Late Sunday night, Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch broke some interesting news about NBC's Premier League coverage:
U.S. national soccer team goaltender Tim Howard will serve as the analyst for the Chelsea-Manchester City match next Sunday at noon ET on NBCSN. Arlo White will call the game with Howard, who will be in the booth one day after suiting up for Everton against Aston Villa.
When I saw the report, I had a series of reactions in quick succession.
The first was that it's neat to have a standing member of the U.S. national team in the commentary booth for a Premier League broadcast.
The second was that it's quite a coup for NBC to get a Premier League player into the booth, given how stingy Premier League clubs are about media access. They're much worse than American teams about it.
The third followed the second and the first. Not only has NBC gotten unprecedented access to a standing member of the U.S. national team in the Premier League team, but they're also putting him in the booth a day after playing a game. And not a small game, either: Villa's squad includes Brad Guzan, the backup goalkeeper to Howard on the U.S. national team.
(It would have been nice if NBCSN had picked this game for its 10:00 a.m. broadcast, but it will air on Extra Time. Manchester United are playing Stoke at the same hour, and the Red Devils take precedence. At least we'll get to see Geoff Cameron.)
The fourth, though, had nothing to do with the previous three. In fact, it had nothing to do with anything most people out there might have thought of. But it hit me personally. I try hard to not write about myself on here, but this is one of those times where it's worth doing. So allow me to tell a story.
Tim Timmery, Tim Timmery, Tim Tim Teerrooo, We've got Tim Howard, and he says
If you've ever stood with Sam's Army or the American Outlaws at a U.S. national team game, you know the last two words of that chant [and why I can't print them here]. It's sung to the tune of "Chim Chim Cher-ee" from Mary Poppins.
You've probably shouted the words after watching Howard make a big save. And you probably know the story behind them. The people who produce TV broadcasts of national team games certainly do, because they scramble to mute field-level microphones near the supporters' section whenever the chant rises up.
Tim Howard has Tourette Syndrome, a neurological disorder that manifests itself through uncontrollable verbal and motor tics. The most severe versions result in involuntary spoken expletives, which is what led to the common joke about people cursing so much that it seems they have… well, you get the idea.
If you didn't know Howard suffers from Tourette, you wouldn't know. His case is very mild. Howard has lived with the disorder publicly, speaking at length about it in media interviews throughout his career.
It has never come up at any U.S. national team games or training sessions that I've attended. But I've known about Howard's circumstance for a long time, and found the way in which he deals with it admirable. I've watched him at times to see if any of his tics manifest themselves in public, because they can be induced by stress. And I think we can safely say that Howard's job has plenty of that, from the hostile atmospheres at World Cup qualifiers to the rancorous press packs at Premier League games.
Indeed, the British media has not always treated Howard's condition well. When he signed with Manchester United in 2003, Howard was greeted by headlines in tabloid newspapers calling him "disabled" and "retarded." Of course, Howard's character is far greater than that of the tabloid hack crowd, and they have long since shut up.
Here's an extract from an interview Howard gave to German magazine Der Spiegel earlier this year:
After you had signed with Manchester United in 2003, the British tabloid media described you as "disabled" and called you the "cursing goalkeeper." How did you deal with that?
It didn't bother me. These headlines were written by people who had no idea about Tourette syndrome. They didn't know that I am neither disabled, nor do I curse. But uneducated people are in the habit of making unqualified assertions. I have to live with that.
Did your fellow teammates or the coach, Alex Ferguson, jump to your defense?
I don't need any moral support or any pity today, and I didn't need it then either. On the contrary. I told them they shouldn't give any thought to the press. My teammates got much more worked up about it than I did.
Those are strong words, and I can tell you from personal experience that they are accurate words. I have Tourette Syndrome too. Like Howard, I have a very mild case. It used to be much more pronounced, but as with many people who suffer from the disorder, it faded dramatically in my late teens and early 20s.
If you didn't know, or if you wouldn't have known, that's just fine. I've never raised it on here, or anywhere else in my writing. And I don't think I've raised it with Howard, though I might have mentioned it to some of the people at U.S. Soccer a few years back. I can't remember. I've had no reason to bring it up, after all. It's not the sort of question you ask in a mixed zone full of reporters, and there aren't many opportunities for one-on-one interviews with players of Howard's stature.
That Howard's circumstances, and mine, aren't well-known is exactly how a lot of people with Tourette would want to be seen.
But I'll tell you this: when I'm racing for a train or a plane or in some other stress-inducing situations, the tics resurface ever so slightly, and sometimes people notice. Eventually, I get a moment to step back and take a few deep breaths, and they go away again. From everything I've read, Howard deals with his tics in the same manner.
Howard has never complained about the chant in his name because he knows it's offered as encouragement. When I hear Tourette-related jokes from friends or colleagues, I try my best to just laugh and roll with them. That's what wider society has led us to do when we hear someone make fun of another group of people.
But sometimes I'll walk over later to whoever offered the joke, and quietly say something about why the attempted humor wasn't actually that funny.
Like many sports-mad kids, I wanted to be a play-by-play announcer when I grew up. I'd sit in my room pretending to voice over goals or touchdowns or home runs in video games, and dream of doing so on television or radio some day.
Deep down, though, I feared it would never happen. I feared I'd have a tic flare up while live on air, and it would sink me on the spot.
(And now that I know how hard it actually is to do play-by-play for a full game, I think I'd rather be a color analyst. Or maybe a pregame host.)
Howard's experience on Sunday is going to produce a different kind of stress from what he has experienced before. There's nothing quite like having a live microphone hang off your ear for two and a half hours. Even just doing half an hour of live talk radio or a halftime show on a game broadcast can require a lot of focus, and awareness of everything in your surroundings.
As the interview quoted above makes clear, Howard does not want any sympathy. And I don't judge his performances on the field any differently because we happen to have this in common. If he screws up, I'll criticize him as much as anybody else would. He'd expect that, and I'm sure he'd demand it of others and himself.
Nor am I asking for any sympathy, even though I am putting something in the public domain that I never intended to. But at the same time, I put myself out there for judgment with everything I write, and that's how I want it. If you decide to be a jerk in response, I can't stop you.
(Though if you say something on here that violates the website's terms of service, my staff reserves the right to kick you out. I'm pretty sure you've all seen that happen a few times.)
On Sunday morning, I will do the same thing I always do: sit back and enjoy a game between two top teams in one of the world's top soccer league. But this time, it will be a bit different. I will allow myself to celebrate a special accomplishment by someone whose career I've followed and admired for a long time.
Tim Howard is an inspiration to a lot of people, and for a lot of reasons. My reason is probably different from yours. But I wanted to let you know about it today, because this weekend Howard is going to write the latest chapter in a career full of special moments.
We said it a decade ago when he moved from the MetroStars to Manchester United. On Sunday, some of us are going to say it again.
Tim Howard is living proof that nothing is impossible.