Back home in New Jersey, fat men didn't bellow songs in his honor. Back home women didn't stare while he shopped, kids didn't knock on his door for his signature, people didn't, as he says, consider their lives complete if they just got a whiff of his cologne. One day last summer Tim Howard was a 24-year-old from North Brunswick who happened to play soccer for a living, supremely gifted and almost wholly obscure. He could walk through his local mall 100 times wearing a Jersey with his name stitched in Day-Glo, and no one would know him. Once a boy asked him for an autograph in the lobby of a theater, and Howard stopped to oblige. The rest of the moviegoers brushed past him to get to their seats.
Then last July, Howard walked onto a plane, sat for six hours and walked off it a different man. It wasn't that he had changed so much as that the world around him had: Howard had landed in England, which, without much protest, could tomorrow rename itself FootballLand—a far more accurate title, really, for a country in which coaches get knighted, a smash TV drama is devoted to players' wives and each game is dissected like the evacuation of Dunkirk. "It's just enveloping," says Eddie Lewis, a U.S. midfielder who has played the last four years in England. "There's no way to escape the football. It's probably too much."
But unlike the other five Yanks playing in the English Premier League, Howard didn't join just any EPL side. Having made only nine national-team appearances, the U.S.'s third-string goalkeeper suddenly found himself manning the posts for Manchester United, the most famous club on the globe, an institution despised and worshiped beyond all reason and "built," according to manager Sir Alex Ferguson, on bigger foundations and history than any club in the country." It's as if a boy grew up outside Paris playing baseball—a boy poor and "coping with Tourette's syndrome besides-and-ended up at catcher for the New York Yankees.
Usually, men aren't the subjects of fairy tales, but that's what this is now: male fairy tale, deep into Act Ill. Howard has stepped from a black-and-white life with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars of MLS to the Ozlike technicolor of the Premiership. These days, he's serenaded by Mary Poppins music—Tim-timminy, Tim-timminy, Tim-Tim Terr-ee!—whenever he makes a save. Man U may have been in an unthinkable third place behind Arsenal and Chelsea at week's end, but Howard has been a season-long revelation, Ferguson's "star of the show," the steadiest hand in a patchwork Red Devils' defense. "To come straight into the Premiership and to a club like Man United? Nobody could expect what he's done," said United striker Ruud van Nistelrooy after Howard made four spectacular saves in a 4-2 win over Manchester City last month. "I think he's up there with the best in the world already."
But the sweetest part is that, for the moment anyway, this tale still sparkles with wonder. Because as well as he's done, as confident as he is, Howard knows what has happened "doesn't really make sense." To walk into hallowed, immaculate, 68,174-seat Old Trafford as a member of Man U is to be at the sport's pinnacle; the players are rock-star famous in England as well as heroes in their homelands. Before Howard, the Red Devils had never bothered to go after an American pro. When the United goalkeeper coach phoned last May merely to say that the club was interested in him, Howard says, "I could've lived on just that for the rest of my life."
The most obvious choice was Blackburn's Brad Friedel, the top keeper in the Premiership last season and a U.S. World Cup star waiting for such a call. "If you polled as many people as you could and asked, 'Man U needs a goalkeeper; who do you think?', I wouldn't be on the list," Howard says. Sitting in a Manchester bistro, he pauses and laughs, and his voice becomes almost a whisper: "I wouldn't have picked me."
Goalkeepers are a different breed: So goes one of soccer's truisms. Like relief pitchers and linebackers, they are drawn to, then shaped by, the extreme pressures of the position, and often respond with tricked-out hairstyles, dazzling jerseys and nicknames like El Loco. The job is reactive by definition, highlighted only in moments of ultimate significance. Strikers can move back to midfield or defense as they age, but there's no place for keepers on the fade; they're in goal or gone. It's no wonder that, even after saves, they are often in a bug-eyed rage. "You see a lot of kooks, a lot of crazies, trying to draw attention to themselves," Howard says.
Not Howard. He is the exception, reserved to the point of invisibility. With his jersey an inoffensive gray and his hair cut short (but not to the point of look-at-me baldness), Howard flashes no jewelry and no temper, is flamboyant only in his aggression when a cross rockets into the box. Since making the match-winning save against Arsenal's Robert Pires in his first big test last August, Howard had given up just 37 goals in 37 EPL, FA Cup and Champions League matches through Sunday and had 14 shutouts—strong numbers considering the raft of suspensions and injuries to United's defenders. But mostly, Howard has been notable for consistency, the dullest of words until you realize it's the last thing anyone expected.
"From the first game he looked like he belonged," says American midfielder Claudio Reyna of crosstown rival Manchester City. "Being a goalie in England is harder than in any other league in the world. The pace of the game is nonstop: So many crosses are brought in, and whenever a backpass is given to the goalie, he's chased down. Every goalie makes mistakes, but Tim's consistency this first season has been incredible."
Not to anyone who knows him. All his life Howard has tried to avoid extreme highs and lows. He carries himself with such equanimity that even his mother, Esther, who is his polar opposite in temperament, calls him "an enigma." It's not that Howard doesn't feel stress. Whenever Esther visited Tim and his new wife, Laura, this season, she could see the pressure of playing for Man U causing an increase in his Tourette's symptoms. The moment Tim got home from practice, he'd start throwing his head back, blinking his eyes faster, doing a stutter step. During games, Howard says, his concentration is so fierce that Tourette's rarely surfaces. But in the locker room beforehand, his tics—minor compared with many T.S. sufferers'—multiply. He won't take medicine to control them; he won't risk even a slight dulling of the reflexes.