Tim Howard: The Goal Keeper
American Tim Howard plays for a British soccer team but hopes to join the Americans for the World Cup.
Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Worldwide Challenge in 2006. Since publication, Tim has gone on from Manchester to play for Everton as well as the U.S. National Team at the 2010 World Cup.
As Tim Howard and his wife, Laura, stroll through the cobblestone streets of Manchester, England, onlookers point and whisper.
Some are eager just to get a whiff of Tim's cologne. Soon the paparazzi show up and snap pictures.
Tim had recently signed a contract to play football (the sport Americans call soccer) for the esteemed Manchester United Red Devils. Arguably the world's most popular sports franchise, the team has more than 50 million fans, more than England's entire population.
Which is why Tim created such a stir. As a burgeoning football star, the American instantly became a celebrity.
In England, where less than 16% of the population attends church, people worship elsewhere -- like at football matches.
"Manchester United is religion," reads a large red banner that hangs in Old Trafford, the home stadium of Man U. The enormous complex is a shrine to football gods like George Best and holds nearly 70,000 people.
"The level of fanaticism," says Tim, "goes far beyond anything we can fathom in America. The fans truly live and die with every win or loss."
In a sport revered from Britain to Brazil, Tim Howard uses his platform as a football player to bring glory to God, not himself.
At 6 feet 3 inches, Tim is muscular and lofty, with big hands. He could easily pass for a basketball star. As it turns out, Tim could have played hoops in college, yet he went straight to the New York / New Jersey Metrostars, a Major League Soccer team, playing in his first match at age 19.
After Tim had several standout seasons, scouts from Man U took notice. They became convinced Tim was the answer to the team's goalkeeping woes and signed him on July 15, 2003 -- the first American to play as Man U goalie.
Few Americans are drafted to play in the European League -- the highest level of competition in the world. Tim quickly earned kudos, starting with his debut against Italian rival Juventus, a game in which he made nearly a dozen impressive saves.
In one series, a Juventus player rocketed the ball toward the goal. It looked to be a surefire score, yet Tim leapt sideways like a trapeze acrobat and somehow batted the ball away.
"Oh, a great save by Tim Howard!" yelled the announcer.
In Tim's first season, which included 29 games, he recorded 11 shutouts (not allowing the opposing team to score) and won the 2004 Goalkeeper of the Year. "Yankee doing dandy," commented one English paper, the Express.
The fans created a song for Tim -- a heroic chant of sorts for their newest football icon. "Tim Timoney, Tim Timoney, Tim Tim Teroo..." sing English fans in a sea of red jerseys while clinking pints of beer together.
Tim's years of American soccer helped prepare him for England, professionally and spiritually. "I came to a crossroads," says the 27-year-old. As he tasted success on the field, he realized he had two choices: strive to be a sports idol, or give God the glory. Tim vowed to give credit to the Creator.
During that time, Tim became involved with Athletes in Action, the sports ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ. Through AIA, he forged friendships with many of his teammates and also the team chaplain, Rob Skead.
In New Jersey, Tim and other players met regularly at a Barnes & Noble bookstore to study the Book of John. "No one knew who we were," says Rob, associate staff member with AIA. "Obviously it would have been different if we were the Giants or the Yankees."
As a soccer player in England, anonymity is a luxury Tim no longer has. Even though his address is unlisted, neighborhood kids often ring his doorbell or peek over the fence. He is constantly in the public eye.
Man U players inevitably turn celebrity; it's a legacy.
Former midfielder David Beckham, who now plays for a rival team, is an international sex symbol. Famous for his sidewinding kicks and fashion, Beckham inspired a movie and even has his own wax figurine. "Some people bask in that glory," says Tim. "For me, it is a burden."
"Tim lives for God," says Laura, his wife. "He doesn't live for fame or success. He doesn't think he is bigger than he is."
When Tim moved to England, he was no longer surrounded by all his Christian friends. He and Laura grew frustrated and discouraged while looking for a church. They had to survive a lean and lonely time and make new friends. Tim knew he had to get his faith out in the open.
In a country where people may not want to hear about Christianity, Tim is outspoken about his faith.
He has been featured in several Christian publications, and also stars in an Athletes in Action DVD, The Tim Howard Story, which includes his Christian testimony and has been seen in 50 different countries. Tim will also appear in an AIA DVD about the World Cup.
Tim tries to live out his faith in the daily grind, by his actions or sometimes in conversation. After the bombings in London last year, one teammate asked Tim, "If God is so good, how can He allow terrorists to hurt innocent people?" The question launched an intriguing spiritual discussion.
Whenever he is not traveling with the team, Tim volunteers with the L8r Club, the youth group at Bramhall Baptist Church. On Tuesdays, Tim plays soccer with the kids before and after a time of biblical discussion in the church parking lot -- even if he has a game the next day.
Snowflakes drift through the air on a cool February evening. Clad in jeans and a North Face jacket, Tim plays as a forward instead of goalkeeper.
"Our defense is in trouble," yells Tim, laughing. A youth boots the ball across the lot. In a flash, Tim buries the ball in the goal. "The score is 6-4," he says cheerfully.
Many of the youth are not believers. "The best time for me," says Tim, "is when I see a breakthrough in them. To see them get a grasp of what God and Christ really mean."
"The awestruck time lasted about two weeks," says Bramhall pastor Steve Rowley, "and then the kids just started accepting him as Tim."
If Tim is a sports idol, then his second season brought him down to earth. Tim posted a few below-par matches, including giving up a key goal, which eliminated Man U from championship contention that year.
The coach replaced Tim with goalie Roy Carroll -- a testimony to the dog-eat-dog world of European soccer. This year, Dutch goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar has been the starter.
But Tim takes it in stride. "There are 11 other guys on this team who aren't playing at the moment," he says, "so you aren't going to hear me cry, 'Poor me.'" Tim's contract with Man U lasts until 2009 -- a sign of his worth to the club.
Whatever the future holds, Tim has proven he can play with the elite. Besides Man U, Tim also plays for the U.S. national team. All eyes worldwide will turn to World Cup matches of 2006, which culminate with the final game in July.
At another L8r Club session, the kids ask Tim candid questions -- things an adult might be too shy to ask: "How did you give up that goal?" "What does it feel like to not be the starting keeper?"
One response in particular was very revealing. "The most important thing in my life," Tim told them, "is Christ. He's more important to me than winning or losing or whether I'm playing or not. Everything else is just a bonus."
He says it like he means it, like he knows where credit is due. "All praise be to God," he says.