Sierra Leone-born and Winnipeg-raised, the 2022-23 Bisons Male Athlete of the Year and fourth-year football wide receiver AK Gassama didn’t always have dreams for the gridiron after having fallen “in love with basketball” when he was young.
“I wanted to be Allen Iverson,” Gassama said, “I wanted to be like Kobe Bryant.”
And coming from an athletic family, Gassama was also involved with track and field. But Gassama’s love for football grew while playing with his friends during lunchtime in elementary school, and hearing about his friends playing organized football on the weekend with their respective teams made him want to join the sport to get in on the fun.
In fact, the father of a friend who was coaching told Gassama to “come out and play football” because he was so athletic.
“My dad wasn’t really familiar with football, when I told him ‘football’ he told me ‘oh, you want to play soccer,’” Gassama said.
“And I was like ‘no, the one where they, you know, they’re hitting each other.’”
And so Gassama pursued what his father endearingly titled “American rugby” with the Fort Garry Lions in the Manitoba Minor Football Association. In fact, Gassama started off on the defensive side of the ball first, as a safety before his speed was noticed by coaches.
“Speed has always kind of been in my game,” Gassama explained.
“I moved to running back when they needed more of an offensive threat.”
It was in junior high that Gassama switched to receiver when he played for the under-16 (U16) provincial team, his speed once again being noticed by the coach. Gassama noted he was even cut by the team before being placed on the practice roster but believes this adversity is what made him into the receiver he is today.
“I ended up actually being put back on the team, just because as I was a practice player, I was coming out every day, I started making plays, I was making progress every day,” Gassama explained.
Gassama’s journey to the Bisons started with his involvement with Recruit Ready — a program based in Winnipeg that prepares the next group of young recruits for the game. By being part of the Recruit Ready program, Gassama was able to play against high school athletes in the United States and knew if he didn’t pursue a college career in the States, he wanted to become part of the herd.
“Coach [Brian] Dobie and I had a relationship since my second year of U16,” Gassama said.
“And then, also my coaches at Recruit Ready, the majority of them are all ex-Bisons, ex-Vanier Cup champions, and so it was really just like, the Bisons were a family already.”
Including the 2023 season, Gassama has six touchdowns with the team and has already amassed 512 yards receiving over his career with the Bisons.
Gassama’s average yards per carry has grown significantly every year over the past three seasons, from 8.3 to 15.3 to a whopping 37 yards per carry average in 2022. In the 2023 season home opener on Friday alone, Gassama had 72 yards receiving, 45 yards rushing and a spectacular 52-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
According to Gassama, the secret to his success is his strong work ethic.
“I always knew what made me good was just work,” Gassama said, “so that’s what I always fall back on.
“Confidence, like they say, comes from preparation.”
His goals for the 2023 season are to continue to work on his speed control and to stay calm and controlled in high-stakes moments. And with the Bisons making the last four post-seasons, Gassama has faith in the herd to make another deep run in the playoffs.
“We have the horses,” Gassama said.
Already a 2024 Canadian Football League prospect, Gassama’s future is bright. He intends to make a career for himself not just on the U Sports gridiron, but also on the professional gridiron.
“When we need plays, when we need that big catch down the stretch, when we need a touchdown, we need a return, like, I want to be that guy to rely on,” Gassama explained.
“Post this season, I want to make that jump. I believe that I’m ready to go and play pro football. I want that challenge. I want to embark on that journey.”
However, his ultimate goal is to leave a legacy behind of helping the next generation of players succeed by becoming a mentor.
“I want to be a person of service,” Gassama said. “I feel like I had so many great mentors growing up that, you know, it’s kind of been instilled in me to be a leader.
“So post football, you know, being able to use what football has given me to be able to give back.”