On a fall night in 2015, a 17-year-old football player named Sam Gyeni stepped onto Damascus High School’s field for the first game of his junior year as a member of Quince Orchard’s varsity football team.
The Ghana native gazed into the stands, filled with fans proudly sporting the Damascus yellow and green as well as the Quince Orchard black and red. Cheers filled the stadium, and Gyeni experienced an understandable case of nerves.
Gyeni took his place along the defensive line. The former soccer player hoped he would not make a mistake in his first football game. He had only picked up the sport a few weeks prior.
Gyeni had been working out when he was approached by one of the school’s defensive line coaches. Gyeni had known the coach from powerlifting. The coach, impressed by Gyeni’s size and strength, told him to try football.
Hungry for a change and intrigued by the challenge, Gyeni agreed before he even realized what was to come. He put his days of soccer and powerlifting behind him and prepared to join the school’s dominant football team.
And that is how the 6-foot, 280-pound Gyeni’s football career began. Though he only played two years of high school ball, Gyeni’s dedication to the game eventually led him to becoming a starter for Towson University’s defensive line. The Tigers didn’t play last fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but they’ll be back on the field this year — and Gyeni, a redshirt senior, will be ready.
As Gyeni began preparing for his first practice as a Quince Orchard Cougar, his mind raced with thoughts about how it would go. He wondered if he would regret his decision.
Gyeni arrived at his first practice with coaches yelling everywhere. Despite feeling overwhelmed, Gyeni tried to approach each drill in a calm, collected manner.
“I just felt like I needed something different, and [the game is a better fit] for my physique,” Gyeni said. “I was passionate about it later on, [and] it was just more fun for me.”
The football novice started watching more college and NFL games, playing football video games and working out on his own, hoping to ultimately sharpen his skill set and learn the game.
The long hours paid off, as college coaches began recruiting Gyeni during the summer of 2016.
He spoke to coaches from Clarion University, Liberty University, Towson University and West Virginia Wesleyan College as part of the recruiting process.
“Coming from soccer and powerlifting, I already have pretty good footwork. And then when my powerlifting became strong, [football] came pretty easy,” Gyeni said. “Once I got the technique, I realized this is something I could really do on the next level.”
Gyeni earned a spot on the Maryland High School Football Foundation’s 2016 Big School All-State Honorable Mention list as a senior. He wrapped up his high school career by facing Wise High School in the 2016 MPSSAA 4A state championship game. Quince Orchard fell to Wise, but Gyeni felt honored to be part of such an experience, having recorded two tackles during the game.
“It was a good experience, even though we lost,” Gyeni said. “The whole season was a good learning experience, which was kind of what shaped my college career.”
Gyeni chose to play at Towson and has been with the Tigers since 2017. He is still thrilled that he gets to continue his football journey in Maryland and stay near his family.
Gyeni said he had some nerves before his first college start against William & Mary in 2018. The energetic crowd only made it more emotional. The lineman took a deep breath and stepped onto the field, assuring himself that he was capable of playing at the college level.
“I was nervous,” Gyeni said. “After the whistle blows, you just forget about it in all areas and go out there and play.”
Since then, Gyeni has worked tirelessly to improve to ensure he is at his best. When he’s not working out or practicing with Towson, Gyeni works out on his own, whether that means extra time at the gym or at the field by himself.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the Colonial Athletic Association to cancel the 2020 season, but Gyeni continued to train. During the time off, Gyeni worked out with his older brother at home.
“I really just want to be the best version of myself and just do better, play a better season than I did [in 2019] and just stay healthy,” Gyeni said.
His hard work has paid off. Gyeni has posted 39 total tackles throughout his time with the Tigers and started each game during the 2019 season.
Teammates and coaches appreciate Gyeni’s calm, quiet leadership as well. Fellow defensive lineman Vinnie Shaffer has seen it up close in recent years.
“Sam’s definitely motivated the team,” Shaffer said. “He’s a leader, and he does what he needs to do. Sam’s quiet the majority of the time, but Sam’s the lead-by-example type [of] guy. So he’s going to get what he needs done, and then it’s enough [to motivate us] when you see him doing what he needs to.”
Towson head coach Rob Ambrose describes Gyeni as a special individual and hard worker.
“He’s one of the toughest human beings I’ve ever met. Sam Gyeni is going to be massively successful in everything he does for the rest of his life,” Ambrose said. “He’s a great teammate. He’s a great player and a great friend, and he is going to be one successful man.”
Becoming A U.S. Citizen
Gyeni and his family moved to the United States from Ghana when Gyeni was just 12 years old in order to seek a better future. Gyeni packed up his belongings and left behind everything that he ever knew — a life full of soccer.
Gyeni gravitated toward soccer initially in Gaithersburg, Md., before picking up football in high school. Though Gyeni didn’t have a chance to play football for Towson in 2020, it was still a productive year for him — he became a citizen of the United States in the spring of 2020.
“Being a citizen is growing up in two places, in two different homes,” Gyeni said. “Ghana is a lot different. I feel like I’ve got two homes.”
Gyeni said his mother, Cecilia, and father, George, shaped him into the person he has become today. The defensive lineman noted that his mother and father always find ways to stay positive and make the best of each situation while working toward their goals.
And this year, he’ll once again be able to play in front of his family. Gyeni often notices his family supporting him during home games, cheering and sporting the Towson black and gold.
Football is still a relatively new passion for Gyeni, but he has come to embrace it.
“Football means a lot to me,” Gyeni said. “I love the competition. I love the brotherhood, the family that comes with it, and this is a fun game to play.”
Photo Credit: ENP Photography