As Tim Howard’s playing career comes to an end, media, fans, teammates, and opponents talk about his achievements on the pitch: The improbable, athletic saves, the shutouts and wins, and his work ethic to become one of the all-time greats. However, another legacy has grown behind the scenes and away from the cameras and microphones—his movement to educate and connect with those affected by the same condition he’s lived with, Tourette syndrome.
The Howard’s Heroes program is the latest byproduct of the goalkeeper’s mission to bring TS out into the mainstream and educate those kids and families affected (and the public) about exactly what the condition is and how to cope with it. Anyone who has read Tim’s memoir, The Keeper (a recommended read for sure), will know that Howard has flourished with Tourette syndrome most of his life and achieved success many people only dream about.
Our last #HowardsHeroes at home was 11 year-old Luca, who was diagnosed with TS and OCD a year and a half ago. Luca loves soccer and reading. Thanks for making the trip from Idaho and #keepfighting! pic.twitter.com/LsqqTuVqNf— Tim Howard (@TimHowardGK) October 1, 2019
How it all started
He began his mission of connecting with and educating others as his budding soccer career was just about to take off. “It was self-serving at first,” Howard told Burgundy Wave with a laugh. “I was a young kid with the Metrostars and I wasn’t playing. I was 18, 19 years old so I was biding my time, paying my dues, and then I won the starting job probably year three.”
The next step was the beginning of an awareness campaign that Tim took with him wherever he played—whether he liked it or not. “Heading into that pre-season, I had known Faith Rice, who among other things leads the New Jersey Center for Tourette Syndrome. I wanted to reach out to her and get the ball rolling and get out in front of it, basically say I’m now going to be the starter, I’m going to be on television more, I’ll be more accessible to people, more visible to people, no longer be sitting on the bench with a coat on.”
“People are going to be, ‘what the heck is going on with this guy?’” Howard said. “So I wanted to get out ahead of it and for the first time in my life say this is who I am, this is what I have, this is what Tourette syndrome looks like, feels like, is. You’ll probably have questions at some point, but that’s what it is. I always feel like getting out ahead of things, putting it ahead, then moving forward is the best way to do it.”
“From there, I’ve got the easiest job in the world when it comes to raising awareness for Tourette syndrome,” he continued. “It’s on tv, there’s millions of viewers, tens of thousands of people in stadiums every weekend see it, and unfortunately, we’re still making strides with people who make fun, but it’s there for people to see and it’s an opportunity to learn.”
As far as Tourette’s is concerned, Howard knows the struggles of both the children and the families involved because he’s lived in that world for 40 years and admits there’s a wide range of consequences out there. “There’s no right way to deal with it. TS affects everybody differently,” said Howard. “There are some similarities and some threads, but it affects everyone differently on this scale.”
“I’ve always said I’m going to be the voice for the voiceless as long as that’s needed. Then if we can empower kids and give kids the ability to advocate for themselves when they go outside of their circle, that to me is vitally important. That’s why we keep doing this.”
“The stories that you hear from families is you just want to hear that there’s hope,” he said. “When you get diagnosed, this is your baby boy or girl and they have tics or vocal tics, you don’t know what’s going on and as a parent, you want to save them from any type of hurt or bullying, or even physical pain that comes along with some of the tics.”
“From my end, it’s just about trying to give that hope and saying there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. To be honest, what you find, is there’s so many things with TS–when I was younger it was, ‘will I be able to date, will I be able to drive a car, play soccer?’ Normal teenagers worried about that but I worried more.”
Howard’s Heroes was born
Flash forward to Howard’s return MLS. He joined the Colorado Rapids in July 2016 and in 2018, the Howard’s Heroes movement was born to try and impart the wisdom, hope, and inspiration Tim wanted to share with the TS community.
“After the 2017 season, (Tim) came to me and said, ‘I really want to do something with kids who have Tourette’s, I don’t know where to start, what would you suggest?”, explains Caitlin Kinser, Director of Community Relations for the Rapids. “We tossed around a bunch of different ideas and kind of came up with the Howard’s Heroes concept of him meeting with kids who have TS after matches.”
“A lot of my rogue ideas come in the off-season when I’ve got time on my hands,” laughed Howard when recalling getting this effort off the ground. “Myself, the marketing team, our community relations team, have been inundated with requests with regards to families with TS. I spoke to Caitlin, and to be honest she’s been brilliant because I gave her my thoughts and let her run with it and said is there a way for us to do more?”
“We try to reach as many families as we can, but I felt it was more sincere than over the years I’ve written letters to people and signed stuff for them, which is still important, but this is an opportunity to have a face-to-face and really understand their story and help them to understand mine. Through Caitlin, Howard’s Heroes was born, and it was an opportunity basically to give families affected with TS, who live and thrive with TS, an opportunity to come to games, get them tickets, a meet-and-greet afterwards, hear their story, share my story, sign some autographs, take some pictures, and just get amongst people who walk on the same path.”
“Initially I just didn’t know where to start,” admitted Kinser when beginning a program from nothing but some ideas. “Then I started researching and figured out the Tourette Association of America is by far the largest of any other organization.”
“I reached out to the Association headquartered in New York, told them we have this idea, (asked) can you help me out with the chapters in each market for the cities we’re going to be traveling to in each market in 2018 season?” Caitlin told Burgundy Wave of the man who was a big help in steering her in the right direction. “His name is Joseph Grappone (Chapters and Support Group Manager). He couldn’t have been greater, and he just connected me with all these Chapter leads. I reached out to all of them and told them what we’re trying to do.”
“I approached it from the standpoint of I don’t know if you know who Tim is, I assume you do, but maybe you do and maybe you don’t, but this is who he is and he has TS and he wants to work with kids who have TS. Everybody accepted it immediately. He’s probably the most well-known athlete that’s tied to Tourette syndrome,” said Kinser.
Howard’s Heroes wasn’t just something that was instituted for Rapids home games at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. They have organized the exact same interactions on the road as back home in Commerce City. “Hats off to the other clubs for being so supportive, as far as helping provide tickets for the families,” said a grateful Kinser. “The other MLS clubs have been great about helping us with tickets and logistics. I would reach out to my counterpart for Community Relations at the away clubs. From there it was requesting tickets from them, providing somebody on their side who could help us facilitate the meet-and-greet either outside the visiting locker room or another area we could utilize.”
“The biggest testament to Howard’s Heroes is when Caitlin reached out to nearly every other MLS team and they’ve been so incredibly welcoming and given free tickets to the families, and hosted us, giving us a private area to meet. I was blown away by that,” admitted Howard. “The Rapids have been brilliant, but when every other team opens up their arms and their hearts and their clubs to it that’s pretty special.”