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Tim Tebow

In leaving football, Tim Tebow remained true to himself

Tim Tebow has never been what everyone wanted him to be, and for that he became one of America’s most celebrated, and at times scorned, athletes.

He wore his faith on his sleeve – or at least his eye black with Bible verses. He was relentlessly positive in an era better known for bitterness and snark. He spent his free time visiting hospitals and speaking at prisons and caring about people few others care about. He freely admitted adhering to romantic restrictions that run counter to much of modern society, most notably that of a star athlete at the University of Florida.

For all of that he was lauded and laughed at and labeled, good and bad, and more specifically in ways that made him into whatever someone wanted him to be.

No matter what, he kept smiling. He kept explaining. He kept just being Tim, take it or leave it.

When Tebow’s NFL career gets discussed, it often boils down to a simple question: Why didn’t he just play another position?

The 6-foot-3, 245-pounder is an NFL-caliber athlete. What he wasn’t, at least not consistently, was an NFL quarterback. No shame in that. NFL rosters are littered with former college quarterbacks contributing in other ways.

Tebow had plenty of offers to become a tight end or an H-back or some utility piece. Bill Belichick, the master of Swiss Army knife players, even brought him into New England. Tebow wouldn’t budge. It was quarterback or bust. He went bust.

Now, at 29, Tebow is preparing to join the New York Mets organization to give baseball a try. He isn’t merely at peace with that, he’s thrilled with the challenge.

Yet he’s well aware of the lingering question … the question that produces an answer that makes little sense to some of Tebow’s most ardent fans and seems at odds with the too-simple narrative that was long ago formed around him. What it actually speaks to is precisely the self-made, secure cutting-his-own-path man that he’s always been.

“I think a lot of people don’t get it or understand it,” Tebow told Yahoo Sports on Thursday, as he promoted the 25th annual Allstate AFCA Good Works Team made up of college football players who demonstrate “good works’ in their communities far beyond the field.

“They say, ‘Why? Why not go to a different position in football?’ ” Tebow continued. “It’s because it’s not the game of football. It’s what you love doing in it. For me, it was the position of quarterback. And for me, now it’s pursuing what’s in my heart and what I want to go after, being the best baseball player I can be.”

In short, if he couldn’t be a quarterback, then he no longer wanted to be a football player. His love was with the position, not the game. His motivation came from the challenge of the specific job, not staying in the sport by any means necessary and certainly not by doing whatever people expected him to do or they think they would have done under similar circumstances.

“By nature I’m a people person,” Tebow said. “And I like making people happy. As far as pursuing your dreams and your passions, you have to do what is in your heart, not what other people want you to do. And that’s where I think, it’s tough, but you’ve got to choose your passion, you’ve got to choose your heart more than what people want you to do. And that’s what I’ve tried to do.”

Many had boxed Tebow into a clichéd definition: If he is a devout Christian (and he is) and a great teammate on championship teams (and he was), then he must also adhere to the supposedly conservative value of sacrificing all individual preference for the wishes of authority and the pursuit of dominance, a concept rooted deep in the ethos of American Puritanism.

What do you mean he won’t do anything for the team? What do you mean he won’t do anything to continue to play football? What do you mean he’d rather walk away unless he can play the game on his terms, at his chosen position?

The United States is a comment section of a nation these days, forever trying to define everyone and everything simply. Conservative or liberal. Republican or Democrat. Trump or Clinton.

It turns out Tim Tebow has been holding a gray crayon, coloring outside the lines this entire time.

He isn’t acting like a football player is supposed to act, where making the NFL is everything and winning games is the only thing. Of course, he’s also built his life to have the freedom of choice. Football isn’t his only way to make money and money isn’t his only, or even a top, motivation. Not playing football doesn’t hurt anyone. His charitable foundation is as big as ever; that’s what brings him joy.

“Helping people,” he said.

It turns out he didn’t just want to be a guy on the team. He wanted to be THE guy on the team. If that couldn’t happen, then suddenly the hits, the risk of injury, the potential concussions, the training, the time, the whatever, it wasn’t worth it. So he quit. Is that selfish? Is that admirable?

Just like with everything else with Tebow, you can take it or leave it, support him or not, attempt to understand or just make fun of him.

It’s his life. It’s always been his life.

“The two things I loved so much in sports was hitting a baseball and quarterbacking,” Tebow said. “Because both were so hard, because both were so tough. In football they are counting on you to win the game for your team in the end. Quarterback is the only position where they count the record. The record counts for you. So it’s tough.

“And hitting, if you go 3 for 10 it’s a really good thing. I just love those two things.”

Sports are not everything to him. Everything is doing those two things – the individual challenge of running an offense or hitting a curve – and those two things alone.

“I got a chance to pursue football and really live out my dream as a quarterback and there were highs and lows with that,” Tebow said. “And now I get to do that with baseball. I’m excited about that.”

He may never make it as a baseball player, may never hit 3 for 10, not in the minors, not in the majors. He doesn’t care. He’s content with that. It’s about the attempt. It’s about the gift of being able to do it his way.

Everyone saw Tim Tebow as Christian conservative football star, the purest distilled example of some kind of ultra All-American alpha dog, establishment-first athlete. Clear eyes. Full hearts. Etc.

Turns out that wasn’t him. Not all of him. Turns out that if you paid close enough attention, that never was him. Turns out he’s a lot more than that, a guy who knows what he wants and won’t compromise, even if that’s what everyone expected him to do, even if that’s what everyone would have cheered him for doing.

It turns out he’s just Tim, a baseball player now, but otherwise the same as he’s always been.

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