Tim Howard is hard to miss. After all, he’s a 6-3, 210-pound goalkeeper who became the face of the U.S. men’s national soccer team in lieu of this summer’s FIFA World Cup. He sports a full, dark beard, menacing brown eyes, a shaved head and—perhaps not as noticeable for those unfamiliar with him—an upper body teeming with tattoos.
Howard’s first ink came when he was 16, a Superman symbol branded on his right biceps. Since then, he’s added so many tattoos now blanketing his torso and arms that he’s literally lost count. Let’s just say that, over the past few years, his frame has become a work of art.
Yes, Timothy Matthew Howard is comfortable in his own skin. But that hasn’t always been the case.
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 in the blue-collar community of North Brunswick, N.J. But young Tim had some strange behavioral tics. His mother researched his symptoms and took him to specialists to determine his condition. Back then, with little research available, the initial diagnosis was mere hyperactivity.
Eventually, however, doctors discovered Howard had Tourette Syndrome, a neurological disorder that causes a person to make repeated, quick movements and sounds that they cannot control.
Try explaining that to a 9-year-old boy.
“I don’t think, quite honestly, answers had much effect on me,” Howard said. “I knew something different was going on, and I knew it was stressing me out. It is a very outward condition, so it’s not easy to hide. They told my mom what it was, and I just got on with it. 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 his feelings – to himself. Almost all young boys can struggle with attention and focus, but Howard 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 just a lot of questions that are very difficult to answer,” Howard said. “As a young kid with all those questions, you cannot ever 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 study based on a parent report estimated that about 148,000 kids have been diagnosed with TS, which represents just three of every 1,000 U.S. children from ages 6 to 17.
While most athletes are accustomed to being measured in numbers, Howard doesn’t want this statistic to define him, and he refuses to allow others living with TS to be labeled either.
“There are different ways to cope with it,” Howard said. “There is some medication, but more often than not it’s just self-esteem and having positive influences in your life and having very strong, caring, compassionate people around you. For me, I’ve always been thankful that I have supportive family and friends.”
Make no mistake, Howard no longer tries to hide his condition. That’s the natural reaction for a young kid, but maturity led to a new outlook.
“It’s part of my life,” he said. “It’s who I am. I wouldn’t know life without it, and I am not sure I would want to. It’s here every day I wake up. I’ve been able to turn it into a positive.”
Another part of Howard’s everyday life is the game of soccer, which he started playing when he was 6 years old. His mother was behind him from the beginning. Initially, she encouraged him to pursue his passion for the game, and later, when Tim was good enough to be traveling all over the country for tournaments, she graciously put in a ton of time and energy. Although most young kids only view encouragement as the more visible actions like yelling and clapping at games, Howard can now recognize and appreciate just how supportive his mother was.
“My mom sacrificed her weekends, her own time, lots of money and traveling all over the East coast,” he said. “That was a huge form of encouragement when I look back on it.”
While his mother 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 her working multiple jobs with very little support. It was all she could do to keep the family together. But, faithfully, she would make sure everyone was in church on Sunday.
“She was always the glue, the rock that held everything together,” he said. “That’s not easy, but she did it very quietly and 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. In the midst of any storm, she had so much peace, which clearly came from one source: God.”
On Sundays, the Howard family packed in to Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in New Brunswick. Howard always noticed there were a lot of low-income families present, people that just didn’t have much in the world’s eyes. But “everyone was so thankful,” he said, “appreciative and praising God for what they did have. That’s pretty impactful for anybody, and I was only a teenager.”
Howard now calls those Sunday services a turning point in his life, where he began to have more confidence and more of a sense of purpose beyond what happened 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 roller coaster 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 his personal DNA today. As he grew older and could more fully appreciate the values she displayed and how firmly she believed and trusted in God and had a personal relationship with Him, Howard realized just how godly of an example he’d been given.
“We only learned that as we grew up,” he said. “We sensed it when 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.”
Those values came in handy after the TS diagnosis and the inevitable jabs and jokes from peers arrived, as Howard relied on his family for support and encouragement.
“In high school, people sometimes make fun, but I was always strong in terms of not letting it affect me,” he said, “giving people a second chance because they didn’t really understand what was going on. I think I learned that from my grandmother.”
His condition didn’t interfere with his passion for soccer. As Howard grew, so did his God-given talent. He possessed the natural gifts—size combined with hand-eye coordination, dexterity and athleticism—to thrive at his position.
And then he met Tim Mulqueen, a coach renowned for his ability to train goalkeepers.
“Tim is brilliant at coaching young kids,” Howard said. “Even though he’s hard on you, he teaches the fundamentals about being responsible, being a leader—all the things that great goalkeepers are.”
Since his early training, Howard has had a storied career in professional soccer. He broke into Major League Soccer at age 19, with the then-MetroStars in 1998. He became a regular starter in 2001, when he was named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. In 2003, Howard was acquired by the English Premier League’s Manchester United, arguably the most famous worldwide franchise in all of sports. He went out on loan to Everton, where he eventually signed a permanent contract. This past spring, Howard signed a two-year contract extension with Everton through 2018.
At age 35, Howard still has a strong passion for the game. His role and style have evolved since he arrived in England and connected with Chris Woods, the former goalkeeper coach for the U.S. national team who is now with Manchester United.
“Chris has played an integral part in my growth as an athlete and a person,” Howard said. “We connected on such a different level than I had with any of my other coaches. He had this demeanor about him, this calm. He never got overexcited when I played really well, and he never got too down when I didn’t play well and the team lost. He always focused on the next game and the positive. I took that as a valuable lesson because that’s not something that is easy to learn.”
Howard says he has matured. As a result, he now views the game differently and is just now starting to learn the “fine art” that is high-level goalkeeping.
“As a goalkeeper, I have very little influence on the outcome of the game unless it’s brought to me,” he said. “You stand back there and do your job, but what I love about soccer is the chess match and what an integral part the goalkeeper can play in terms of communicating and putting people in the right position. It’s seeing things early, which develops as you get older. It’s hard to do when you’re young.”
This year in Brazil will be Howard’s third appearance on Team USA’s World Cup roster. He served as a backup in the 2006 World Cup and then the starting goalkeeper at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
His track record in the game has made him a celebrity, and with fame and attention comes the added challenge of staying true to his Christian faith.
“There’s a lot of negativity in terms of criticism and people who say not-so-nice things, and to be able to deal and cope with that has been a challenge,” Howard said. “But it’s because of my faith that I have been able to stay grounded.
“One of the things that I have seen when you have success and fame and money and all the things that come with that in an athletic career, it’s very easy to lose focus and not stay grounded and forget about humility. That’s the one thing I’ve always clung tight to—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 I have had through my faith.”
Howard makes his U.S. home in Memphis. He returns about once every four weeks to visit his family. He’s there for only two or three days before hitting the road, but it works. For now. He’s also adamant that 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.”
Would that include coaching?
Somewhat surprisingly, no.
“I have no desire; none whatsoever,” Howard said. “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 faced with, and it’s a very, very tough [job].”
So, then, 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 ever have too many days off,” he said. “I’d like to see what that feels like for a little while, and then kind of figure it out.”
Howard has matured in many ways since the days of his youth–days filled with challenges and questions that helped with his growth in the Lord. His life, in many ways, has been documented in the images and descriptions inked on his body. Reminders of the past and dreams of what the future still holds. And while those images may change and more may be added as time marches on, Tim Howard learned early on what it means to feel completely comfortable in his own skin.