U.S. World Cup standout and Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard speaks to Grant Wahl about his heroic summer, his future international plans, paying his own way to Manchester United, divorce among athletes, Everton's struggles, Tourette Syndrome advocacy.
This interview appeared in the March 3 edition of SI. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.
Tim Howard was a fixture on the U.S. men's national team long before last year’s round of 16 in Brazil, but then the goalkeeper set the World Cup single-game saves record of 15 against Belgium and vaulted to a new level of recognition—social media memes, magazine covers, even a deal for his own memoir. That book, The Keeper: A Life of Saving Goals and Achieving Them, tells the story of a New Jersey kid who jumped from MLS to mighty Manchester United and, eventually, into the folklore of U.S. soccer. SI caught up with Howard for a wide-ranging World Cup postscript.
SI: So many people in the U.S.—beyond just soccer fans—saw the Belgium game. How has that game changed your life?
Tim Howard: I was 35 in Brazil; I was in a good place, physically and mentally. How have things changed? They really haven’t. I’ve always felt like I’ve been grounded. I don’t miss days of work. I don’t take those things for granted. [Before the game] soccer fans knew us inside and out, but mainstream America, non–soccer fans, stepped up and took notice. That’s what I’m most proud of. Tony [Meola], Tab [Ramos], John [Harkes], Alexi [Lalas]—those guys brought soccer to the forefront, made people take notice. My generation will be the one, I hope, that got stockbrokers and businesspeople to take longer lunches and watch the games.
SI: What’s your favorite part from your talk with President Obama after that game?
TH: He told me to shave my beard. He said I’d be less recognizable that way. I didn’t heed his advice, unfortunately. Lesson No. 1: Always listen to the President.
SI: Seven weeks later you announced you were taking a yearlong break from the national team. Why?
TH: It was 100% family-oriented. With my grueling [club schedule], I don’t get to see my two kids as often as I’d like. The one window of opportunity is during international breaks. I realized this would be a good chance for me during the season and in the summer to get a long extended time with my kids. That was the sole reason. I felt hungrier and more motivated than ever from that World Cup experience, and I would love nothing more than to get back out there.
But I have to make decisions as a parent and as a person. I had good conversations with [U.S. coach] Jurgen [Klinsmann] in that decision-making process.
SI: Do you plan to make yourself available to the national team this fall, when World Cup 2018 qualifying starts?
TH: Oh, yeah. I’ll be available for selection, as long as Jurgen decides he wants me. I know how grueling World Cup qualifying is and how exciting it can be. The thought of another run in ’18 makes me salivate.
SI: Everton was so good last season that expectations were really high heading into 2014–15. This year hasn’t been easy. [Everton is currently 14th in the Premier League] What’s the team experiencing?
TH: Last year [after a coaching changeover] we clicked right away. This year teams have had time to prepare for us. We’re not a new entity anymore. They’ve tried different ways to defend us. The reality is: This is the best team in terms of depth and quality that I’ve played on [in nine seasons] at Everton. We’re focusing on being tougher, more in your face, making sure our team’s in the fight. The rest will come. It’s a long, grueling season, and really, you’re only judged at the end. It doesn’t matter what gets said in between.
SI: One thing I learned from your book is that when Manchester United recruited you from the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, in 2003, MLS did not initially accept its offer. You had to dip into your own pocket to cover the difference, which is stunning to me.
TH: It was stunning to me too. [Laughs.] But I was going to move heaven and earth to make that happen. If I had to skimp on the front end and lose out on some cash, I was confident enough in my own abilities to make it up on the back end tenfold.
That was my thought process: I need to get to England, and if all goes well, I won’t be missing the money I had to contribute on the front end.
Nothing was going to stand in my way. It seems crazy, but what was I going to do—stick around here for a while?
SI: You also write that your pursuit of greatness made staying married difficult. [Howard divorced in 2012 after a nine-year marriage.] Is that more common among top-level athletes than most people realize?
TH: I think so. The divorce rate among athletes is staggering. You see that, and you have to figure out why. There’s a lot of pressure to be the best. It becomes like a drug, and some people can manage that. Others find it difficult. I found it difficult. Doing the things I wanted to do came at a heavy cost. But you have to make decisions in life and work through them.
SI: For a first-time author, what was the process like?
TH: Different than I imagined. A lot more goes into a book than just telling your story. That’s part of it, but getting all the fine details? It’s amazing how you really have to wrack your brain to remember the ins and outs of life. It was fun. But it wasn’t therapeutic in any way. I didn’t need any therapy.
SI: Meanwhile, you’re doing Premier League commentary for NBC. It’s pretty rare for active players to do that on their own league. How has that worked out for you so far?
TH: When I had my initial talks with NBC, that was the big discussion: I was never going to slaughter a player on TV, because I know what goes into making plays or not making plays, and there’s a way to get that point across without chastising a player. Soccer is a game of turnovers, of mistakes and capitalizing on those mistakes. I have to walk a line. I feel like I’ve found a good balance; hopefully I don’t ever screw that up.
SI: We’ve gotten so familiar with you over the years that it’s easy to forget you have Tourette’s syndrome. What sort of work have you been doing with that disorder?
TH: I don’t forget I have it when I wake up every day. [Laughs.] It’s a continual process; it never stops. Creating awareness is the easiest job in the world because I’m in people’s faces—I’m on television, and it’s not something I can hide. One of the things we’ve done is create an advocacy awareness academy at Rutgers. We’ve brought in coaches and leaders to help young people live their everyday lives and advocate for themselves.
These kids have to go to school and play sports and live in a community where people don’t always understand what TS is. We try to give them tools to help in that process.