Tim Howard is hard to miss – on and off the field. The 6-3, 210-pound goalkeeper for the 2014 FIFA World Cup U.S. national team, sports a full, dark beard, menacing brown eyes, a shaved head and an upper torso littered with tattoos. His first body ink came at 16 years old: a Superman symbol branded on his right bicep. Since then, he’s lost count of just how many tattoos now blanket his upper body, but who’s counting anyway? Let’s just say over the past two decades his frame has become a work of art.
It’s fair to say, Timothy Matthew Howard is comfortable in his own skin. But it hasn’t always been that way.
In a time and place far away from his current home in England, long before Howard became a worldwide sports celebrity and the starting goalkeeper for Team USA, Howard was just another boy growing up and playing sports in the modest, blue collar community of North Brunswick, New Jersey. That’s about the time he began experiencing strange behavioral tics. His mother researched the symptoms and took him to specialists to determine his condition. With little research available, doctors initially dismissed Howard’s condition as hyperactivity. But eventually he was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome, a neurological disorder that causes a person to make repeated, quick movements or sounds that they cannot control. Try explaining that to a nine year old boy.
“I don’t think answers had much effect on me,” said Howard. “I knew something different was going on and I knew it was stressing me out. I had questions but I was just trying to get through the day-to-day more than anything. There was always the ‘what if …?’”
Howard kept his symptoms – and feelings – to himself. As a young boy, he said the condition created chaos in his mind. He struggled with his self-esteem. He was constantly asking himself questions: How will this affect my body? What will my life be like? Is it going to last forever? Is it going to slow down? Is it going to get worse?
“There are questions that are very difficult to answer,” said Howard. “As a young kid, all those questions you cannot even begin to put those into words at times. So it feels out of control.”
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) website, it is not known exactly how many people have Tourette Syndrome (TS). One CDC study found that three of every 1,000 children from age six through 17 years of age and living in the United States have been diagnosed with TS based on parent report; this represents about 148,000 children.
While most athletes are accustomed to being measured in numbers, Howard refuses to be defined by a statistic and he refuses to allow others living with TS to be labeled either.
“There are different ways to cope with it,” said Howard. “There some medication, but more often than not, it’s self-esteem and having positive influences in their life and having very strong, caring, compassionate people around them. For me, I’ve always been thankful that I have supportive family and friends.”
Make no mistake, Howard doesn’t hide his condition, he embraces Tourette Syndrome like a family member.
“It’s part of my life. It’s who I am. I wouldn’t know life without it and I am not sure I would want to,” he said.“It’s here every day I wake up. I’ve been able to turn it into a positive.”
Since his diagnoses, Howard has learned to cope with the condition. He said he still experiences different motor tics including repetitive eye blinking, muscle tension and throat clearing and although medication is available, Howard chooses not to use it. His cure is time and space.
“Most of the time you don’t have any choice, it just comes out,” said Howard. “You just take that as it comes and you try and calm it down, knowing you’re going to be anxious. I remove myself from a potentially anxious situation, or again I am able to internalize it and realize it’s not a big deal and calm myself down.
“Everyone has their own way of dealing with it. Sometimes you can’t. Sometimes you just have to be yourself and be OK with it. Sometimes when you’re playing in front of 50,000 people, you can’t remove yourself from it, so you just deal with it.”
Howard takes a unique approach to his condition, referring to his personal battle with Tourette Syndrome as a blessing.
“I’m a father. I have a successful career. I’ve been able to travel all over the world, because of it — or in spite of it,” he said. “If I have to have Tourette Syndrome to get all of that in my life, then, I’ll take it. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
And, this is where the story of Timothy Matthew Howard begins.
He started playing organized soccer at age six. Howard humbly credits his mother for encouraging him to pursue his passion for the game.
“When I got a little older and started traveling around the country playing in tournaments, she was the one putting in all the time and energy,” he said. “Without her encouragement – and I see that as a form of encouragement but we don’t see that as young kids, we see encouragement as yelling and clapping – but my mom sacrificed her weekends, her own time, lots of money and travelling all over the East coast, that was a huge form of encouragement when I look back on it.”
While mom supported his passion on the field, it was his grandmother who carried a burning passion for Jesus Christ. A single mother of five, Howard remembers she worked multiple jobs and had very little support. It was all she could do to keep the family together. But faithfully, she would make sure the family was in church on Sunday’s.
“She was always the glue, the rock that held everything together,” he said. “That’s not easy, but she did it, very quietly, very humbly. That was powerful. I think it’s more powerful when you don’t speak as much and you go about the business of dealing with struggles. What always stood out about my grandmother, for me, was her compassion and, in the midst of any storm, she had so much peace which clearly came from one source – God.”
On Sunday’s the Howard family packed in to Mount Zion AME Church. The experience made an impact on Howard. “There were a lot of low income families, the people just didn’t have a lot,” he said. “Everyone was so thankful, appreciative and praising God for what they did have. That’s pretty impactful for anybody and I was only a teenager.”
Howard calls those Sunday services a turning point in his life. He said he began to have more confidence; more purpose on the playing field.
“Being a professional athlete, living off the highs and lows, wins and losses, joy and sadness, I just didn’t want to live a life on that rollercoaster of emotions,” he said. “I was going to win or I was going to lose, that was clear, but I didn’t want to rely on results for my happiness and my peace.”
Howard lost his grandmother last spring, but the lessons she taught him – the importance of grace, forgiveness and love – are part of Howard’s personal DNA today.
“As I got older I realized that the values that she possessed, she was a believer in God and had a personal relationship with Him, we realized that the lessons she was teaching us were Godly,” said Howard. “We only learned that as we grew up. We sensed it as we were young, but we could never put our finger on it. Now, we can say, ‘that’s what that was.’ She had an influence on our values for sure.”
When Howard was diagnosed with TS he turned to his family for support and encouragement. “As a kid it’s hard when you’re made fun of and having TS and being a teenager, in high school, people sometimes make fun, but I was always strong in terms of not letting it affect me; giving people a second chance because they didn’t really understand what was going on. I think I learned that from my grandmother.”
Since his early training, Howard has had a storied career in professional soccer. He broke into Major League Soccer with the then-MetroStars in 1998 at age 19. He became a regular starter in 2001, when he won MLS Goalkeeper of the Year honors. In 2003, Howard was acquired by Manchester United. He went out on loan to Everton of the English Premier League, where he eventually signed a permanent contract. This past spring, Howard signed a two-year contract extension through 2018 with Everton of the English Premier League.
This month, Howard will make his third appearance as the starting goalie for Team USA in the FIFA World Cup tournament in Brazil. He served as a backup for the 2006 World Cup team and the starting goalkeeper in the 2010 FIFA World Cup held in South Africa.
Howard has called England his home for the past 11 years. His track record playing soccer in England has made him a celebrity, and with fame and celebrity, staying true to his Christian faith can be a challenge. You face temptation and other worldly things.
“There’s a lot of negativity in terms of criticism and people who say, not-so-nice things for a lack of a better phrase, and to be able to deal with that and cope with that has been a challenge,” said Howard. “But it’s because of my faith that I have been able to stay grounded.
“One of the things that I have seen in England, when you have success and fame and money and all the things that come with that in an athletic career is that it’s very easy to lose focus and not stay grounded and you forget about that humility. I think that’s the one thing I’ve always clung tight too is the fact that it is important to me to stay humble; it is important that I don’t get carried away with who I think I am or what people tell me I ought to be. For me, that has been the biggest anchor that I have had through my faith.”
Howard makes his U.S. home in Memphis. He returns to the States every four weeks to visit his family and children. “I am there for 2-3 days and then I go back to work, but it works,” he said.
Howard said this will be his final contract.
“I want to still have something left in the tank when I decide to hang it up,” he said. “I don’t want to get pushed out the door on my last leg. I want to go out on my terms. I also have other things I want to do in life, things I want to achieve.”
“I have no desire;none whatsoever,” said Howard. “It’s a hard job, a thankless job. It’s very difficult to get 30 egos, 30 minds, thinking all as one. I see the challenges that coaches are face with and it’s a very, very tough one.”
Which begs the question, what “other things” does Howard want to achieve?
“I’d like to get bored with life because I have been on-the-go and don’t really seem to have too many days off,” he said. “I’d like to see what that feels like for a little while then kinda figure it out.”
Life is going to get a lot more exciting before Howard can begin make plans with boredom. Team USA has their calendars marked for June 16 and the opener of the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
“I think we had a more experienced team in 2010 but young players are very hungry,” said Howard. “They are easy to impress and eager to do well. The great thing about youth is, you don’t know. You’re naïve, you’re bolder and you’re willing to take more risks and, with high risk come high reward.”
So, it’s that time again. Howard settles into a chair and relaxes. Above his left pectoral muscle, his two children are drawn in ink. A large cross flexes on his left arm. Under his right shoulder blade, over his right pec it reads, Jacob, you are my strength and my joy.
“I am getting a back piece done now,” he said. “It’s a traditional American nautical scene.”
He smiles and appears comfortable in his own skin.