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 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 a country in which football 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 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 as catcher for the New York Yankees.
Usually, men aren't the subjects of fairy tales, but that's what this is now: a male fairy tale, deep into Act III. Howard has stepped from a black-and-white life with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars of Major League Soccer to the Ozlike technicolor of the Premiership. Man U may have been in an unthinkable third place behind Arsenal and Chelsea at the end of the week, but Howard has been the steadiest hand in an uneven 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 when the teams met again a month later, Howard was on the receiving end of a 4-1 hiding that effectively killed off Man U's hopes of retaining the championship.) Howard isn't the best goalkeeper in England, but his fairy tale is the sweetest. 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 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 and heroes in their homelands. When a United coach phoned last May to say that the club was interested in him, Howard says, "I could've lived on just that for the rest of my life. 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."