Born to play
Danny Mwanga says it's a miracle to be where he is today, given all he's been through
Published: Thursday, May 12, 2011
Updated: Tuesday, July 24, 2012 21:07
PORTLAND - With kickoff just moments away, Danny Mwanga straddled the midfield line.In front of a raucous, sold-out crowd at Jeld-Wen Field, he closed his eyes. He tilted his head towards the sky. He lifted his hands to his sides, palms up.
Somewhere amid the crazed Timbers fans, the oldest sister of the former Oregon State University phenom knew exactly what her brother was doing.
She had seen him do it thousands of times.
He was thanking God.
Because through all the turmoil and the tragedy, the 19-year-old Philadelphia Union striker had managed to stick to God's plan.
"Danny was born to play soccer," his sister said. "It was a gift from God."
"We just wanted to play"
Danny Mwanga's story isn't one for the faint-hearted. He's suffered. He's faced adversity that most would fall flat in the face of.
But through it all, there's been a constant in his life: soccer.
So it's only fitting that the first step he ever took was in pursuit of a soccer ball.
He was less than a year old.
"We were sitting outside and there was a ball sitting a couple of feet away from Danny," his sister recalls. "He was eyeing the ball, and all of the sudden he took a couple of steps towards the ball and were all like, 'oh my God, oh my God, he's walking!'"
Mwanga grew up in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
He did not grow up honing his skills in state-of-the-art facilities. He did not have coaches there to critique his every move. He did not have access to a regulation-size turf field with 24-feet-wide by eight-feet-tall goals at each end.
Instead, his "pitch" - conveniently adjacent to his house - was a big street. The surface was sand and dirt. Two sticks on each end made up the goals. There were no lines. There were no rules.
Not that it made a difference to anyone.
"Every day, I'd wake up and go to school, then come home and play soccer until it was dark out," Mwanga says. "Every day."
Kids littered the streets that Mwanga grew up in, kicking and chasing soccer balls.
Pick-up games dominated the landscape, topping the list of things to do.
"There were always people to play with," Mwanga said. "We'd play 5-on-5, 8-on-8, 12-on-12. We didn't care, we just wanted to play."
Mwanga's desire to play often led him to lie to - or trick - his mother, who wouldn't allow her son to return to the field until he had finished his dinner each evening.
"Sometimes I didn't want to eat because all I could think about was going back outside and playing," Mwanga says. "So I'd hide my food under the table to make her think I was done.
"She'd find it later when she was cleaning and I'd get in big trouble. Eventually, she caught on."
"I didn't even have to try"
It was the 39th minute and all eyes were on No. 10. The 6-foot-2 forward was threatening. He'd received the ball along the right touchline, taken a touch and darted past Portland Timbers defender Mamadou Danso.
As Mwanga angled toward the goal, he sent a cross in the direction of fellow Union striker Carlos Ruiz. It looked like a goal in the making, but Ruiz was a split-second late and Timbers defender Jeremy Hall ended the threat with a clear.
"They got a bit lucky not to get scored on that play," Mwanga said.
The sequence was vintage Mwanga - the touch, the craftiness, the explosiveness.
Just like every other kid he shared the field with day after day in the Congo, Mwanga dreamed of one day becoming a professional soccer player.
What made Mwanga different was the fact that it became apparent at an early age he possessed the skills of a kid who could one day fulfill professional aspirations.
"When I was nine, I could dribble around my friends like it was nothing," Mwanga says. "I didn't even have to try."
Because it was the Congo, and because soccer was a way of life, it wasn't uncommon for large crowds to gather at pick-up games.
So Mwanga began to raise eyebrows even though he never played more than a stone's throw away from his house - which he shared with his grandparents and other members of his extended family.
People started coming up to his uncle and suggesting Mwanga be put on a team. When Mwanga was 11, his uncle started taking him to training camps, where he'd train and scrimmage with guys three to four years older than he.
Mwanga never actually joined a team, but the training sessions alone increased his exposure.
By 14, word of the prodigy had spread far beyond the greater Kinshasa area.
It had spread to Europe.
Mwanga's uncle had began to contact clubs in Sweden and Norway, and had arranged for his nephew to travel to Europe to try out for several professional squads as soon as he turned 15 in the summer of 2006.
The kid who had never played organized soccer, yet dreamed of one day becoming a professional was about to become just that.
"That's what family is for"
Mwanga's oldest sister didn't want to attend the game Friday. It was too much. She was too anxious. Too nervous.
"She wanted to stay home and watch the game on TV," Mwanga said. "But I finally convinced her to come."
"I really didn't want to," his sister said.
But when all was said and done, she was glad she did.
After all, as she said, "that's what family is for."
Danny Mwanga doesn't like to talk about it. Neither does the rest of his family.