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Tim Tebow's relentless pursuit of failure

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Tebow is remarkably unafraid of failure (1:56)

ESPN The Magazine's David Fleming examines the shortcomings Tim Tebow has experienced in his pro sports career. (1:56)

TIM TEBOW'S FIRST day of spring training unfolded pretty much exactly as expected. Before he stepped foot onto First Data Field in Port St. Lucie, Florida, his $28 Tebow 15 jersey was already available for purchase outside the ballpark. There was touching chatter about the joys of pursuing his "childhood dream" of playing baseball, not to be confused with his currently on hold "lifelong dream" of being an NFL quarterback. Many experts, after making a special point to say how nice and hard-working Tebow is, admitted that the guy who struck out 20 times in 62 at-bats during the Arizona Fall League didn't look any more comfortable or natural as a pretend baseball player.

None of that, of course, stopped networks, including this one, from running video of Tebow crushing home runs during his first batting practice session, titillating footage that has only slightly less correlation to actual baseball performance than sunflower-seed spitting. And, predictably, before the day was through, the New York Post had dubbed Tebow "a much more athletic Garth Brooks" while judging this spring training experiment to be Tebow's latest, greatest feat of athletic failure. It was a declaration that Tebow seemed prepared to handle better than any curveball he has faced.

"There are certain things in life we love and we have the chance to pursue, but a lot of the time fear of the unknown, fear of failure gets in the way," Tebow told Marty Smith on SportsCenter at the start of camp. "If I fall flat on my face, then guess what, I'm going to get right back up again."

It's a mantra that has sustained Tebow over the past five years. On Jan. 9, 2012, Tebow threw for 319 yards in a stunning 29-23 overtime win against an injury-depleted Pittsburgh defense in the AFC wild-card playoffs. Since then, though, he has grifted his way to untold riches and largely unearned opportunities with five franchises in two professions while barely bothering to alter his act. First, NFL quarterback was the dream he would relentlessly pursue, then -- nope, hold up, wait a minute -- it was actually baseball the entire time. In both sports, he has benefited from the same viral coverage to cloak his shortcomings, co-opted the same kind of devout "experts" to vouch for his authenticity, shown the same lack of humility and understanding of the challenges he faced, and, worst of all, exploited the same needs and dreams of fans in both sports.

What continues to make him one of the most puzzling and compelling athletes of his era, though, is not the long string of embarrassments, but rather, what seems to be Tebow's absolute fearlessness in the face of Mets spring training, a challenge that is almost certainly going to be his greatest, most public humiliation yet.

"People will say, 'What if you fail? What if you don't make it?'" Tebow said at the beginning of this process. "Guess what? I don't have to live with regret. I did everything I could. I pushed it. And I would rather be someone who can live with peace and no regret than being so scared I didn't make the effort."

Whether you think that's enlightened or idiotic is up to you.

TEBOW HAS BEEN transformed into shorthand for fans, an instant litmus test. Are you a fellow dreamer and believer? Or are you one of those cold-hearted realists who worry about the minor league player who had his spring training roster spot stolen by Tebow's publicity stunt?

In a way, he has even become a counter-culture icon, unafraid and unharmed by failure in an increasingly perfectionist society. It's a place where icons such as Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison confiscate their kid's participation trophies and up to 75 percent of kids drop out of sports before age 14 because of a fear of failure. And so, what might be at the heart of the latest chapter of our ongoing infatuation with Tebow is the utterly unsettling way he has embraced, perfected and, yes, profited from the art of failure.

It would certainly explain this latest campaign, why at 29 he'd be so gung-ho about publicly attempting the most difficult challenge in sports -- hitting Major League pitching -- after more than a dozen years away from the game.

"I applaud what he's doing. So many of us are crippled by high expectations that we tend to quit things way too early," says Mark Anshel, a professor emeritus at Middle Tennessee State and the author of "In Praise of Failure." "I think Tim Tebow knows exactly what he's doing. If helping people deal with failure is how you believe you were called to serve God, then I'd say attempting to become a professional baseball player out of the blue at 29 is the absolute best place for him to be."

Since the 2012 NFL playoffs, Tebow's business as a pro athlete has been failure -- and business has been good. After a brief, brilliant flash of success, the Broncos grew tired of his terrible throwing mechanics and struggles with the cognitive side of the game, and Tebow agreed to a trade to the absolute worst possible spot for a developing quarterback: the New York Jets. Tebow's act of self-sabotage resulted in him completing just six passes behind Mark Sanchez and Greg McElroy before being cut by Rex Ryan.

Not only did Tebow make the same choice when it came time to pick a baseball team, at both stops he also used his popularity and the ravenous media coverage, including a good share of it from yours truly and the rest of ESPN, to take the attention off his on-field struggles. No one remembers that on the first day Jets camp was open to the public, Tebow was so bad he completed just three passes while fans heckled him and coaches worried that he wasn't a viable option to replace Sanchez. Instead, the only thing we remember about Tebow as a Jet was the shirtless QB jogging across the field in the rain after practice. Similarly, no one knows that Tebow went 0-for-3 in his Arizona Fall League debut or that scouts knew right away there was zero justification for his roster spot -- a gift he honored by keeping his TV gig on the side. No, we remember him "saving" a fan who collapsed during an autograph session.

When his first stop in New York was over, an NFL scout told me the truest thing I have ever heard about Tebow's athletic career. And it remains just as true in baseball: It is nearly impossible to find a teammate who will say anything bad about him as a person, or a scout who will say anything good about him as a player. "He's a tough guy, a great leader, a great person," an NFC scout said at the time. "He's just not a quarterback."

It didn't matter. In fact, it only helped Tebow develop his brand: Failure Incorporated. The next summer, after he was unceremoniously let go by New England, Tebow vowed to go to the ends of the earth to make himself an NFL quarterback, a pledge that apparently did not extend to Canada or Orlando, where he had standing offers to hone his QB craft in the CFL and the Arena League. Stooping to play fullback or tight end, where he worried he would no longer be everyone's focus of attention inside the huddle, was out of the question too. (And yet we believe this same guy intends to spend his summer in Single-A ball, riding a crowded, stinky bus, grinding his way through 140 games in 150 days?) In parting ways with the Patriots, Tebow tweeted 2 Corinthians 12:9, which says, in part, that "power is perfected in weakness" and, therefore, the best way to have Christ's power dwell inside you is by boasting of your weaknesses. This seems to be the moment where Tebow was able to meld his rapidly dwindling prospects as an NFL quarterback with the universal connection to, and the spiritual rewards of, failing with honor and purpose -- sometimes over and over and over again.

IN 2014, TEBOW turned to former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer for tutelage and support. Dilfer and passing guru Tom House worked to improve Tebow's throwing mechanics at the University of Southern California. But like millions of Tebow supporters, Dilfer might have been unable to separate his fondness for Tebow the man and his evaluation of Tebow the quarterback.

"This is one of the greatest players to play college football, and he didn't know how to pass," Dilfer raved on ESPN at the time. "I believe now he knows how to pass. Every GM, every scout, every person out there should go at least watch Tim Tebow now, because it's a different guy."

Only he wasn't really. Not even close. Tebow parlayed that endorsement into a training camp invite with the 2015 Eagles. Then coach and offensive guru Chip Kelly cut him after camp when he reverted back to his old ways.

Tebow must have seen the writing on the wall, because less than a year later, he published "Shaken: Discovering Your True Identity in the Midst of Life's Storms." Even as a national champion and Heisman Trophy winner at Florida who went on to earn millions in salary and endorsements in the NFL, Tebow was still able to hit the New York Times bestseller list with a ministry for the masses based on the life lessons he was able to glean from his setbacks in the NFL. At this point all Tebow had to do was change the name of his book to "Failure: An American Success Story," and his athletic career would have officially morphed into a plot line from the final episode of "Parks and Rec."

"I think Tim Tebow knows exactly what he's doing. If helping people deal with failure is how you believe you were called to serve God, then I'd say attempting to become a professional baseball player out of the blue at 29 is the absolute best place for him to be."

Mark Anshel, author, 'In Praise of Failure'

Still, Tebow continued his quarterback training with House at USC. By January 2016, with the realization setting in that his NFL dream was over, Tebow began wandering over to a nearby batting cage, where a group of Major Leaguers was getting ready for spring training. You can almost imagine the light bulb going on, or, perhaps, off. There are only a handful of elite NFL quarterbacks in the world. Failure is something everyone on the planet can relate to. And if failure has become your ministry and your calling, then what better church to worship at than MLB and the New York Mets, where even the best players bomb seven out of 10 times? If there's no logical athletic explanation for Tebow's sudden passion for baseball -- and, let's face it, we all saw him trip over his own two feet in the outfield during his "tryout" -- perhaps the motivation behind this endeavor lies elsewhere, somewhere deeper, somewhere inside the most powerful guiding force of his life.

"When you are pursuing what's in your heart, when you are pursuing what you're convicted by, then you don't have to live with regret 10-15 years from now looking back thinking, 'What if?'" Tebow explained to Smith.

This winter, as he prepared for spring training, Tebow repeated the Dilfer trick, this time turning to fellow baseball believer and Washington Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy, once again making it nearly impossible for Tebow to get the kind of unbiased opinion of his abilities and potential he really needed. Murphy did his part, concluding that all Tebow really needs is 500 or 600 at-bats. That's it.

"He's quite an impressive person," Murphy said last week. "It was really a lot of fun to work with him. I think that the power is real."

Only it isn't really. Not even close. In 62 plate appearances with the Scottsdale Scorpions, he had zero homers and three doubles.

The more baseball experts weighed in on his chances with words such as "farce," "sham" and "imposter," the more Tebow responded with faith-based arguments of pursuing his dreams, living a life without regret, not being afraid of failure, making baseball about the journey, not the outcome, and, most of all, not being influenced by people his supporters unironically refer to as "non-believers." It's the same old scam: the same earnest defense and the same utter lack of proof or production, just a new sport on a different-shaped field.

"The ultimate goal is to be able to enjoy it every day," he said Monday at Mets camp, drastically reducing his expectations on day one. "And I can honestly sit here before every one of you, and I can honestly say I've had so much fun training, pursuing it, getting hits, striking out, whatever it's been."

The peace Tebow exudes in the face of his imminent diamond disaster comes from his belief that none of the past five years can be considered a failure if they helped develop and spread his faith by even the tiniest degree.

"His understanding and concept of failure is fundamentally different than most," says Mike Swider the longtime head football coach at Wheaton College, a school sometimes referred to as the "evangelical Harvard," where the motto for the football program is: Living a Life Without Regret. (Sound familiar?) "As a Christian, we can't worry about potential ridicule from the outside world, or the pain of being called foolish. Tim Tebow could be a big flop in baseball. So what? At least he won't get to his deathbed and suffer from the pain of regret. He's bravely pursuing his purpose. He's in the arena. If he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place is never with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."

In a sense, Tebow has brilliantly reinvented himself as Theodore Roosevelt's famous Man in the Arena, where the only failure is regret. He has also positioned himself as the living embodiment of the Hoosier Myth, the idea that moral character and good old-fashioned hard work can compensate for any lack of talent or execution. It can't, by the way. But maybe that's why we're so willing to indulge Tebow's latest and most ridiculous sports fantasy. Because when his athletic career finally dies, as corny as it sounds, so does a part of that myth, as well as the 13-year-old dreamer in all of us who keeps it alive.

And while Tebow has never developed into an elite-level professional athlete, there's no denying he remains a one-of-a-kind marketing talent. Whether purposeful or not, he's a genius at exploiting the myths, margins and moral vacuums in pro sports like a modern-day traveling tent-revival preacher: selling his gospel of earnest failure and emptying our pockets until his shtick gets old and he moves on to another sport, just in the nick of time. Tebow's continued presence and influence says less about him and more about the sad state of sports, where fans have become so desperate for something they believe is honest, authentic and pure that they no longer care if it's Tebow's relentless pursuit of failure. They'll take it.

In the end, my guess is that Tebow's baseball bigtop adventure and his odd eagerness to endure yet one more public humiliation is about something far more elusive than hitting a receiver in stride or an off-speed pitch.

"Tebow will get to what he's after very quickly at Mets spring training -- the truth about his purpose and path in life," Anshel says. "And that famous verse, that's what I suspect this is all about: 'You will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.'"

For Tebow, the end game of this five-year sport grift and this ridiculous baseball experiment is ultimately about one thing: enlightenment.

His and maybe ours too.