You can tell within seconds of talking to Gainesville High senior Herve Aklotsoe that there’s just something about him.
It’s not the French accent pushing through as he makes sure he enunciates his words clearly. It’s not his initial shy nature that seems to fade in minutes.
It’s his spirit.
People just gravitate toward him and he gravitates to them.
He has a willingness to learn that’s never been seen before by Red Elephants football coach Bruce Miller and Aklotsoe always has a smile on his face.
Aklotsoe has been a big force on the defensive front for Gainesville (5-5), totalling 79 tackles and five stops for a loss heading into tonight’s first round playoff game against Harrison (9-1) for Class AAAAAA in Kennesaw.
The 19 year old was born in Togo, a small west-African nation of about 6.3 million people.
Togo was granted its independence from France in 1960. The small country of nearly 22,000 square miles is a leading producer of phosphates, which are used in fertilizers, but, since gaining its independence, has struggled to build a stable economy.
Regardless of the country’s financial state, Aklotsoe said his upbringing wasn’t all that different from what he’s experienced here.
“It was normal,” he said. “Go to school, come home, play with your friends — a typical teenager’s life.”
Aklotsoe was raised in a Christian family and, when he wasn’t playing soccer with his friends, he loved singing and playing the piano.
“I learned how to play for a little bit in Africa, about three years,” Aklotsoe said. “Then I kept on taking lessons once I got here.”
He grew up singing gospel songs as part of the church choir, but he mixed in a little jazz and blues when he could.
When he was 12, a process was set in motion to move him from his African roots to the United States.
The process to get Aklotsoe moved to the U.S. took five years. There was paperwork, which his dad put together and had translated into English. There were interviews at the U.S. Embassy. But first, he had to hit a few check points before even that could get started.
“I had to get some degrees there. It’s a different system, right? Let’s just say I had to get out of middle school to have at least a basic English (understanding) to go to all the interviews and all that stuff,” Aklotsoe said. “I had to at least get that and that’s when it started. I was at least 12 then. All that stuff, it took about five years.”
At 17 years old, Aklotsoe left everything he knew behind — including his mother and then 11-year-old sister — for a chance at a better life in the States.
His dad, Emanuel, lived in Georgia for more than a decade before Herve was brought over.
“They (his parents) said, ‘You’re going to Georgia,’ and I said, ‘Alright,’” Herve said. “Just doing what my parents told me.
“It’s hard because my whole family beside my dad was there. It was emotional, but I knew it was necessary because I had to get a good education here. It’s really important because not very many people in my family have made it besides my dad. If I wanted to make it,, my parents knew I had to (leave). Even if it was hard and heartbreaking, I knew I had to. It was very hard leaving the whole family behind.”
Aklotsoe moved to the Acworth area with his father in 2014. The two then moved to Gainesville when Herve was 18.
When he arrived in the states, Herve was put back into the ninth grade despite nearly graduating from his African school.
“I was a senior when I was there and I almost graduated when I came here, but they put me back to freshman year so I could learn the language,” Herve said.
He had some English lessons in Africa, but it wasn’t much.
“I had about six hours of English every week, but it wasn’t anything serious,” Herve said. “It’s not like you can take a French class here and go to France and start talking French. It was really hard to start having a conversation (in English). It takes a lot of reading and learning.”
Herve started learning English on his own rather than just what he could get out of classes at school.
“He once told my wife that he would go home and find movies with English subtitles and watch them to try to teach himself the language,” said Mark Green, minister of music at First Baptist Church in Gainesville.
Green, who Aklotsoe calls a mentor and “kind of like my dad,” said Herve just showed up one Sunday at church.
“He’s from a devout Christian family,” Green said. “Even in Togo, he was involved in a church there. I think that’s what brought him here one Sunday. We were just in walking distance from the apartment where he was living at the time.”
Green got Aklotsoe involved with the church youth choir and taught him lessons on the piano after the Gainesville High senior showed interest in Green’s playing.
Aklotsoe knew absolutely nothing about the game of football upon arrival. Coming from Africa, he naturally gravitated toward soccer. Football was literally a foreign sport to him.
One of the football coaches mentioned to him one day that he should come out and be a kicker, given his soccer background, but that didn’t entice him. Then, one day he was just outside having some fun with one of the sleds the linemen practice with when coach Wayne Jones saw him messing around.
“Coach Jones, he saw me playing with the sleds, I didn’t even know what they were,” Aklotsoe said. “I was just pushing them around and he said, ‘You might want to come to practice.’ I showed up to practice one time and that’s how it started. It was really hard and extremely confusing. I didn’t know anything.”
Still picking up on the English language, football seemed even harder to grasp for Aklotsoe. The then 18-year-old was trying to pick up a game his teammates had been playing for the better part of a decade.
On his first day of practice, Aklotsoe was put at linebacker and was told to tackle running back Chris Byrd, who graduated in 2016 and is now playing at Kennesaw State. It didn’t turn out well for Aklotsoe, but it was a good lesson.
“They told me to run toward him. I ran toward him and he put me on my butt. That was really embarrassing,” Aklotsoe said. “I just thought, ‘I don’t want to be hit like that. I’m going to make him pay for hitting me like that.’ I just kept coming back each day and trying to get to his level.
“I probably never got there, but he never hit me like that anymore until he graduated.”
On a 1-to-10 scale, Aklotsoe said he would have put himself at a “one, maybe a negative one” when he started playing football.
His first year with the team was essentially a ground-up learning experience.
“He studies it constantly,” Green said. “I mean, in the morning, in the evening, any time he has a free moment, he’s on his phone looking at highlights.”
Aklotsoe would watch games and highlights of NFL or college and then go to the coaches, show them the clips and ask them about them. Through that, he started noticing patterns in the Gainesville offense at practice. He even began seeing patterns in opposing offenses when watching film and during games.
“A lot of it has been by himself and his willingness to learn and his willingness to spend his time learning it,” Miller said. “It’s been amazing. He’s such a great kid. He’s a ‘yes sir, no sir’ and he’s a pleasure to be around. It makes it easy for us.”
Aklotsoe was moved to nose guard on the defensive line and things got easier for him.
“D-line is more physical, but it’s much easier. I had three jobs — go left, right or straight ahead,” Aklotsoe said. “Linebackers, all the read and drop back for passes, it was a lot harder. They moved me to D-line and I thought, ‘this is easy. I just have to overpower the guy in front of me.’ I just had to get used to the physicality of the position. Mentally, it wasn’t too hard on my brain.”
Now, on that same 1-to-10 scale, Aklotsoe said he’d put himself at a five.
Miller said he’s a bit higher than a five.
Miller said it’s incredible to see the leap Aklotsoe has made in not knowing the basics of football last year to being a starter and “a force to be reckoned with” this year.
“It’s amazing. I haven’t seen anybody ever make that jump,” Miller said. “It shows you how hard he was willing to work and how much he wanted to be a part of things. He’s special.”
Miller said the senior has played his best football in the last three games for the Red Elephants.
Aklotsoe has carried his love of music from Africa, to the church youth choir and into the school chorus group as well.
“It’s fun. I love music,” Aklotsoe said. “It’s something I’ve been doing for the past five years before football.”
Outside of school, football and church, the 19-year-old doesn’t have very much free time. He works a part-time job at Publix on Thompson Bridge Road, which he goes to many nights after leaving football practice, and he’s also a father. His son, James Edem Aklotsoe, will turn four months old on Nov. 16. Herve said having a child makes him work even harder.
“He’s the No. 1 reason why I’m working so much,” Herve said. “It has been really hard since he’s been born. I’m having to work a lot more than I would. It was hard to find a balance between all the things I’m doing.”
Green said he sees a drive in Herve that has doubled since he started playing football and then some since his son was born.
“He just sees what has to be done and he just does it. He doesn’t complain. You know, he’ll say, ‘today was a good day. Long, but good,’” Green said. “A lot of times he’ll go to school, then football, then try to see his son around supper time and then he’ll go to work until 11 (p.m.). Then he starts the day over again around 7 (a.m.). He stays going all the time.
“He’s so eager to better himself. He’s really a delight to be around and is always very positive. It’s really remarkable to watch.”