DES MOINES, Iowa — It’s hard to understand what a person’s going through until you can take the time to just see their perspective. That’s what one student at North High School in Des Moines told his soccer coach.
“I just play soccer and go to school. I really do that,” said sophomore MJ Mangok.
MJ's description of life is simple. He centers it around two things he loves because they take up most of his time: soccer and school.
When he’s not in the classroom, he’s with his soccer teammates, which is pretty typical for a 15-year-old. But, this has only been MJ’s routine for two years, because his life is anything but simple.
“I lived in Egypt for like 14 years, and then we came here [in] like 2021,” he said.
MJ’s family is from Sudan, but they fled a civil war and moved to Egypt before he was born.
“I’ve got four sisters and one brother,” he said. “We’ve been here and we’re trying to communicate with people and be friends and play soccer.”
Family, school, and soccer — those are MJ’s constants in the day-to-day life of a not-so-average teenager.
MJ’s daily journey to get to school and soccer practice is unlike most teens in Des Moines. At 6:30 a.m., he starts his day by hopping on a DART bus on the north east side of the city.
Then, he connects at the downtown station, which drops him off near North High School.
“Sometimes I come late to practice and he asks me ‘Where have you been?’" MJ said. "And I’ll tell him the bus got stuck or something."
That’s the explanation he gives to Leland Schipper, his soccer coach.
“He’s explained why he was late but he’s never complained about that part of his life,” Schipper said.
Always cool and calm, MJ made a promise to Schipper to do his absolute best to be on time for school and practice. But he also presented a challenge for his coach: to try walking in his shoes for a day.
So, from 6 a.m. to 11:15 p.m., Schipper shadowed MJ to school, practice, open gym and back home — all on a city bus.
“I think that kind of, especially in the winter, the sort of risk that there was if you miss a bus… on our way home, we were taking the last of the DART busses and so, I told MJ I wanted to get out and wait and he was more comfortable waiting inside in the warmth for a little bit longer," Schipper said. "Because I was worried, if we missed that, it was a five-mile walk home, and I was pretty nervous for that. So, just that element that there’s not always a backup plan, that really struck me.”
“He learned from me that if you’re late, he knows where you’re at. He knows you’re falling, and he knows everything about you,” MJ said.
The first-hand experience opened Coach Schipper’s eyes and soon, thousands of others as well. He wrote a Facebook post detailing the day.
Shortly after posting it, thousands of people flocked the comments and shared it with their thoughts.
“I asked MJ if he cared if I shared the story of our day so more people can know the typical day that he lives and some of the barriers in transportation that he figures out how to overcome," Schipper said. "And I thought it was an important story for more people to know that a lot of kids on our team and our city do that on a daily basis."
It also left the coach amazed how a kid going through all of that can find the time and energy to be everyone’s source of joy.
“That determination to always do his best, and the fact that he probably laughs and make everyone else laugh more than anyone on our team,” said Coach Schipper.
But, in true MJ style, his explanation is short and it’s simple: he’s got a family at North High School, too.
“I just want to thank my teammates too. After practices, sometimes my friends give me a ride home,” MJ said
“I don’t want anybody to be in that position … they’re not alone. To help out and give rides or to be there for them is like… to lift their spirits back up and make sure they’re a part of our family,” added Lelong Myyeng, MJ’s teammate.
For this soccer team, the goal’s been easy by knowing life can be complex — but it’s simpler when you just understand each other.
“Even if there are little problems, it’s okay. Just go through it. You can fix it,” MJ said.