Biggest fan backs Howard on big stage

Esther Howard, the American soccer mom of the moment, is having the "trip of a lifetime" in South Africa, watching her son succeed on the sport's biggest stage.

Goalkeeper Tim Howard is suddenly the most celebrated and most discussed soccer player in the United States after his dominant performance in a 1-1 tie against heavily favored England on Saturday. And all eyes will be on Howard on Friday morning when the North Brunswick, N.J., native takes the pitch against Slovenia despite the bruised ribs he suffered against England.

So, what's it like to be Tim Howard's mom right now?

"The best part is seeing my son achieve his dream," Esther said during a phone interview from Johannesburg on Thursday night. "How many people who have children who aspire to something as lofty as playing in the World Cup ... can actually see their child realize that?"

The past week in South Africa has been quite a whirlwind for Esther; she couldn't quite remember if she'd flown into South Africa on Thursday or Friday. But she did vividly recall a "nerve-racking" bus ride from Johannesburg to Rustenburg for the U.S.-England game, hours before her son would be the lead story on every newscast in the United States.

"I will be very honest and tell you that I was literally a nervous wreck," Esther said. "I was very nervous because the reality of it all had hit me. It was very nerve-racking to say the least."

She said she had the same feeling before all of the big moments in her son's career, whether it before a big youth league game in North Brunswick or his first MLS game with the MetroStars.

"Anything big like this, I've always been nervous," Esther said with a laugh. "Having watched him in so many different venues, in a way it's like, 'OK, this is another soccer match. And he's done so well in the past and everything is going to be OK.'

"And then there is the realization that this is the World Cup, that this is as big as it gets. ... I just wanted him to do well."

Once she got settled in Royal Bafokeng Stadium, she watched the U.S.-England game, which she called "an other-worldly experience" -- partly because of the magnitude of the event and partly due to a jet-lagged feeling from her flight to South Africa.

The goalkeeper's keeper, who said she probably won't be as nervous for Friday's U.S.-Slovenia game, was so focused on the action last Saturday that "I don't even remember hearing [the vuvuzelas] during that match."

Esther, along with other U.S. fans, held her breath when Tim took Emile Heskey's cleat to the ribs early in Saturday's game.

"That was very, very, very scary," Esther said. "I'd never seen him go down like that and stay down like that for that long."

She said her fears subsided as Tim settled in in the second half, making saves that were celebrated from coast to coast back home. He led the U.S. to a 1-1 draw.

Esther got scores of e-mail from friends in the States after her son's Man of the Match performance last Saturday. Still, it was clear that Esther couldn't fully comprehend the magnitude of the attention and adoration being heaped upon her son by our soccer-struck nation.

She couldn't hear the "Tim-my How-ard" chants being shouted by American soccer fans after her son's hero performance on Saturday. She didn't know Americans were anxiously awaiting every Howard injury update (though she said Tim would play Friday "unless his leg is chopped off").

"Honestly I have to get back to the States to get a feel for that," Esther said of the national spotlight shining on her son. "Right now, he's just one person on a team of players. All the other parents were truly amazed at how well he did and appreciate how well he did.

"But we're all parents of a player here. I don't feel anymore special than anyone else, and Tim is no more special than anyone else."

Esther said Tim has come a long way from his days in North Brunswick. Tim grew up in an apartment with Esther and his older brother, Chris. Tim's father, Matthew, and Esther divorced when Tim was a 3-year-old.

"He was my high-maintenance child from Day 1," Esther said of Tim. "He was always big. He was always -- I guess the best way to describe him is he filled up whatever room he went into from the time he was a toddler.

"I was always saying to him, 'Tim, be careful. Tim, be sweet. Tim, look out.' Because he was so much bigger than everyone else, I didn't want him to be a big bull in the china shop."

Tim was diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome in sixth grade, something he's lived with -- and thrived in spite of -- his entire life.

"He had a lot of challenges in school as a result of Tourette's," Esther said. "He was hyperactive, he had obsessive compulsive disorder. It wasn't easy."

Esther said participating in sports helped Tim deal with Tourette's syndrome, keeping him focused on specific goals and helping him avoid distraction.

Racism reared its ugly head when Howard, who is biracial, was dating a white classmate in high school. Esther said the girl's parents wouldn't let Tim into their home.

"This is in the 1990s -- that just blew me away," Esther said. "It might have hurt him, but I think it was just kind of understood in our family that that's ignorance and it's unacceptable."

Esther made plenty of sacrifices in raising Tim and his brother on her own, from taking a second job to make ends meet to taking the Howard brothers to youth sports tournaments seemingly every day of the week.

"It certainly wasn't easy, but the three of us were very, very close," Esther says. "It wasn't easy, but we did OK.

"A lot of people saw the amount of time that I spent with my children and the activities and saw that as a sacrifice. ... I never did. I felt that was what needed to be done. You need to do certain things to raise them well and that's what you do."

While Esther did everything she could to support her children, there were certain issues associated with single-parenthood that were unavoidable.

"Because I was a single parent, we didn't have the kind of financial wherewithal that most of the other families had," she said.

But, to his credit, Tim never let that bother him, she said. Esther remembers when Tim was on a trip to Mexico with a national travel team. The players received a $10 per diem to spend on meals, so most parents sent their kids on the trip with extra money.

Esther couldn't afford to provide the same luxury for Tim. Instead of spending his $10 per diem on food, Tim saved the money so he could buy clothes when he returned to North Brunswick.

"These are the things that shaped him," Esther said.

These things, Esther says, helped shape Tim, 31, to become a "focused, centered, grounded, down-to-earth family man."

And the most celebrated soccer player in the country this week.

"It's amazing to me," Esther says. "When I was raising him all I ever wanted was that he grew up to be a responsible, productive human being who hopefully could make a living doing what he wanted to do. I never, ever dreamed that he would be as successful as he is."