Wilmont Manneh has become a Johnston soccer legend while helping pay the bills at home

Tommy Birch
Des Moines Register

JOHNSTON — The Johnston boys soccer team sits in the school locker room following a workout on April 25, quietly listening to coach Jim Frizzell. The Dragons are coming off a tough loss to Des Moines Hoover the previous evening, and they have a bounce-back opportunity against Southeast Polk up next.

After Frizzell wraps up his speech, senior Wilmont Manneh stands up.

“Bring it in,” Manneh tells his teammates.

Manneh is Johnston's unquestioned leader, and has been for a while. He's in his second season as a captain and is one of Iowa's best players. 

His soccer team looks to him for leadership and goals. And his family looks to him to make life a little easier. The 18-year-old Johnston senior helps pay the bills for his family's apartment and helps raise his younger brothers and sister. And one day, he hopes soccer can help him provide a better life for his family. 

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"He's been a dealt a pretty crummy hand," Frizzell said. "But he has the necessary tools to change it." 

Johnston senior Wilmont Manneh (10) watches teammates during the Dragons' game against Valley at the high school on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in Johnston.

Manneh bounces around the world and discovers soccer

Manneh needs a few seconds to think about all the places he's lived. He pauses briefly while sitting on a bench in the locker room to think it over. It's because Manneh has spent most of his life moving around. 

When Manneh was just 5 months old, his parents immigrated from a refugee camp in Africa to the United States. They moved to New York and then Philadelphia. After his parents separated, Manneh went with his dad to North or South Carolina (he can't remember). They then moved to Maryland and eventually Utah.

Because of all the traveling, Manneh had a tough time making friends. The few he made came when he chased down some kids who stole his football while playing in the backyard of his townhouse in Utah. When Manneh found them, they were playing soccer and invited him to join. Manneh not only made some friends but made a discovery: He loved soccer. 

"I was like, 'Wow — I really love this game,'" Manneh said. 

Johnston senior Wilmont Manneh (10) listens to coaches before the Dragons' game against Valley at the high school on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in Johnston.

Manneh never quit playing, even after he moved to Iowa to live with his mother in sixth grade. The moves never seemed to stop. Manneh's mom moved the family to Urbandale, Johnston and the south side of Des Moines before coming back to Johnston.

One of the few constants in Manneh's life was soccer. Wherever he went, he played. And it's easy to see why. He's good. Very good. No one could keep up with him. Certainly nobody his age. When he was in sixth grade, Manneh showed up at a soccer tryout with the West Des Moines Soccer Club. He dazzled the coaches with his ball-handling skills and scoring abilities. He made the team and was one of the best performers there. 

"He was just brilliant," said Rich Bywater, the director of coaching at Sporting Iowa Soccer Club. 

Manneh's ability on the pitch was apparent to everyone lucky enough to watch.

His ability to balance soccer with his life off the pitch was less apparent but even more impressive.

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Johnston senior Wilmont Manneh (10) waits before the Dragons' game against Dowling Catholic at the high school on Friday, May 13, 2022, in Johnston.

Manneh is a soccer star and a father-figure to his siblings 

As Bywater watched all the other kids arrive with their parents to the West Des Moines Soccer Club tryout, he noticed something different about Manneh.

He had found a ride, showed up by himself and convinced someone to get him home. That became a theme over the years with Manneh, who was forced to grow up quickly at a young age with his mother working odd hours as a CNA. Manneh networked with other kids on the team and tracked down rides to practices and games. In high school, he booked himself a flight to Las Vegas for a soccer event. 

"He's just asked from an early point to be a lot older than what he is," Frizzell said. 

He's had to with his father living in North Dakota, and with his mom on her own with him and his three younger siblings. Manneh is often the one to look after them when their mother is away at work for as many as 12 hours a day. He is often tasked with many of the father-figure responsibilities for his three younger siblings — Emmanuel (15), Marcus (11) and Angel (6). 

Manneh gets up every morning at 6 a.m. so he can get them ready for the day. He makes sure they shower and helps packs their bags and checks that they have enough pens, pencils and notebooks for class. In the evening, he makes sure they've done their homework and get to bed at a good time. He's taken the kids shopping for school supplies, too. With their father living in North Dakota, Manneh is the biggest male influence they have around every day. So, Manneh talks to talk to them about whatever they need. Mostly, he tries to lead by example. 

"I'm the oldest boy at the house," Manneh said. "So, I've got to make sure everything's in check, my family's doing what they're supposed to be doing." 

He's also been helping pay the bills since he was 14. That's when Manneh got his first job working at Burger King. He's later landed jobs at Popeyes and Walmart to help pay for the electric and internet bills of his family's Johnston apartment. Most of the money went to his family. But if Manneh wanted anything for himself, including a new pair of shoes, he paid for them himself so his mother wouldn't have to worry about it. 

"It helps me a lot," his mother, Amelia Colkahn, said. 

Wilmont Manneh of Johnston and Jack Roemer of Pleasant Valley fight for the ball during the Class 3A State Semifinal in Des Moines, Thursday, June 3, 2021.

Soccer taking Manneh to bigger and better things for him and his family 

Manneh is hoping soccer can take him places. 

During his junior season, Manneh scored 24 goals and tallied seven assists. He's been even better this season, guiding the Dragons to a 16-1 mark to begin the season behind a team-high 20 goals and 13 assists. He is currently the program's all-time leader in goals with 44 after scoring two against Waukee Northwest on Tuesday. He is also tied for the school's single-season assist record with 13.

Also: He's now Johnston's all-time career leader in points with 109.

"He's getting double and triple-teamed every time, every game," Johnston soccer player Grant Strickler said. 

Manneh doesn't work during the season so he can focus on soccer. But he still has a lot on his plate between school, soccer and his siblings. Manneh, who doesn't have a car, has to rely on teammates and coaches to get him around. It's a sacrifice they're more than willing to make when they see what all Manneh is doing for his family. 

"I think he's very selfless — willing to help out his family whenever they need it and still make it to practice every day," Strickler said. "I think it's amazing." 

Soccer can potentially provide for Manneh and his family in ways that none of his other jobs have. Manneh plans to go to Iowa Lakes Community College for a semester and then join the St. Cloud State soccer team on a scholarship. The scholarship relieves a giant financial burden his family likely wouldn't have been able to take on. Manneh says that college may not have been an option if a scholarship hadn't come up.

"It's a good thing my skills were good enough to get it," he said. 

Frizzell says Manneh is one of the top players he's ever coached. Manneh wants to graduate from college and play professional soccer one day. He sees it as another job and another opportunity to support his family, especially his mom and dad, who have to work so much. 

The journey has been long and difficult for Manneh. But he believes his story has a magical ending. Manneh is willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen. 

"I'm not giving up on my soccer goal," he said. "I know people believe in me too, and I believe in myself and I think I can make it." 

Tommy Birch, the Register's sports enterprise and features reporter, has been working at the newspaper since 2008. He's the 2018 and 2020 Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Reach him at tbirch@dmreg.com or 515-284-8468. Follow him on Twitter @TommyBirch.