The road less traveled is a familiar path for former Edmonds-Woodway High School football standout Ali Gaye.
The 6-foot-6, 270-pound defensive end came to the United States from Gambia as a 12-year-old and although he didn’t start playing football until the eighth grade, he developed into a major-college prospect.
By his senior year, he was a three-star recruit with scholarship offers from several Pac-12 schools. Gaye signed a national letter of intent with the University of Washington after his senior season and planned to grayshirt — which allows a signee to enroll during the second term of the following school year.
Gaye never ended up being a Husky. He said his SAT scores weren’t high enough to enroll at UW. The three-time All-Wesco 3A/2A South selection was tasked with finding a different avenue for his college football career. He ended up going the junior-college route, enrolling at Arizona Western College in 2018.
A year later — and now at Garden City Community College in Kansas after Arizona Western dropped its football program — Gaye has earned himself another chance at his dream, this time with perennial Southeastern Conference power LSU.
Gaye made a verbal commitment to the school last week via Twitter, and hopes to suit up for the Tigers beginning with the 2020 season.
— ÂŁÎ#️⃣5️⃣ (@Ali_TheGreat94) June 10, 2019
“I’ve always been interested in playing in the SEC, especially at a school like LSU,” Gaye said in a phone interview. “It’s a place I can see myself being successful on the field, (in) the classroom and just as a person.”
— ÂŁÎ#️⃣5️⃣ (@Ali_TheGreat94) June 10, 2019
Gaye was a soccer player when he moved to the United States from Gambia. He said he stood just 5-foot-5 when he was 12 and had more of a soccer player’s body. Turning out for the football team in eighth grade was an “experiment” with the sport.
The following year is when Gaye started to grow. He said he shot up about 5 inches and put on around 50 pounds his freshman year, eventually measuring in at 6-3, 225 pounds.
“I didn’t really get into (football) until freshman year going into sophomore year,” Gaye said. “That’s when I really got serious with it, and that’s when I really got bigger and started to look more like a football (player).”
He also played basketball and wrestled in middle school, which he credited along with soccer for helping develop his footwork and agility.
“You got a kid that’s 6-6 while weighing 265, 270 who moves like a basketball player,” said John Gradwohl, Gaye’s football coach at Edmonds-Woodway. “Not a lot of those guys move that well. He’s competitive, he loves to learn, he’s coachable, he’s got all those qualities.”
While Gaye was on the football team, he developed a close relationship with the longtime Warriors coach.
“He’s been able to walk through (the recruiting process) with me, just give me advice and just mentoring me through my journey,” Gaye said. “I’d say he’s been kind of like a second father figure who really just cares for me — him and his family.”
Said Gradwohl of Gaye: “He’s just a warm-hearted, nice young man.”
As Gaye developed into a major-college football recruit, he still was adjusting to school in the United States.
“In high school, my grades weren’t all that well because the learning here is really different than the learning back home,” he said. “Everything here is a whole other level.”
Gaye said he’s doing better than ever academically since entering junior college, and he’s “keeping his head down” while working toward his goals.
“I feel like my parents really set me up in the right direction bringing me here to this country and there’s a lot of opportunities for me,” he said. “I just gotta go get it, so that’s what I’m trying to do right now.”
But junior-college football presents its own challenges.
“Juco is not for everybody. A lot of guys quit it. Sometimes people go through it and be successful,” Gaye said. “I’m blessed enough to be able to have the opportunities that I have and have the people that have supported me through it, especially my coaches and my mentors, my parents and friends. Without them, there’s no way I could’ve gone through it.”
After Gaye’s freshman year at Arizona Western, it was announced the program would come to an end. Luckily for Gaye, his head coach at Arizona Western, Tom Minnick, took over at Garden City and asked him to come along.
“He knows the type of dude I am and the type of player I could turn into. So he asked me to go with him and I did,” Gaye said. “I believe in him and I believe in what he’s doing. He’s had a lot of success in bringing players to the next level. I’m really thankful to have him.”
Gaye has one season of junior-college football remaining and won’t be able to make his commitment official until the early signing period for junior-college transfers opens Dec. 18. He also has offers from Iowa State, Kansas State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Mississippi State, according to recruiting website 247sports.com.
And while the path for the Gambia native has been the one far less traveled when compared to the routes taken by his future teammates, it ultimately led to the same destination.
“With the opportunities I’ve been given, I never thought I’d be in the position I’m in — coming from a third-world country and being a stranger in this country and just now adjusting,” Gaye said. “I’m just a person trying to make it out and be somebody the kids — anybody like me — can just look at me and just know that there’s always a way. No matter how little you are or how big you are, there’s always an opportunity out there for anybody that wants to accomplish something.”