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Tim Howard and the ‘First American’ Phenomenon

Our on-again, off-again love-fascination with international sports stars

This White House petition gimmick may be the best thing to happen to the government since James Buchanan blew town. You create one online, and if you can get 100,000 people to sign on in a specific slice of time, the Obama administration has to respond to it. My favorite one had been the attempt to use the construction of an actual Death Star as a stimulus program. The White House turned it down, probably because those things are notoriously easy to blow up. But that was replaced last week by the petition to rename Reagan National Airport after Tim Howard, the superlative goalkeeper for the United States men’s national team. Now, I will admit I’m not objective. If they wanted to rename Reagan National after Flipper, I’d be the first in line. But for most of my sportswriting life, Flipper had a better chance of having an airport named after him than did any American soccer player.

Of course, the good people who follow Everton in the English Premier League have known how great Howard was all along. In 2009, he backstopped a big win over Manchester United in an FA Cup semifinal and, three years later, he scored from his own penalty area against Bolton. Everton’s official blogger informed his readers that America was gripped by “Howard Mania” on the occasion of its 238th birthday over the weekend. Landon Donovan played for Everton, too, which I am sure will be a topic of those veteran ironists who hang out at the beer stands at Goodison Park.

This has been a remarkable couple of weeks for Howard, whose 16 saves in the loss to Belgium looks like it will become one of those iconic sports numbers. (How many casual viewers could honestly say they’d seen 16 saves in the rest of the current World Cup competition combined prior to that game?) After all the fuss and bother around Jürgen Klinsmann not bringing Donovan, one of the faces of American soccer, to Brazil, it turns out the actual face of the game in this country was there all along. And he has a mighty fine beard. Things got big enough that even Maureen Dowd got hip to the burgeoning phenomenon. She made Howard the measure of how American heroes have changed since the days when Duke Wayne was pretending to kill Japanese people in the movies while dodging any possibility that he might have to do it for real:

America’s infatuation with the World Cup came at the perfect moment, illuminating the principle that you can lose and still advance. Once our nation saw itself as the undefeatable cowboy John Wayne. Now we bask in the prowess of the unstoppable goalie Tim Howard, a biracial kid from New Jersey with Tourette’s syndrome. With our swaggering and sanguine image deflated by epic unforced errors, Americans are playing defense, struggling to come to grips with a world where we can no longer dictate all the terms, win all the wars and lead all the charges.

I am not entirely sure how Tim Howard, as a biracial “kid” — he’s 35, but never mind — from New Jersey with Tourette’s syndrome is somehow a measure of the nation’s decline. But welcome to your new life as a muddled metaphor, Tim Howard. That’s what you get for being really good at your job on television.

Click here for more on the 2014 World Cup.

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One reason the country — and its pundits — have latched on to Howard is that he is a goalkeeper. It’s the one position even the most soccer-averse American can understand. Go to any park on any Sunday in the fall, and you will see 6-year-olds coming to blows over who will start as keeper. This is because even when there’s nothing going on, you’re back there, alone, as the center of attention. More Americans can probably tell you the difference between a striker and a center-half these days, but those positions remain a mystery for most of the folks who check in with the sport only every four years. But everybody knows what a goalkeeper does. And everybody watched Tim Howard — the latest in a long line of fine American goalkeepers — keep the goal against Belgium better than any American ever has.

You didn’t have to grow up anywhere else in the world to see what Howard did when he stopped his first shot only 43 seconds into the Belgium game. You didn’t have to wear Neymar footie pajamas to see what Howard did in the first period of extra time when he took away the angle at the left post twice. And you didn’t have to grow up listening to your old man tell you that David Beckham couldn’t carry Johan Cruyff’s orange jockstrap to understand how gobsmacked the Belgians were by this performance even after they’d won. Tim Howard was an American athlete playing the one position that all Americans understand. You stand there, and you keep the ball from going into the net, as often as is humanly possible. Tim Howard was an American athlete playing at the top of a game played best by the rest of the world. That puts him in a unique place among American athletic celebrities.

In a way that can be both charming and insufferable, American fans hold a special place in their hearts for a countryman who can excel at any activity that is not normally considered native to this country. Being the First American always has mattered to us in a different way than simply holding or breaking a record. This especially holds true in sports. It used to happen almost exclusively at the Olympics, which have been the repository of funky sports since the dawn of time. Sometimes, being the First American was enough to obscure, for a moment anyway, elements of the country’s history that did not conform to its stated ideals. Wilma Rudolph was the First American woman — and the first woman, period — to win three gold medals in track and field in a single Olympics. This went a long way toward raising the visibility of both African American athletes and women’s track and field. In 1964, Jimmie Heuga and Billy Kidd won the first two Alpine skiing medals for the United States. I have lived through the Eric Heiden and Bonnie Blair boomlets. Watching Americans compete in and win at sports with which we are not all familiar engages the most primal instincts in both American sports fans and Americans in general. Truth be told, we haven’t truly been underdogs since World War I — but we love feeling like underdogs.

So, comes now Tim Howard, who plays for an American team that is more authentically an underdog than almost any other American team you can name. (An American team, I would note, the new coach of which marked the beginning of the tournament by explaining how his team didn’t have a chance in hell of winning the thing.) Howard not only was a part of that team, but also its unquestioned star, the man of all the team’s matches. He was the unquestioned star, and the man of all the team’s matches, while playing the most easily understood position on the field. This is how a soccer player gets people wanting to name airports after him, and how he and the condition he has overcome with no little courage wind up symbolizing … something.

It is entirely possible that Tim Howard, the kid from New Jersey who will be 39 the next time the World Cup rolls around, has had his last on-field moment in the spotlight. I suspect he’ll be behind one anchor desk or another come the day they drop the ball for the first time in Russia. But he will be as different a kind of American soccer player as he is a different kind of American athletic celebrity. And by then, maybe, if we all make a real effort, his coping with Tourette’s syndrome will be neither a punch line nor a symbol of anything in particular. Maybe, by then, Tim Howard will simply be a star.

Filed Under: 2014 World Cup, Tim Howard, World Cup, Soccer, USMNT

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Charles P. Pierce is a staff writer for Grantland and the author of Idiot America. He writes regularly for Esquire, is the lead writer for Esquire.com’s Politics blog, and is a frequent guest on NPR.

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