The tributes came as quickly and creatively as the Belgian attack.
Within hours of Tim Howard’s magnificent, 15-save performance in the U.S. national team’s round-of-16 defeat, photoshoppers took to social media to share visions of the veteran goalkeeper’s limitless potential. It was suggested the 35-year-old could have protected the Titanic from an iceberg, Taylor Swift from Kanye West and Luke’s right hand from Darth Vader.
Howard, meanwhile, remained humble. That’s not to say he couldn’t rescue Abraham Lincoln or the polar bears. It’s just that at this point in his career, as thoughts of retirement and legacy naturally occur, the New Jersey native is searching for balance.
Upon returning from Brazil, Howard had barely a month of rest ahead of his 12th English Premier League season. He avoided a significant chunk of the post-World Cup spotlight, choosing to skip the talk show circuit, the ESPYs and the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, among other events, in favor of some quiet time at a home in Tennessee and a Florida beach vacation with his two children.
He addressed his future, signing a multi-year contract with NBC Sports to continue as an EPL analyst while playing, and he added an endorsement deal with Marriott. He had a bit of fun, getting wired up and motion captured as Vancouver’s EA Sports sought to enhance the realism of its video game goalies. And he tended to his roots, which are relatively unique for a world-class athlete and, despite the dizzying heights to which Howard has climbed, unforgettable.
As Howard was returning to Liverpool to begin preparing for Everton’s highly-anticipated season, which kicks off Saturday, 23 high school students from New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania were learning to make the most of a life with Tourette Syndrome. They gathered at Rutgers University, near Howard’s birthplace of North Brunswick, as part of a three-day pilot program designed to teach life and leadership skills to kids with TS, a neurological condition characterized by involuntary physical and verbal tics. According to the New Jersey Center for Tourette Syndrome, as many as 1 in 100 Americans are affected by TS. Howard is among them.
“It’s a program I wish I had,” he told SI.com. “My defense mechanism was to try and hide and not talk about it. I was a confident kid, but I wish I had the wherewithal to stand in front of the other kids on the first day of school and say, ‘This is what I have. This is what happens. This is what it means.’ It’s empowering to do that … I was sheepish and shy about it and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve used the platform to create awareness.”
Howard has been involved with NJCTS for more than a decade and now is a member of its board of directors. He started by bringing children with TS to MetroStars games at the old Giants Stadium. Now he’s giving them an opportunity to tackle the bigger picture. He spearheaded the raising of $50,000 through the Pepsi Refresh Project, which funded the participants the Tim Howard NJCTS Leadership Academy’s inaugural class. The intention is to increase the size and scope of the program, perhaps significantly.
Howard is, not surprisingly, hands on. In addition to fundraising, he’s been in regular touch with NJCTS regarding promotion and the academy curriculum. This time, participants received a welcome letter from Howard and a video greeting. In the future, when his playing schedule allows it and once he’s retired, he intends to be there in person.
“The kids were thrilled to hear the Tim Howard story, and it was so encouraging to them that they too could succeed if they identified their strengths and built upon,” NJCTS executive director Faith Rice said.
“Tim and I first talked about this four years ago. We said, ‘There’s this big hole. There’s this big gap for kids with TS. And we need to level the playing field, put them ahead of the kinds of things that are going to happen to them,’” she continued. “So now, they’ve got some tools to respond. If you’re spending your day dealing with your Tourette’s and you’re ticking and trying not to be noticed, and you’re trying to do well in school and trying to be normal, quote unquote, and something happens, that can absolutely knock you for a loop. So what we wanted to do was lay it out for them, teach them as much as they could about their disorder. When you’ve got the knowledge, you’ve got the power.”
Howard is an unqualified success by just about every measure, but he said Tourette Syndrome can be “something that you always wonder about.” It’s a condition that can impact someone’s life personally and professionally. Howard does his job with the world watching, which can both nerve-wracking and therapeutic.
“It’s a challenge when I’m on television to hold it all together at times, but that’s a good challenge,” he said. “I go out in front of millions of viewers and 60,000 people live every week and it’s there for everyone to see. I’m able to create awareness by just being myself.”
Howard’s profile now is higher than ever. He holds U.S. national team records for appearances and victories. He’s played in two World Cups, won a CONCACAF Gold Cup title and started for Everton and Manchester United. He’s the only American to lift England’s FA Cup. But this summer in Brazil, he became a household name.
He was the face of the World Cup effort and the guy who could save Ned Stark and the dinosaurs. His career is surging in some ways but transitioning in others. The Belgium game proved that he remains at the peak of his powers, and some believe Everton is capable of winning its first trophy in 20 years. Manager Roberto Martinez is “brilliant,” according to Howard, and the additions of Romelu Lukaku (following last season’s loan), Gareth Barry, Muhamed Bešić and Christian Atsu leave the goalkeeper feeling confident.
“We’ve put the shift in every day and every year and we get better and better,” Howard said. “We’ve not only got a first 11, we’ve got a squad that can compete on the European front and in the Premier League.”
Meantime, his international future is undetermined. There’s a Gold Cup coming next summer and the Copa América the year after that. Howard will be 39 when Russia welcomes the world in 2018.
“I’ve let the emotion of the World Cup settle and I’ve had lots of thoughts on things moving forward, but I’ve yet to have the ultimate conversation with Jurgen [Klinsmann], and when I do, I do hope that things will become a lot clearer,” he said, adding that he intends to speak with the U.S. coach in the next few days. “I’m trying to make the right decision for myself and certainly for my children. I’ve bounced around almost every scenario, which I think is a good thing. I’ve quite literally considered everything.”
Howard’s glittering athletic career may not be in the cards for the kids who attended the NJCTS academy at Rutgers, but the feeling of agency and self-determination, the ability to “consider everything,” certainly is. That’s what Howard is hoping to pass on now and once he finally hangs up his boots.
“My determination and my path to where I am, it can be replicated. It doesn’t have to be soccer. Most of these kids won’t be professional athletes but they still want to be successful in any field they choose, and that’s the underlying theme,” he said. “We’re bringing kids and coaches [who also have TS] together to give kids with Tourette’s an opportunity to advocate for themselves as much as we’re all going to advocate for them. They will get the tools to better understand how Tourette’s affects their life and the things they can do to be successful.”