The sports media are rarely interested in an athlete's off-field pursuits, occasionally mentioning something other then their batting average, handicap or pass completion percentage as a sidebar to the "real story". Similarly, human interest journalists tend to avoid athletes all together, skeptical of even the most humanitarian types and the nature of their motives. Unfortunately, the media's cynicism is frequently validated by ubiquitous stories of irresponsible, immature and even criminal behavior by the athletes of the new millennium.
But, then there are the unique cases that emerge, where an athlete transcends the public preconceptions and elevates themselves to the front pages of newspapers, the covers of magazines and the headline stories on television. Tim Howard's story is one that fits that billing. His story, on and off the field, is becoming very well-known for all the right reasons. His journey has been exhibited in periodicals from Esquire to Sports Illustrated. ESPN's Sports Center, normally averse to soccer related features of any kind, has covered Tim's exploits frequently over the past year. The Internet is filled with anecdotes, rumors and chatter about the incredible transformation of a boy from New Jersey afflicted with Tourette's Syndrome (TS) into one of the greatest professional soccer goalkeepers in the world.
Last Saturday, Tim culminated his first season in England, becoming the first American to win the prestigious Football Association's Cup Medal while manning the nets for Manchester United Football Club. The feat is even more incredible given the humble beginnings to his professional career. It began inauspiciously with the New Jersey Imperials in the spring of 1997. He was scored on from a kick-off at center field while playing against the Myrtle Beach Sea Dawgs in the United States Independent Soccer League (USISL). The Sea Dawgs had Laura Davies, LPGA Tour Professional, on their roster - we are not exactly talking (Thierry) Henry and Arsenal here.
How far has he come from that dubious beginning? The records he set, the accolades he received, and the recognition he has attained with Manchester United this season, including his election as the best English Premier League Goalkeeper, are surreal to dedicated soccer fans. The odds were stacked against him, but he managed to successfully deal with all the trials and tribulations, relying on his work ethic and honest dedication to the game, as well as his faith, to achieve the unachievable.
This is where the back page story ends, morphing into a human interest story worthy of anyone's admiration, soccer fan or not. The odds stacked against Tim from a soccer perspective paled in comparison to the battle he has faced since being diagnosed with TS as a child. A potentially debilitating and humiliating affliction, Tim endured a childhood of being "different," dreaded by all children who strive endlessly to fit in.
The spotlight on Tim had been focused at an early age, quite possibly preparing him mentally and emotionally for the public life of his future. After attaining a certain comfort level with his TS and his professional soccer career in the United States, Tim's life was turned upside down by the sudden move to Manchester. He dealt with daily questions about TS, inappropriate and often malicious reports about how it affects him and his play, while acclimating himself to a new country, league and team. He handled it in a manner that athletes like Barry Sanders, Mark Bavaro and Larry Bird might after experiencing some personal success in an athletic event - he flipped the ball to the referee, put his head down in preparation for the next play and headed back to his team, composed and confident, as if he has been there many times before.
Except, there is no script and Tim is navigating through unchartered waters these days, not only for American soccer players, but for TS sufferers around the world. The fairy tale has just begun, but the struggle goes on. Tim will be returning to the United States for a brief respite from his pressure-filled career to continue his endless pursuit to create awareness and support for TS research, treatment and support. Unlike his teammates, who will surely be making plans for conventional professional soccer player vacation destinations in Southern Europe and the Caribbean, Tim returns to visit with family and friends, speak about his career and faith at an outreach event and clinic, and address the 300 plus attendees at the Tourette's Syndrome Association of New Jersey's (TSANJ) Annual Fundraising Dinner.
TSANJ has been a part of Tim's life ever since he was a MetroStar. I first witnessed his selfless participation in the association at Giants Stadium after a regular season MLS game a couple of years ago. While players showered and prepared for their post-game activities, Tim spent an hour with dozens of children who are afflicted with TS. He spoke of his battles and experiences with TS, but mostly provided them with encouragement, support and a warm, sympathetic heart.
The fundraising dinner on Thursday night will be another chance for Tim to champion a cause that is so much a part of his life. As the keynote speaker, Tim will touch many lives as he relates his experiences of the past year. None will be touched more profoundly then the children, parents and sufferers of TS, as they witness one of their own who has overcome the difficulties and inhibitions of the disease. Inevitably, we all have our warts, blemishes and imperfections. We are not a perfect species. In fact, most of us are defined by our imperfections. But, by dealing with them the way Tim has, we can provide future generations with a successful and positive example - an example truly worthy of headline news.
For more information about Tourette's Syndrome (TS) or the dinner Thursday, May 27, please visit www.tsanj.org or call 908-575-7350. Reservations for the dinner are still available. Please consider attending to hear Tim's story for yourself.
Paul Grafer spent five seasons as a goalkeeper in Major League Soccer, a teammate of Tim Howard's with the MetroStars in 2000, 2002 and 2003, after playing with the Colorado Rapids in 1997-98.