing him the hope and purpose he had in Christ.
“Since that time,” Tim says, “I knew a big calling in my life was to fight for people who couldn’t fight for themselves.” Indeed, Tim has returned to the region many times to share the Gospel, and he started the Tebow CURE Hospital in Davao City there to help boys and girls like Sherwin find hope and healing. He’s also partnered with his father’s organization, the Bob Tebow Evangelistic Association, to care for orphans in the area.
Ignited a passion
Demi’s love for people with disabilities began with the birth of her sister. But her passion for helping others received a jolt when she was nearly kidnapped in 2017.
Driving to an event around 5:30 p.m. in Johannesburg, South Africa, Demi noticed five men approaching her car. She was stopped at a traffic light, and her car was sandwiched between other vehicles. The men surrounded her car. Three were armed, and one of them pointed a gun toward her head.
“It was traumatizing and totally terrifying,” Demi says, yet she didn’t lose her cool under pressure. She unbuckled her seat belt, put her car in neutral, pulled up the emergency brake and left her vehicle.
“Just take everything,” she said, backing away from the vehicle.
But before she could get far, one of the men grabbed her.
“Get in,” he said as he tried to force her back into the car. “You’re going with us.”
But resolved to fight, Demi punched her assailant in the throat, giving her a chance to flee.
“I was running up a big avenue in 6-inch heels and a beautiful dress, with my hair and makeup all done because I was on my way to an official event as Miss South Africa,” Demi recalls. “I passed about 30 to 40 car windows.” Not a single person got out to help her.
Finally, a 19-year-old girl came to her aid.
Demi says that reaction from onlookers probably traumatized her more than being carjacked.
“I didn’t want to be one of the 30 to 40 cars that shut away and turned a blind eye,” Demi says. “I [wanted] to be that girl who opened her car door and helped me.”
The trauma of that day inspired Demi to keep helping people. In particular, it ignited her desire to fight for the helpless victims of human trafficking. Tim has long shared Demi’s concern for trafficked victims.
“We believe human trafficking is one of the greatest forms of evil in the world today,” Tim says. >>>
Intentionality is key
As a couple with such deep passions and large dreams, Tim and Demi admit their need to keep their faith and relationship a priority. For this, they agree, intentionality is key. “I think both of us are very intentional with most of the things that we choose to do in life,” Tim says. They’re intentional about prayer and Bible study. At times they’ve sharpened each other’s evangelism skills through role-play, and they enjoy reading devotional books together.
“That’s one of the things I love [about Tim],” Demi says. “Reading devotions or books with him sparks great conversations. . . . In your everyday life, it’s so easy just to talk about the things that have happened instead of looking for that intentional conversation.”
Also, Tim adds, they try to create “moments and memories.” They plan special times together—date nights, days on the beach, trips to a concert.
Recalling one of these memories, Demi shares how they turned a speaking engagement into a mini-getaway. They spent an extra day in Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, places where Demi hadn’t ever been. “We made a great trip of it.”
And in Savannah, Tim and Demi couldn’t help but stop in at a local coffee shop. Bitty & Beau’s celebrates and supports people with intellectual and developmental difficulties, a cause they both love deeply.
How could they pass it up? After all, at a Night to Shine event two years earlier, their mutual concern for children with special diagnoses brought them together in the first place.
“It’s important to have a common purpose,” Tim says, “to have deeper goals that make you tick.” And this passion to help people who are marginalized or misunderstood has fed their love for each other since the day they met.
TIM TEBOW’S NEW BOOK FOR CHILDREN WITH SPECIAL NEEDS
Tim Tebow gave a tearful goodbye, Nov. 20, 2019, to his old dog Bronco, who had stayed by his side since 2010. “One of the toughest goodbyes,” Tim wrote in an Instagram post. “Wanted to make a special tribute to the sweetest boy ever—thank you for all the joy you brought and all the memories.”
In 2021, Tim shared another tribute to his faithful dog that will bring joy to many children and their families: Bronco and Friends: A Party to Remember, his first children’s book.
“What inspired me,” Tim says, “were thousands of kids who are shamed, who are literally thrown out on the street, who nobody wants because they’re born different, because they look different, because they have special needs.”
The book shares the story of Bronco, a puppy with a problem. Bronco gets an invitation to a party but can’t find a puzzle piece he was supposed to bring. As he searches for it, he meets friends with their own problems. There’s a flightless bird, a goat with allergies and a blundering bunny. They help Bronco find his puzzle piece and arrive at the party. They are surprised to discover they’re the guests of honor.
Tebow says he hopes children who read the book “realize that they’re loved, they’re special and . . . they were made on purpose.”
“They’re not a mistake,” he adds. “They’re created in love, for love, by love—and God has a great plan for their lives.”