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Tim Howard still embraces his Tourette's syndrome, works to dispel ignorance

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U.S. soccer star Tim Howard on why he embraces his Tourette syndrome

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U.S. soccer star Tim Howard on why he embraces his Tourette syndrome

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For complete World Cup 2014 coverage visit Yahoo Sports and follow @YahooSoccer

SAO PAULO – If you want to talk to Tim Howard about the medical condition that saw him ridiculed in the English tabloids and tormented by rival soccer fans, it is not difficult. You just ask him.

The United States goalkeeper in his third World Cup doesn't mind being asked about Tourette's syndrome, a neurological disorder he has suffered from since childhood.

In fact, despite it being cruelly used to single him out early in his career he welcomes the inquiry and embraces the condition, proud of having controlled it and determined to raise awareness for the benefit of others afflicted.

He might be the most ideal ambassador for a cause that you can imagine, living proof that those with Tourette's are normal people with the potential to be exceptional. And, with a brush of humor, he dispels the myth that it is simply a condition that makes you swear a lot.

"You know, we don't all curse," smiled Howard, in an exclusive interview with Yahoo Sports. "I do on the field, unfortunately, to get my point across, but it's not because of my condition.

"It's defined as involuntary motor tics, twitches if you like. Some of it is blinking, clearing my throat, different muscle tensing of different body parts. Unfortunately it's misconstrued and portrayed in a comical way, particularly in Hollywood and movies and stuff."

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As the U.S. team's man between the posts, Howard is also the player closest to the national team's growing band of traveling followers, both physically and literally. Heading into the team's World Cup opener against Ghana in the seaside city of Natal on Monday, the touring fans, led by the boisterous, full-volume and riotously entertaining phenomenon that is the American Outlaws supporters group, will be needed more than ever.

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Tim Howard speaks with the media in Sao Paulo. (Getty)

Tim Howard speaks with the media in Sao Paulo. (Getty)

Just like those who root for Howard's English Premier League team Everton, the Outlaws chant a ditty that is conducted to the tune of the Mary Poppins' song "Chim Chim Cher-ee."

"Tim Timiny, Tim Timiny, Tim, Tim Terr-oo. We've got Tim Howard and he says '[expletive] you.' "

The sentiment behind the chant is actually gentle. It is in support of Howard and is perhaps preferable to what opposing fans in England sing to taunt him:

"Swear in a minute, he's going to swear in a minute."

But it is still thousands of people chanting, incorrectly as it turns out, about his condition so millions can hear it on television. It has to bother him, right?

"In that regard, no, because it's endearing," Howard said, without hesitation. "It's people who, for lack of a better term, love me and appreciate what I do. It's kind of like tongue-in-cheek, in that regard, the song that they sing.

"Obviously opposing fans sing a different song, but again that's all a part of professional sports. But in terms of my own fans – being the Everton fans, the U.S. fans – it kind of brings us kind of closer together. So no, I don't have a problem with that."

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The greatest role models are those who shine with patience and by example. Howard has that quality, one he has developed over time and now, at 35, he is a practical and spiritual leader on an inexperienced U.S. team.

At this stage of his career he understands the vitality of every moment and with the end of the road nearing, he's determined to cherish each experience. Brad Guzan will likely be handed the job at the end of this tournament after two campaigns as Howard's understudy.

Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann describes Howard as one of the "top five goalkeepers in the world" and that is not loyal hyberbole. The topic is subjective but by any reckoning the American is right up there with the best in the business. For a coach, like Klinsmann or Everton chief Roberto Martinez, he is a dream; unfailingly positive, a locker room beacon and prepared to train like a rookie seeking his first big break.

"He is a special goalkeeper," Martinez said recently. "But he is even more special as a man."

Howard's experiences have undoubtedly shaped him. When he moved to England 11 years ago it is fair to say there was widespread ignorance of what his condition meant. The English press jumped on the issue, incredulous that Manchester United could dream of signing a player who was, as one publication scandalously put it, disabled.

I was on a brief assignment in the U.S. for my former employer, a London tabloid, in 2003. It was just before Howard signed for United and after being asked to track him down I had arranged an interview through his club, the Metrostars – what would later become the New York Red Bulls.

To my horror, before the interview could take place, the paper ran a separate news story by another writer under the headline: "United's Swearing Savior."

Unsurprisingly, the Metrostars cancelled the interview. When I relayed that news to my desk the defensive response of "Well, he has Tourette's, doesn't he?" was indicative of the general level of misinformation about the condition, something Howard has long since battled.

Growing up in New Brunswick, N.J., as a child was tough, and Howard has told his friend and NBC commentary colleague Arlo White that if you can "survive Jersey with Tourette's, you can survive anything."

Or thrive at anything, which is the message Howard wants to pass on.

"I've always tried to live my dreams, even if they were too big for me to fathom," he said." With Tourette syndrome's, it was never a stop sign for me, it was always just a little bump in the road and I would just keep going. It wasn't going to stop me from achieving my dreams.

"I try and tell all the kids that I meet that hope to be amazing one day and be a professional athlete or a doctor, or a lawyer, or whatever they want to be. I tell them they can do all that because Tourette's won't stop them.

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Tim Howard dives at a shot during a training session at the Sao Paulo FC training center on Wednesday. (AP)

Tim Howard dives at a shot during a training session at the Sao Paulo FC training center on Wednesday. (AP)

"If I can inspire a kid who plays goalkeeper, or who plays soccer, or who has Tourette's then I feel like it's all worth it, and I think those are the days that make me feel the best. Winning is fun, but those moments that you can touch someone's life in a very positive way are better."

There are countless medical support groups in the U.S., each battling for a share of the public's attention, sympathy and support. For the National Tourette's Syndrome Association and its president Annetta Hewko, being erroneously cast as a condition of cursers makes it tough to compete for a share.

Howard, undoubtedly, helps significantly.

"The best thing about having Tim as a champion of our cause is that he is such an inspiration," Hewko told Yahoo Sports. "He is a talented, powerful, positive individual who is an outstanding person and is great at what he does. In many ways it is the perfect combination of a high-profile athlete who can bring attention to Tourette's, while showcasing that it is not a disability or a disease."

Howard's personal qualities are part of what makes his connection with U.S. fans so strong. Being a top goalkeeper certainly helps him in the popularity stakes, but even in the heat of battle and amid the fervor of the massed patriotic stadium ranks, many fans feel a kind of individual kinship with Howard.

"He is the guy we feel closest to," said Katie Mitchell, of the American Outlaws' Columbus, Ohio, chapter. "He kind of stands for everything that you want to stand for as a fan. You can tell he is appreciative of what he has and then he has shown this spirit to overcome adversity. You feel like you are rooting for a genuinely good person."

Goalkeeper is one position that the U.S. has never had to worry about and won't any time soon. The baton will pass soon to Guzan and Howard has already said he has no plans to play in Major League Soccer or anywhere else once his current contract at Everton expires in four years.

Then, the best chance of spotting (or at least listening to) Howard will likely be on television. He has already called several games alongside White for NBC, usually Sunday games on weekends when Everton plays on a Saturday.

White has been impressed by how quickly Howard has adapted to calling games, although it did not come effortlessly.

"Tim is one of the boys but you can tell how deeply he thinks about things," White said. "It struck me that he prepares for a commentary stint like he prepares for an EPL game and that is a huge testament to the man, when you think about it."

Tourette's syndrome fades in many cases with age and Howard's symptoms have changed and generally softened over time. But in moments of high stress, like in the commentary booth or in critical matches – and none are bigger than the World Cup – it shows up, the old nervous tics that he now understands well enough to welcome them like an old friend.

"They are familiar," Howard said. "They remind me to concentrate and tell me to be on my game."

It is typical Howard, a conscious recasting of a potential impediment into a positive. Like the chant that he accepts as affection, the media ignorance he turned into motivation and, ultimately, the condition he turned into a triumph.

He has learned more than how to manage Tourette's, he has learned how to manage himself. Whichever way you look at it, Tim Howard wins.

 

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