It took goalkeeper Tim Howard years to become an overnight sensation, so he wasn't overwhelmed by the effusive praise he received for his acrobatic performance Tuesday in the U.S.
"I just keep my feet on the ground and just figure out a way to deal with it," Howard said of his instant fame. "It's nothing new when you're in the public eye."
But never in his distinguished international soccer career has the 35-year-old New Jersey native been admired by as many eyes as he was during his valiant, 16-save effort at Salvador, Brazil.
Howard was in constant demand Wednesday and seemed to be everywhere, from being interviewed on TV morning shows to being photo-shopped into clever tributes. Under the Twitter hashtag #ThingsTimHowardCouldStop, he was depicted saving the Titanic from sinking, deflecting a meteor from wiping out dinosaurs, and stopping
Adoring fans — some of whom probably knew little about him last week — created petitions requesting the name of
The airport renaming probably won't get far, but Howard got a call from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who thanked him for "defending the United States of America at the World Cup," according to a Pentagon news release. "He told Howard that with some training, he could someday become the real secretary of Defense," the release said.
A little hyperbole can be forgiven, so brilliant was Howard on Tuesday while being so visible.
Casual fans pulled by patriotism to watch the World Cup might not understand soccer's subtleties, but they could appreciate Howard's nimble feet, rangy athleticism and utter command. A goal scorer can be invisible most of a match but become a star with one well-placed volley or leaping header. Howard was a constant presence in a game seen by an estimated 21.6 million TV viewers in the U.S. plus 1.7 million watching online, no doubt causing the morning-after popularity explosion.
Speaking with reporters Wednesday during a conference call from Sao Paulo, Brazil, Howard seemed amused by the fuss.
"In today's day and age, with social media and all the rest of it, nothing surprises me," he said. "There's some very creative and funny individuals out there. If it makes them happy, I think it's quite funny."
He saw a bigger point being made beyond one player or game.
"It's nice that America knows about soccer now," he said. "I think that's what's most important."
To know about the sport's existence and get behind the national team for a few weeks isn't the same as supporting soccer between World Cup tournaments. The trick is to build something permanent on this fleeting moment. Even Howard might have trouble pulling that off.
"Every four years ,America gets behind this team. We have a good following anyway, but everyone gets behind this team and really drives us forward," he said. "I live in Europe and there's a lot of European countries that don't. They're very cynical and their team goes to the World Cup and they don't do very well and everyone says, 'I told you so.'
"And so I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing that all the attention is on us every four years and that people take notice. It's hard to sustain that every day. Around the world, in Europe, Africa and South America, soccer is either the No. 1 sport or the only sport. In America, we're competing with football, basketball, baseball, hockey. So it's not as easy a question as that."
Asked whether he wants to return for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, when he will be 39, he acknowledged he's not ready to make big decisions yet. His immediate future is stable: earlier this year his contract with Everton of the English Premier League was extended through 2018.
"What happens going forward with the national team, I don't know. The emotions are too raw at the moment, so I'll let everything die down, I'll speak to people who are close to me and the manager and kind of decide what my future looks like," he said. "I don't think it's very black and white, to be honest, so I need to figure all that out."