To understand who USA goalkeeper Tim Howard really is, you have to start with the part that lies closest to him – his tattoos.
Covering the entire frame of his front torso and half of both arms, the ink that Howard has carefully chosen, design by design, tells the innermost details of his life.
There are the crucifixes and bible verses, which parallel the faith Howard often says drives his every action. And there’s the Superman logo, engraved in the middle of his right arm, reminding him to always be strong. There are also the portraits of his two children, Jacob and Alivia, placed in the most important of spots – above his heart. Between the stars and Chinese symbols that symbolize important factors in his life, like health and happiness, hundreds of tattoos have become a part of who Howard is.
But perhaps none are more significant to Howard’s story, to how he got to the place he now finds himself in – the leader of the U.S. national team – than the name written on the middle of his chest. “Fekete,” his mother.
Howard wasn’t raised like most children of his generation. The son of an African American father and Hungarian mother, his parents divorced when he was just three years old, robbing him of a normal childhood.
Esther, which is his mother’s first name, became the family’s backbone. While his father remained in Howard’s life, it was Esther who raised he and his brother Chris in a one-bedroom apartment. It was Esther who worked two jobs to put food on the table. And it was she who drove Howard to soccer practices and tournaments almost every day of the week.
“It was a one-bedroom apartment she made into a three-bedroom apartment,” Howard said in an interview with USA Today. “I don’t know how she did it.”
He may never figure that out, but he will forever understand how he did it. How he overcame a Tourette syndrome diagnosis in the sixth grade. How he established himself as a talented goalkeeper in high school and eventually was given a shot to make the New York/New Jersey MetroStars (now Red Bulls) roster. How he was offered a job as the starting goalkeeper for Manchester United in 2003, and after three years there, began at Everton, where he became a star. And finally, how, after eight years with the U.S. national team, he made his first start in a World Cup in 2010 and then again this year in Brazil.
It was Esther. That’s where it all began and that’s why Howard has risen to this point.
"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,” Esther told ESPN in 2010. “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 … the best part is seeing my son achieve his dream.”
This World Cup, just like with many matches Howard has played, Esther can be found in the stands, hoping nervously that her son will play great and that the U.S. will win.
Sitting there, she’s been able to witness, along with the rest of the world, the special run that this American group has made. Everything from their spectacular goals to their survival of the “Group of Death.”
More importantly, she’s witnessed how important her son has been to putting this team in the next stage of this World Cup.
Against their first group play opponent, Ghana, Howard only allowed one goal on 21 shots fired his way, eight on target. He followed that with three-saves against Portugal, the No. 4 ranked FIFA team, which earned him “Man of the Match.” Then came Germany on Thursday, where Howard saved the Americans eight times in comparison to Germany’s keeper Manuel Neuer, who only had one save.
But the statistics don’t tell the full story.
Howard has not simply just put up good numbers, he has been the biggest reason for the U.S. surviving. Take the Portugal and Germany games, for instance. In both matches, the U.S. defense looked out of sink, especially on Thursday. Their misplay kept putting Howard in unfavorable positions. He responded, though, time and time again. When the camera panned to Howard, you could see him motioning his hands, yelling, navigating his defense on where they should be.
It comes natural to him. At 35 and three months, Howard is the oldest member on the 23-man U.S. roster. His mannerisms on the pitch, just like his tattoos, are carefully thought out. He’s learned from the best leader he knows. And he’s made sure to never forget those lessons she showed him growing up. The ones that still propel him today.
The U.S. has never looked so fearless in their play. And Howard doesn’t have Landon Donovan to fight for player’s attentions anymore. They know where to look to for guidance. Without as many marquee names, Howard has become the underrated center peace of this American side.
After the Germany match, one the U.S. lost 1-0 but still advanced to the final 16 of the World Cup, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann was asked what Howard means to his team.
“He’s our leader,” Klinsmann said. “He keeps everybody together, and we need him right now. In a World Cup, if you want to go far, you need one of the best goalkeepers in the world, and we have that.”
It is Howard’s time, no matter the outcome, to fearlessly calm the storms the U.S. will surely face in the final 16. The team has already done more than most expected of them, and beginning on Tuesday against Belgium, they’ll look to continue to prove the doubters wrong.
The core of their fighting spirit will remain with Howard, just as the core of Howard remains with Esther. Tattooed in the center of his body, right in the middle, always reminding him who he is, where he came from and just how much farther he can go.
2014 FIFA World Cup Round of 16 Schedule:
Brazil VS Chile – Saturday, 6/28 at 11 a.m. CT
Colombia VS Uruguay – Saturday, 6/28 at 3 p.m. CT
The Netherlands VS Mexico – Sunday, 6/29 at 11 a.m. CT
Costa Rica VS Greece – Sunday, 6/29 at 3 p.m. CT
France VS Nigeria – Monday, 6/30 at 11 a.m. CT
Germany VS Algeria – Monday, 6/30 at 3 p.m. CT
Argentina VS Switzerland – Tuesday, 7/1 at 11 a.m. CT
USA VS Belgium – Tuesday, 7/1 at 3 p.m. CT