By any reasonable standard, Tim Howard had enjoyed a remarkable career heading into World Cup 2014. Even in a country renowned for goalkeepers, the 35-year-old Howard stood out, holding U.S. national team records for appearances and victories by a goalie. He had played in 342 Premier League games for Everton and Manchester United, and he was the only American to have won England’s FA Cup.
So reliable was Howard, so familiar in the U.S. soccer community, that it was easy to forget his inspiring story of overcoming Tourette Syndrome and moving straight from MLS to starting for Man United in 2003.
Then, on a sweltering night in Salvador, Brazil, he experienced the power of a World Cup.
In the U.S.’s Round of 16 elimination game against Belgium, before a domestic viewing audience of 26.9 million, Howard produced a performance for the ages -- 15 saves, the most ever recorded in a World Cup game. As the Belgian attack broke through time and again, Howard somehow made the stops, sprawling in every possible direction to send the match into extra-time.
It was a measure of Howard’s transcendence that when Belgium finally scored and prevailed 2-1, the focus remained squarely on the New Jersey netminder, who’d almost singlehandedly kept the U.S. in the game. In the hours that followed, the hilarious #ThingsTimHowardCouldSave meme took over social media, showing Howard flying in to save Taylor Swift from Kanye, the Titanic from the iceberg and Ned Stark from the sword.
The transformative impact of the World Cup is an amazing thing. For a short time, you feel like you’re at the center of the universe, with eyeballs trained on you from every corner of the globe. Sometimes it can become a distortion field: It’s hard not to shake your head that Zinédine Zidane is known mainly in the U.S. as “that headbutt guy,” instead of one of the greatest players of all time -- simply because that headbutt took place in a World Cup final.
But sometimes the World Cup glare can take a fantastic player and a good man and expose him to tens of millions more people. That’s what happened with Tim Howard in 2014.
The honest truth is that those of us who followed Howard closely over the years took him for granted -- especially the obstacles that he overcame to reach this point. It is no small thing to excel as a professional athlete despite having Tourette Syndrome, a neurological condition characterized by involuntary physical and verbal tics. And who goes straight from the New York/New Jersey MetroStars to Manchester United? Howard did those things. And even when Man United didn’t work out in the long term, Howard went to Everton and became beloved there.
Meanwhile, Howard has spent more than a decade working with (and becoming a board member of) the New Jersey Center for Tourette Syndrome. With little public fanfare, he has donated his time and helped raise money for NJCTS, including for a pilot three-day leadership program this year for high school students with TS from New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.
For all those things, and for the way he handled his World Cup moment with grace and poise, Tim Howard is my 2014 Sportsman of the Year.