Good or bad, if you've ever received life-changing news over the phone, you're familiar with the unexpected rush that accompanies it. Your view of the world can change in an instant. For Tim Howard, that fateful moment came in 2003 while he was in a Los Angeles dorm room during the US national team's January training camp.
"Going to Europe was just something you said, I didn't even know what that meant," Howard recalls. "I wanted to get over there and prove myself and little did I know it was one of those 'be careful what you wish for' scenarios."
When the goalkeeper answered the call from an unrecognizable number, he had no idea his life was about to change. The voice on the other end of the line was Tony Coton, a goalkeeping coach for Manchester United.
"We’re interested in you and we’re going to keep tabs on you," Howard remembers Coton saying. "I was probably blubbering, and I was like ‘okay, yeah cool, great, amazing.’ I hung up the phone and thought that was the strangest thing in the world. I was on cloud nine and told all of my friends and family. I was still not really sure how all of this came about, but at the same time, I was excited because come hell or high water this was one amazing opportunity."
Photo Credit: Action Images /Andrew Budd Livepic
Manchester United, with its global scouting network and infinite budget had their sights set on a young man from New Jersey.
"Once Manchester United called, I could have taken that to my grave. I didn’t have to play a minute in Europe. I was like ‘I made it, Manchester United called me.’ I was over the moon."
Howard continued training with the national team and making regular appearances with the MetroStars of MLS. It would be two months before he heard from Coton again. When Howard picked up the phone this time, the goalkeeping coach shared the news that he'd booked a flight to Houston to watch Howard play in an upcoming US vs Mexico friendly. This would be one of Howard's first starts with the national team, and given the added pressure of Coton's presence in the stands, it was obvious that there would be a lot riding on those 90 minutes.
Photo Credit: Action Images / Alex Morton
The match against Mexico ended in a scoreless draw, a positive performance and a shutout for the young keeper. The match clearly impressed Coton and United because a few months later, Tim received another call. The mighty Manchester United wanted to sign him.
Howard flew across the Atlantic Ocean for a whirlwind 36-hour trip and upon arrival, he was brought straight to the training ground in the middle of a session. Legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson stopped drills to introduce Howard, and within moments the soon-to-be Red Devil was shaking hands with some of the biggest names in world soccer.
"It must have felt intimidating when we all came over and were like 'Who is this goalkeeper from America?' I didn't know any goalkeepers from America other than Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller, so I was like, 'Who is this guy?', Manchester United legend Rio Ferdinand recalled in a recent video message.
Howard remembers the insanely star-studded side that he'd watched from afar and was now set to join.
"Roy Keane the greatest player I’ve ever played with, Rio Ferdinand the most expensive defender at the time in the world, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, the Neville brothers, Nicky Butt, Ruud van Nistelrooy who became a household name very quickly, there were so many big, big players."
Photo Credit: REUTERS/Paul Sanders ASA
Following a physical and a tour of his new surroundings, Howard headed to the iconic Old Trafford stadium to sign his contract.
"I didn't feel exactly like Cinderella, but the whole thing was enough of a fairy tale to make me wonder when the clock would strike midnight," Howard shared in his biography, The Keeper.
In the blink of an eye, the American had become a part of a club known across the world.
"I’ve always said that it was like traveling with the Beatles. Everywhere we went there were crowds outside the bus, crowds outside the hotel, outside the stadium locker rooms, everywhere."
Photo Credit: REUTERS/Toby Melville TM
"He showed up with heart, dedication, determination and the right attitude and then became a top Premier League player." Ferdinand said.
Howard would go on to win three trophies with United - the 2004 FA Community Shield, 2004 FA Cup and the 2006 Football League Cup. He would also represent Sir Alex Ferguson’s side in the UEFA Champions League and would make 77 appearances over his three-year stint with the Red Devils before moving to Everton in 2006.
"A lot of people don’t get the chance to play for a club as world renowned as Man United. I was thankful for the opportunity that they gave. They believed in me in a time where I was a nobody in the game of soccer, I was a young kid. I will always be appreciative of that."