Gottlieb Ayedze’s headphones covered his ears as his former high school coach Mike Neubeiser stared ahead at the road to Blacksburg, Virginia. Ayedze, who entered the transfer portal after the 2022 season, was en route to a Virginia Tech visit.

It was a quiet ride. Neubeiser wanted to change that.

He asked Ayedze to play what he was listening to out loud. So Ayedze unplugged his headphones and connected to the car speakers.

French rap filled the car. The two laughed — the music wasn’t what Neubeiser expected. But the coach quickly started nodding along to tunes he’d never heard before as Ayedze sang to lift the energy for the long ride to a prospective transfer destination.

Just a few years before Ayedze had his pick between Power Five teams, he wasn’t playing football. He didn’t even know what it was.

Ayedze began playing the sport as a senior at Northwest High School in Germantown shortly after moving to the U.S. from Togo. Five years after stepping onto a football field for the first time, he’s a stalwart in the Big Ten for Maryland football.

Change has dominated the last decade of Ayedze’s life. It’s also helped him acclimate to a new home and accelerated his rise up the football landscape.

“I never thought I’d be here,” he told The Diamondback.

Ayedze was born in the U.S. but left for Togo when he was 5 years old. Ten years later, he returned and moved in with his uncle.

Togo was a French colony until 1960, and French remains the country’s official language. Ayedze grew up speaking the language and still does every day when connecting with his mother back home. But his new surroundings forced him to learn English quickly.

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Ayedze first joined Northwest’s soccer team and quickly discovered he lacked the ideal frame for a soccer player. Neubeiser guessed Ayedze was about 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds during that time.

“Hey, do you play any sports?” the coach asked Ayedze in front of Northwest’s cafeteria one afternoon.

“Yeah, soccer,” Ayedze replied, per Neubeiser.

“You’re too big to play soccer in America,” Neubeiser recalled saying. “You’re gonna have to play football.”

Ayedze grew to near his current weight of 320 pounds after a spring and summer with the football team. That time also helped him learn the sport.

Neubeiser and Northwest found unique strategies to overcome the language and knowledge barriers that distanced Ayedze from his teammates. The Jaguars’ center often made the pre-snap calls before Northwest’s guard repeated and clarified them to Ayedze.

“We had taught him as much as we could in a very short amount of time,” Neubeiser said.

The then-senior’s first chance to showcase what he learned came in a daunting matchup. He lined up at right tackle opposite teammate Deandre Jules, now a defensive lineman at Pitt, on Northwest’s first fall practice with players in pads.

Ayedze exploded out of his low stance, drove Jules backward and crushed him into the grass.

The dominant display sent nearby teammates into a frenzy and validated Neubeiser’s intrigue. In Ayedze’s first test to show he made the right move switching sports, he passed.

Ayedze’s senior season enticed then-Division III Frostburg State to offer him. His size and athleticism made his potential clear and enamored Bobcats coach DeLane Fitzgerald.

“It was a blank canvas,” Fitzgerald told The Diamondback.

As a freshman, Ayedze started every game at left tackle. That provided critical experience that propelled him to new heights as a sophomore.

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Fitzgerald saw immense growth during the offseason between Ayedze’s first and second years. Ayedze’s time in the weight room, film room and on the practice field ramped up, Fitzgerald said.

That’s when Ayedze realized how far football could take him. He once saw football as a way to obtain his education. Now, he saw it as his future.

“When you play the sport just to play and when you love it is two different things,” Ayedze said. “The love for the game, that’s what brought the jump out of me.”

Like Neubeiser, Fitzgerald had a moment that helped him realize his gamble on Ayedze paid off. The coach called a run to the left side behind Ayedze. Defenders bounced off the lineman as he bulldozed through them, creating a lane for the Bobcats’ running back to scamper into the end zone.

Ayedze was waiting for him there.

Fitzgerald watched from the sideline as his left tackle got to the goal line quicker than his running back. The impressive show of athleticism justified the coach’s faith in an unconventional prospect.

As Ayedze became one of Division II’s top offensive linemen, his English improved. He broke out of the reclusive shell that he’d previously hidden in and began to show more personality.

His growth coincided with the program’s. Frostburg moved up from Division III to Division II during Ayedze’s time there. In their first year at the new level, the Bobcats went 8-3. They finished 10-1 two years later.

“We don’t do that without him,” Fitzgerald said.

He entered the transfer portal after four seasons at Frostburg and chose the Terps, about 25 miles from Northwest. He’s now an anchor on Maryland’s offensive line. Ayedze’s allowed the second-fewest pressures among Maryland linemen who’ve played at least 300 snaps and the third-fewest pressures among Big Ten linemen with at least 200 pass block snaps.

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Ayedze continues to lean into his inquisitive nature. Asking questions was how he originally learned about football five years ago. His queries are more advanced now, but the purpose remains the same: lean on those with more experience to absorb information.

Terps left tackle DJ Glaze is now on the other end of most of the inquiries. Ayedze asks him for insight into what he sees on a given play, tips on how to improve and advice for handling adversity.

“He asks me daily about little things that he can do to get better,” Glaze said. “He’s gonna come in, work, get the work done, ask what needs to be asked so he can get the job done effectively.”

They’re asked through a French accent that was once heavy but has faded with time. Along with the music, it’s a part of Togo that Ayedze holds onto.

Even after Ayedze graduated, Neubeiser played the lineman’s French rap in his weight room during team workouts — he preferred it due to its lack of perceivable profanity.

That weight room was where Ayedze’s football journey began a half-decade ago — the site of his introduction to the sport that changed his life. When he started, the towering 17-year-old couldn’t picture the future he’s living in right now.

“He came here for an education,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s gonna end up getting a lot more than that.”