Tim Howard Turns Tourette's From Challenge Into Advantage
Watch Tim Howard as he glides with acrobatic grace through the crosshairs, making whiplash saves and reading the ball as if it were a toddler's book. He is generally so clear-headed, so cool in the heat of all that mayhem, and when the match is over, when the anxiety that rivals running through traffic has simmered, Howard bolts for the locker room and inhales peace.
It's not exactly fair to say soccer saved Howard, because the bubble that nurtures him is ripe with his Christian faith, his family and an extended athletic Rolodex that stretches from North Brunswick, N.J., where he was raised, to the cathedrals of the English Premier League, where his airborne feats have tweaked the perception of the United States as a country not quite ready for the beautiful game.
Howard is the 31-year-old goaltender, who Friday was the last line of defense for the U.S. national team in a World Cup Group C game against tiny Slovenia. He also happens to have Tourette Syndrome (TS), a condition that these days is far less worrisome than the bruised ribs that have been screaming ever since an English player slammed into Howard cleats-first, at full speed, in a collision during last Saturday's match.
The U.S. played England to a 1-1 draw in that first game, a score that is still being lauded or lamented on both sides of the pond as a stunning "win" for the Yanks. Writhing on the ground for a long few seconds, Howard finally rose to his feet, continued his brilliant work in front of the net, and was named Man of the Match. He played in the controversial tie with Slovenia Friday, aided by painkillers, but would rather not undergo X-rays that could reveal fractured ribs. Ignorance being bliss, and all that.
Will Howard, the team's cornerstone, be the one who backstops the Americans to the quarterfinals, perhaps even to a Miracle on Grass? The U.S. odds for the latter are as long as the vuvuzela is loud, but those who know Howard say nothing he does surprises them.
Howard was diagnosed with Tourette's at age 10, when he was in grade school in New Jersey. A neurological disorder, TS is a misunderstood and incurable condition characterized by repeated physical and verbal tics. Some people with Tourette's experience extreme moments where they involuntarily curse or spit; others deal with obsessive compulsive behaviors that accompany the facial jerks and spasms.
Howard's symptoms fell somewhere in between, and by the time he reached middle school his body's spontaneous reactions caused him to feel insecure, alienated. There are athletes who have enjoyed successful careers despite dealing with TS -- former major league baseball player Jim Eisenreich and basketball player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (nee Chris Jackson) are the most well known -- but Howard initially strained to keep his condition secret.
Eventually, hiding the tics and behaviors that followed when he was anxious became impossible. Pre-teen kids are not meant to live in a world of debilitating and exhausting rituals. Howard had on his side an early love and talent for sports -- specifically, basketball and soccer -- and the more he played, the better he was able to deal with Tourette's.
"Physically, it didn't take a terrible toll. But it got to me mentally. I was too young to really understand what was happening when the symptoms started happening and it took a while to learn what was going on with my body," he recently told a group of children involved with the Tourette Syndrome Association of New Jersey, where he serves on the board of directors.
"Mentally it took a toll. Not just from other kids who didn't know better and would make fun of it. It took a toll trying to hide it, and so I stopped. And when I stopped, I learned I could manage it, especially when I was on the field. It was the place I could go where nothing else mattered, just me and the ball. It was my sanctuary.
"Now it would be strange if I woke up one day and it wasn't there. If I didn't have an urge to tic or to clear my throat or be a little OCD [Obsessive Compulsive Disorder], I wouldn't be me. It would be like not breathing. That's what would be strange."
Tim Mulqueen, the goalkeeper coach for the United States' under-20 and Olympic national teams, first met Howard when he was 12, and came to Mulqueen's GK1 camp one Thursday night. "What really struck me about Tim then was if he were playing Pop Warner, he'd be the star; if it was Little League, he'd be the star; if it was basketball, he'd be the star. Athletically, he was off the charts," Mulqueen told FanHouse Thursday night.
"People ask me if his Tourette's was an issue. At 12, maybe he wasn't hiding it much then, but I never heard one kid mention it, Tim never mentioned it, his mom never mentioned it and I certainly never did," Mulqueen said. "In the back of his mind, it was just another obstacle he had to overcome. He's always been very forward thinking.
"Every major success he had, every step he made with athletics, you could see his self-esteem grow and that probably helped him deal with his Tourette's."
Howard's prodigious skills in goal aided his rapid rise from U.S. youth teams to Major League Soccer's NY/NJ MetroStars, where at the age of 20 he was voted MLS goalkeeper of the year, the youngest player to earn the honor. Two years later, Manchester United -- the New York Yankees of the English Premier League -- paid a $4 million transfer fee to sign Howard.
The British newspapers greeted Howard's arrival with typical outlandish balderdash.
"Swearing Saviour," sneered one headline. One addled writer called him "disabled," another labeled him "retarded." Before Howard had played a single match for Man U, and before the Fleet Street media discovered his Tourette's doesn't manifest on the pitch, there were articles mocking what he might spontaneously blurt in goal, with dashes and punctuation marks indicating curse words.
How does a young man combat such ignorance? Howard was named the Premier league's goalkeeper of the year in 2003, his debut season; he also became the first American to earn a winner's medal in the FA Cup. His consistent defiance of European sharpshooters, his massive wingspan (he's listed as 6-3), his fearless presence in the net, his leadership, his catlike reflexes honed from all those youthful years playing basketball, his gleaming bald head -- that's what the British football experts celebrate now.
"He's an outstanding success," Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager who lured Howard to the English Premier League in 2003, said recently. "We're delighted, because I love the lad. Good lad."
Joining the tradition-mad, 132-year-old club Everton in 2006, Howard has blossomed as its top goaltender -- he set the team record for most league match clean sheets (British for shutouts) in a season in 2008-09 -- and his Tourette's just might deserve a tip of the cap for helping set him apart. Where once he dreamed of escaping it, Howard long ago chose to embrace its kinetic energy. Visual and sensory cues -- so vital in sports, and particularly in goal – are said to be amplified in people with Tourette's.
Focusing on approaching fleet-footed threats, staying composed in the midst of chaos, are tricks Howard uses that make the tics disappear. The glorious fallout has been a heightened sense of the world around him.
"Some people believe Tourette's helps us see what's going to happen before it really does," he said. "I do think it has enabled me to be more alert and to react quickly. Maybe it's helped me learn how to concentrate more on small tasks. It's always going to be with me, so I might as well use it to my benefit."
It's interesting how Tourette's, while a hereditary condition, can be triggered by extreme moments of stress, and Howard has admitted he'd rather play anywhere else than goal, and yet it's in that sliver of land between the sticks where he shines the most.
"I don't like being goalie," Howard said the other day. "I never enjoy playing, even in games. I enjoy the buildup sometimes, and I certainly enjoy afterwards, but it's way too intense. I'd like to play midfield, holding midfielder, breaking up plays and passing to the more talented guys."
Slovenia, with its skintight defense led by aggressive veteran Bostjan Cesar, presented a unique, chess match challenge to the United States. There was star striker Milovoje Novakovic and his selfless sidekick Zlatko Dedic keen to test Howard by stretching the backline, and of course there was midfielder Andrej Komac's brash prediction of Slovenian victory.
"I think talk is cheap," Howard said Wednesday, before it was revealed that Komac's words might have been lost in translation, and what he actually said was, "We will play to win."
In any case, Howard's response came with a chuckle and a sensible sense of perspective. "He's got to stand toe to toe. And they've got to stand toe to toe with us for 90 minutes," Howard said. "And if he's still standing, then I'll take my hat off to him. But a lot of boxers talk, too, and they're looking up at the lights. And the next thing they know, they're trying to figure out how they got there."
During games Howard is a bundle of intense roars and clear commands, directing and instructing his teammates like an air traffic controller at peak time, when one miscalculation can equal failure. He is quick to cajole, celebrate and even criticize the men in front of him if needed. His teammates say Howard's on-field chatter is oddly soothing, but when the whistle blows, he can't wait to disappear into quiet stillness.
"With all his great ability, the best thing about Tim is that he has the heart of a champion," said Mulqueen, the coach who has known Howard the longest. "No matter what happens, he'll fight through it."