Wow, he’s big.
That was Loretta Bellows’ first thought when she saw him several years ago, as Masry Mapieu and his older brother, Kon, came to her day care for the first time. She runs Bellows Day Care in McCool Junction and had foster kids before in the day care, but the Mapieus were giants for their age. Masry — Nebraska football’s newest recruit — was barely in middle school back then, Loretta remembers.
Loretta immediately warmed to Masry, born in Egypt to Ugandan parents who were fleeing a war in their home country. Masry, whose full name is pronounced Mas-REE MAY-pew, came to the United States at age 2 with his family — dad Malok, mom Margaret Luol, and seven siblings — and they eventually settled in Lincoln after Malok got a job at a nearby meatpacking plant. Masry spent most of his young life in and out of trouble. In and out of the foster care system.
“I was young and dumb,” Masry said. “I went out late and started some trouble — fighting, stealing. Those were rough times.”
And yet his caseworkers always had a soft spot for him, and, one day, they’d show it during one of the most important moments of Masry’s life.
The day he met Bellows was another. At the time, Masry and Kon were actually living with another foster family in the area, but they headed to Bellows’ day care after school.
Masry was big. He was not yet strong.
“I beat him twice in arm wrestling when I first met him!” Loretta said cheerfully. “He’d never lifted weights.”
Masry lifts all the time now. He benches 345 pounds — with long arms and at only 16 years old. At 6-foot-3, 282 pounds, he is still growing. He wears size 14 shoes. He lives with Bellows. He likes her cooking.
“She’s really, really nice,” he said.
A junior-to-be at nearby York High School, Mapieu remains a raw football player packed with potential. Iowa offered a scholarship. UCLA did, too. Nebraska invited Mapieu to its Friday Night Lights camp and pitted him against the best offensive linemen at the event. Afterward, NU defensive line coach John Parrella offered Mapieu a scholarship, and he accepted.
Outside Memorial Stadium, Mapieu said he committed to Nebraska because it’d be “close to my family.”
The family circle has grown in the last five years. It includes his siblings and his parents — both of whom he called after committing to Nebraska. It includes York’s football team and coach Glen Snodgrass, whose 26-second video of Mapieu lifting weights four months ago helped generate sudden interest from college coaches. And it includes Bellows, who welcomed Mapieu into her day care, then, later, into her home as a foster child.
Now she’s his guardian. Mapieu was baptized at her church in York. He works in her day care, playing with kids. He loves the littlest ones the most.
“It’s really cool to see that giant kid with 2- and 3-year-olds hanging on him,” Snodgrass said.
“He’s like a big teddy bear,” Bellows said.
On the football field, he’s learning how to harness his strength and athleticism. After he spent his freshman year playing eight-man football in McCool Junction, he chose to transfer to York, which played for the Class B championship in 2013. It was Mapieu’s call, Bellows said, so he toured the school and met Snodgrass.
“I’ve just tended to gravitate toward kids like Masry, who’ve had a more difficult time — a lot of bad breaks growing up,” Snodgrass said.
So Mapieu became a York Duke. At a camp event last summer, Snodgrass hoped Mapieu would jump right in and dominate. Not quite.
“He’s a tall kid, and his first instinct was to stand up and try and blow through people,” Snodgrass said. “He had to learn to play with his hips behind him and strike with his hands.”
Mapieu didn’t start right away as a sophomore. Because he was coachable, Snodgrass said, he improved with each game, becoming one of the best players on the field by the end of the season.
“I want to work on my technique and my speed — and my leadership,” Mapieu said.
Off the field, Mapieu has changed even more. Living with Bellows, he said, is a key reason, but Bellows sees Mapieu taking charge of his life.
“Masry made up his mind: He wanted to get out of trouble,” Bellows said. “The church helped, because he could talk about his problems with the pastor. He has a lot of friends there. He talks to a lot of the older people there. When they meet Masry, they don’t forget him. He thinks of other people.”
But there was one decision Mapieu made for himself. About 18 months ago, he was asked by state social services to return to Lincoln and his parents, who had fulfilled all the requirements the state had asked of them. Mapieu wanted to stick with Bellows.
“I was afraid that, if I went back home, I would get back in the same situation — getting in trouble and fighting,” Mapieu said. “That I’d hang with all of my old friends there. So I told the state I wanted to stay here. I wanted to continue playing football.”
“They’ll have to carry me out of this house,” Bellows remembered Masry saying.
So Bellows and Mapieu approached his dad and brothers and asked if Bellows could take guardianship.
The family agreed.
“Very thankful,” Bellows said.
On the day Bellows became Masry’s guardian, she said, his old caseworkers showed up at the hearing. They liked him that much. Bellows does, too. He’s another son to her, since her other children were old enough to move out.
“I could see the other side of him — that I knew was good,” Bellows said. “I knew he’d been in trouble, but we just connected.”
Bellows hadn’t been able to attend any of Mapieu’s camps until Friday Night Lights at Nebraska. He wanted her there, and she arranged for another day care employee — who had been on maternity leave — to cover for a few hours so she could go.
As they drove to the camp, Mapieu asked her: If Nebraska offers a scholarship, would you come to the games?
Of course I would, she said. I’ll be at all of your games.
Like other Husker fans Friday night, Bellows sat in the heat of Memorial Stadium. One of her sons was there, as was one of her granddaughters, 3-year-old Kya, who’s known Masry her whole life, who sees him as a big brother, who tells the other kids in day care: That’s my Masry.
They watched as Parrella coached Mapieu. Watched him bull through a few offensive linemen and get stood up by another. He got the offer he was hoping for, he accepted it, Bellows got to be in a picture with Masry, Snodgrass, Parrella and coach Mike Riley, and, afterward, everyone went to celebrate with ice cream at McDonald’s.
The whole experience that night made Bellows cry.
“Masry’s tried so hard for this,” she said.
He’s “a very loving person,” Bellows said. No trouble to her. He’ll watch her grandkids later this week — changing diapers, even. The two have the usual mom-and-teenager disagreements, but Masry always comes around. He trusts her. She believes in him.
Well, there is one thing. Masry’s room. It’s a mess. He can’t get rid of stuff. He keeps all of it.
Take the first pair of shoes Bellows bought him. Neither one of them knows the brand of the shoes — they just know Bellows bought them at Gordman’s, and that they were orange and red. Masry wore those shoes until he outgrew them, until they had holes in them, until Bellows threw them in the trash as a gentle reminder to wear a newer pair.
Then she got a call from York High School. Why was Masry wearing shoes with holes in them?
He’d fished them out of the trash and put them back on.
“They felt really comfortable,” Masry said.
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