"Hatch is my goalkeeper."
"The American?... Put someone else in goal."
"Hatch is my best man."
--Exchange between POW soccer coach (Michael Caine) and Nazi
commandant (Max von Sydow) in the film Victory
Tim Howard isn't Sylvester Stallone, who played the unlikely
goalkeeper hero of John Huston's 1981 cult classic, and yet the
scene he encountered last Thursday in East Rutherford, N.J., had
the earmarks of Sly's best rags-to-riches scripts. Try this pitch
on for size: Jersey guy overcomes Tourette's syndrome and
European skeptics, signs a contract with world's most famous
soccer team and makes his debut in an exhibition match before
79,000 hometown fans at sold-out Giants Stadium. But that's not
all. With Victory costar Pele looking on, the hero wins the game
and--should we have doubted?--gets the girl.
"It's kind of unfathomable, really," the 24-year-old Howard said
last week after a whirlwind fortnight in which he completed a
$2.6 million transfer to Manchester United from MLS's MetroStars,
married his longtime girlfriend, Laura Cianciola, and made a
promising start in his preseason battle for the Red Devils' No. 1
goalkeeper slot. "I thought he was excellent," said Man U coach
Sir Alex Ferguson of Howard's 11 saves in a 4-1 win over Italian
power Juventus during United's four-game American tour. "He
showed the attributes we recognized in him. He's very agile, he's
brave and he's quick, with very good spring."
Yank goalkeepers are fast becoming the rage in England, where
Howard joins U.S. veterans Brad Friedel (last year's Premier
League keeper of the year with Blackburn Rovers) and Kasey Keller
(Tottenham Hotspur) in what many consider the world's best
league. Unlike his predecessors, however, Howard is moving
directly to the defending Premiership champions. "I owe a lot to
Brad and Kasey for paving the way so people will take a chance on
American keepers," Howard says. "It's very humbling. Considering
where I've come from, if a team like Manchester United is even
interested in you, it's amazing."
The son of a mixed-race couple--his Hungarian-born mother,
Esther, and African-American father, Matthew, divorced when he
was three--Howard was in the sixth grade when doctors determined
that he had Tourette's, a condition that can manifest itself in
involuntary tics, obsessive-compulsive behavior and (in 10% of
cases) involuntary cursing. As a child in North Brunswick, N.J.,
Howard would find himself habitually counting things. "Bricks in
a wall, books on a shelf, spaces in the floor--you name it," he
says. His mother recalls how, before going on trips with national
youth teams, Tim would stay up all night repacking his bags,
trying to achieve an unattainable perfection.
"I remember thinking, He has to learn to make a life out of this
thing," says Esther, a project manager for a cosmetics
distributor. "I tried to remain as positive as I could, but there
were nights when I would cry myself to sleep."
Howard has learned relaxation techniques to ease his symptoms,
which aren't as severe as those of former NBA guard Mahmoud
Abdul-Rauf or former major league outfielder Jim Eisenreich.
Though Howard has a throat-clearing tic, he doesn't utter random
profanities, a trait that TV shows like Ally McBeal and L.A. Law
have mined for cheap humor. Nor, Howard notes, has Tourette's
ever affected his play. Yet that didn't prevent the whispers of
high school classmates or, more recently, cracks from Fleet
Street. The tabloids have run headlines like MANCHESTER UNITED
TRYING TO SIGN DISABLED GOALKEEPER while conducting an Internet
poll asking readers if they agreed with the move: "F---yeah!" or
"What do I do?" Howard says. "It's like you're in the fifth grade
and someone calls your mom a bad name. They don't know your mom,
so what are you going to get upset about? Everyone can be
educated. That's the goal of everyone who has TS." Indeed, Howard
received MLS's Humanitarian of the Year award in 2001 for his
involvement with New Jersey kids who have Tourette's.
The Man U coaching staff has no concerns about Howard's condition
and in fact believes the 6'2", 210-pound keeper has the potential
to be the next Peter Schmeichel, the Danish legend who capped
eight seasons at United with the 1999 European title. "Tim's a
special talent," says goalkeepers coach Tony Coton, who first saw
Howard at the Pan American Games in '99 and persuaded Ferguson to
pursue him after showing the coach a MetroStars highlight tape
last spring. "He has good concentration, stands up well in
one-on-one situations and distributes the ball quickly and
accurately. But his biggest strength is his SAQ--speed, agility
Ferguson dispatched Coton to Houston to scout Howard in a
U.S.-Mexico game in May, and Man U finally consummated the deal
on July 15 after the lengthy process of securing Howard's U.K.
work permit. In addition to a guaranteed $1.4 million salary for
each of the next four years, Howard will earn a onetime $1
million bonus if he's named the starting keeper. It's a daunting
but achievable task: Howard's primary competition is Fabien
Barthez, the 1998 World Cup star from France who was benched late
last season for his erratic play. "There are things I need to
learn about positioning and reading shooters better, but that'll
come," says Howard, who turned pro straight out of North
Brunswick Township High. "I have the physical ability. It's just
a matter of putting it all together."
After another stellar showing by Howard on Sunday in a 3-1
victory over Barcelona in Philadelphia, real life might continue
resembling a Hollywood fable. In fact, it isn't hard to imagine
Ferguson soon saying what would once have been considered
unthinkable: "The Yank is my best man."