Inside his apartment last Saturday night, Ali Gaye ate Polynesian food with his roommates and their families. Defensive lineman Soni Fonua’s mom brought enough to feed about 40 people, so the players feasted after a season-opening loss to Mississippi State.
Gaye, a junior defensive end, felt confident that night LSU would fix its mistakes. He had played well in his first start, using the natural length that pushed him up the depth chart in preseason practice. Gaye brushed off his success.
"That's just one game,” Gaye told his high school football coach, John Gradwohl, who attended the dinner. “There's lots of room for improvement."
Gaye deflected attention from himself, but he stood out in the midst of a disappointing loss. His final stat line — three tackles, one sack, a tackle for loss and three deflected passes — signaled a breakout performance and the realization of Gaye’s dreams. He started playing football after his family moved from The Gambia, a small country on the Western coast of Africa, when he was 12. He attended two junior colleges because one of them dropped its football program, and he has lived in four states, moving to pursue his football career.
If Gaye develops, coach Ed Orgeron believes he can become an early pick in the NFL draft because of his size. Gaye, who’s 6-foot-6, can declare for the draft next spring.
“Hopefully he stays for two years,” Orgeron said, smiling. “Don't get too good.”
This after party was not the one the LSU Tigers wanted to attend.
Gaye’s route began when his father, Omar, moved to the United States in 2007. Four years later, after Gaye’s mother applied for asylum, the family settled in an area outside Seattle with a supportive Gambian community. Gaye’s parents wanted opportunities and better education for their three children, who have all either graduated from or enrolled in college.
Gaye played soccer in The Gambia and basketball once he arrived in Washington, but he joined the football team in eighth grade. By his sophomore year at Edmonds-Woodway High School, Gaye focused on football.
“His size gave him the potential,” Gradwohl said. “We could see he had a chance to play college football.”
Gaye showed nimble feet with a natural ability to shed blocks, giving him an advantage on the defensive line. He became a three-time all-conference selection. After his senior year, he planned to play football at Washington.
Gaye spoke four languages — including his parents' dialects, Wolof and Fulani — but English was his second language. He had to translate words before he responded to questions, and he struggled academically his freshman year. Those grades followed him throughout high school, pulling down his GPA even as he improved in class.
“When you ask somebody a question and they're slow to respond,” Gradwohl said, “sometimes we immediately think this person isn't very smart, not realizing they're taking your English into their head, translating it to their language then translating it back into English.”
For part of high school, Gaye lived with Gradwohl and his wife. A small fire had broken out in his family’s apartment. Water damage from the sprinklers forced his parents to temporarily move into a hotel. Gaye, his cousin and his sister, Ida, lived with Gradwohl for three months.
After a deflating opening loss, No. 20 LSU travels this weekend to Vanderbilt. These are staff writer Wilson Alexander's keys to the game for LSU.
The Gradwohls bought more food from Costco to accommodate the teenagers, and they reminded Gaye to study. After Gaye’s parents moved into a new place, Gaye split time at their home and the Gradwohl’s house. The situation improved his academics.
Gaye signed a letter of intent with Washington, but he didn’t score high enough on the SAT, making him ineligible to play for the Huskies. Gaye found out on a Monday. Two days later, he and Gradwohl visited Arizona Western Community College.
Gaye’s father worried about his son leaving a tight community in which children don’t often move after graduation, but Gaye needed to follow the opportunity. He enrolled at Arizona Western for the spring semester. That fall, he flashed bits of potential, making eight tackles.
“You can't teach height and his physical build,” Arizona Western coach Tom Minnick said. “We knew he was going to blow up. We were just waiting for it.”
After the season, in December 2018, Arizona Western dropped its football program. Minnick took the head coaching job at Garden City Community College in Kansas. Familiar with the coaching staff, Gaye followed.
Despite half the country separating him from his family and living in his third state, Gaye never complained. The city sometimes smelled like manure because of the beef industry — locals joke it smells like money — but Gaye often said, “Well, we're playing football.”
His sophomore year, Gaye improved his understanding of football and recorded 44 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble and a pass breakup. He became the No. 2 junior-college defensive end in the country. Major colleges offered scholarships, vying for Gaye’s commitment.
Myles Brennan dropped back, alone in the pocket, and saw the Mississippi State linebackers drop back, too.
LSU gained Gaye’s trust by respecting his religion. Safeties coach Bill Busch, Gaye’s lead recruiter, assured Gaye, a devout Muslim, he could live comfortably in a deeply Christian state.
LSU showed Gaye resources for Muslims on campus and in the surrounding area. The school brought a woman from one of the school's Muslim organizations to speak with Gaye and his parents, as well as a former Muslim and Gambian LSU player. They discovered the player grew up in a town near Gaye’s mother. Gaye had scheduled four other college visits, but he committed to LSU before he left.
“They made it feel like home,” Gaye told Minnick’s wife. “They made me feel welcome.”
Gaye enrolled early at LSU, and he didn’t return home when campus closed in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, studying film and working out on his own until the team reconvened for voluntary workouts three months later.
Gaye improved steadily throughout preseason practice, but he remained near the bottom of the depth chart until Orgeron mentioned him as a possible rotational player late in preseason practice. He batted a pass for an interception in LSU’s final scrimmage. The Tigers named him their starting left defensive end the week of the first game.
“His best football is ahead of him still,” Minnick said. “He's going to get better as he plays.”
The day after Gaye’s LSU debut, he went to breakfast with Gradwohl at the Ruby Slipper. As he ate a shrimp omelette, Gaye looked forward to LSU’s next game. His hard work and trust had paid off, giving him the possibility of a career in football.
There in the morning after a loss, Gaye eagerly anticipated his next practice. He wanted another chance to get better.
“This is the dream he had,” Gaye’s father said. “He was able to see it through.”