He’s the former Secretary of Defense, “trails only Jesus in saves,” and stopped a Balrog in Lord of the Rings.
I am speaking, of course, about Tim Howard, who set a World Cup record for saves in the U.S.’s heartbreaking loss to Belgium in 2014. Howard’s bearded face of pure intensity on the field as well as his on-field moxy came to symbolize a new age of American soccer.
Now, the goalkeeper is out with a memoir about his life until that point: The Keeper: A Life of Saving Goals and Achieving Them.
The book details his life growing up in New Jersey. His mother is an immigrant from Hungary, his father, who left when he was young, “is black, a Woodstock hippie turned long-haul trucker.” Howard struggled with Tourette’s syndrome and OCD.
While Howard seemed to materialize out of nowhere into the American consciousness, he has had a long and successful career at Manchester United and Everton. His ups and downs professionally outside of the World Cup are a vital a part of his story in the book.
Thanks to its honesty, the book is one of the best sports memoirs I’ve read recently. Howard is unsentimental when it comes to how he was treated at the end of his time at Manchester United. His section on why he and his wife split—he essentially chose soccer over her—would be risky if its candor were not so refreshing. His explanation of Tourette’s is eye-opening and educational.
In a Q&A with The Daily Beast, Howard opens up about why soccer struggles in the U.S., his marriage, and how having Tourette’s and OCD may have helped him.
Your career isn’t over yet, so why did you want to write a memoir now?
Well, it’s hard to choose a time. I’ve always thought that at the end of my career, when I finished playing, would be the ideal time. But with the fun summer, kind of an epic one for us as a team, turning so many heads, getting so many people watching soccer, I feel like I had a lifetime of stories to tell. I wrote the book with the hope that there’s still another one or two chapters to be added professionally.
You talk about the difference between the U.S. and other countries, in that here soccer is a middle class and above sport, whereas in the rest of the world it’s something else.
Soccer in the rest of the world is what we know as basketball. It’s a pickup game. There’s not a lot of rules. You don’t need a field, you don’t need a goal. You can make it up as you go. That’s what basketball is for us—you just need a ball and a hoop. If you have a friend, great. But if not you can still play the game. That’s what it looks like in Asia, Africa, South America, Europe. In the U.S., where I grew up playing, it wasn’t just go get the ball and work on your moves. It was, we have to have a team, all the right balls, a big field, and everything has to look right and be right. In the rest of the world it’s a street game, and that’s why the rest of the world developed so much more quickly.
What do you make of the argument that one of the biggest things holding back soccer’s popularity in the U.S. is when Americans tune in and see a lot of flopping? Full-grown men play-acting at being hurt when absolutely nothing happened.
Unfortunately that’s part of the sport. They’ve tried to stamp it out a little bit by giving yellow cards, and referees staying on top of the flopping. But, it’s part of the sport. I don’t think it’s terribly detrimental. Obviously it’s important that referees get it right. If someone’s diving too much, they yellow card the player so he doesn’t do it again.
But I think it’s a little bit of a turn off to our American fans, as our American sports are rough and tumble, and we expect our players to get on with it. If you look at the U.S. team, sometimes from a worldwide point of view, people say we don’t dive enough, we’re too honest.
One of the more interesting splits in the book is the difference between your time at Manchester United versus at Everton. Why was there such a contrast?
When I left Man U, I wasn’t needed. When you’re not needed somewhere, it never feels great. Then here comes Everton, and not only did they need me, they wanted me. It feels good to be wanted and to get a fresh start. I stepped through the door, and it felt right. It felt like home. Subsequently it became my home. There’s all different reasons, but professionally you want to be playing. You want to be wanted, and you want people to rely on you.
In the book you write about your struggles, particularly as an adolescent, dealing with Tourette’s syndrome and OCD. What was the hardest part of it growing up?
The hardest part was the unknown of the tics. Right now, as I’ve gotten older, my tics sustain for five or ten years. So, I can deal with them on a daily basis, I know how it affects my body. But when you’re 10 years old, and every three months a tic comes along, it’s daunting because you don’t know what the next one is going to look like, what it’s going to feel like. You know your body’s changing and developing new habits, and it’s hard to keep up with that.
You also say that you think your condition gave you an advantage in some ways.
In some roundabout way it allowed me to be hyper-focused when I’m in the game. It’s particularly hard to explain it, other than that I was so zoned in to the game, to the ball, to the crowd. It’s given me that laser-type focus.
There is a brutally honest section of the book about how you fell out of love with your wife, and essentially chose soccer. Why did you want to include that?
I think it was, again, part of my story. Certainly one that I’ve never shared. I’m very guarded about my personal life. It was a major incident in my life, and so I’d be remiss to not talk about it. I think there is some hope in that story. I talk about why it happened. You look at success on one hand with soccer, but that came at a price, and I think it’s important to see how that balance works. In my life, I wasn’t able to have both, and I think a lot of athletes struggle with that. It was something I wanted to talk about. But again, there’s redemption, there’s hope. Life looks great for our family moving forward. There is a positive story in there.
To go back to this summer, what did it feel like to set the record for saves and then there’s memes about you, the Wikipedia page for Secretary of Defense being changed to you, getting a call from the president?
As I said I’m a very private person and I enjoy my downtime. I think part of being in the public eye is getting recognized, and dealing with positive and negative scrutiny. I like my downtime, and so it was a little bit in-your-face and invasive, but you know what, I always have a good way of carving out my own personal time, and not letting anything get in the way of that, particularly when I’m with my family. It’s definitely the age in which we live where you can do stuff on social media and people can have a laugh. It was good to see. Like I said, as a team we drew attention to the sport in a way no one ever has. It was very special for us.
What image are you hoping people who pick up this book and read it, come away with?
I think I‘m a guy who on TV just yells and rants and raves and makes saves, but there’s another side to me, and there always has been. I’m human like everyone else, but I try to stay grounded. Hopefully they’ll get that from the story. When you look at the Young Adult version, The Unguarded Story of Tim Howard I think there’s something there for children. For kids with obstacles. Every kid has obstacles, whether it’s Tourette’s or something else, I wasn’t any different and that’s what you see. I’m here now, but I was just a kid who wanted to play soccer, there was nothing special about me. I feel like people can kind of latch on to that and think that there’s some hope there. Like I said, in spite of or because of my circumstances, I was able to accomplish my dreams.