Ajou Ajou had seen enough.
The wide receiver had spent sufficient time at Clearwater Academy International to know his friend back home in Alberta would fit right in.
“You’re D1,” Ajou’s message read. “Get down here.”
In Edmonton, Albert Reese IV picked up his phone and soon made up his mind. Ajou was headed to Clemson. Reese knew he could follow a similar path.
“He had a great time down there, so I thought, ‘Hey, I’m going to put myself in the same shoes,’” Reese said.
At just 17, Reese packed up his life, left his home country and moved to Florida. A year and a half later, his bet on himself has paid off.
The Mississippi State freshman offensive lineman has found a home in Starkville, and he’s made a potentially difficult transition simple with his trademark ease.
“It’s been very smooth,” Reese said. “I’ve definitely enjoyed my time here, and I definitely feel like it’s a good fit for me to be here — not just for football but for anything, really.”
On his first day of preschool, Reese stood at the front door for 20 minutes, silently scoping out the situation.
“He’s still like that,” his mother, Sue Wasson, said.
Reese proved so quiet Mississippi State’s coaches texted Wasson when he first got to campus, seeing if their new O-lineman was always like this.
“Did you get five words out of him?” Wasson responded. “OK, he’s good.”
Never subject to a temper tantrum or any bad behavior from her only son, Wasson said she wishes she had “nine Alberts” rather than just one.
She put Reese in various activities — music, swimming, soccer, martial arts. But when he was 12, he came to her with an observation.
“Mom, I have this power within me,” Reese told her. “I’ve noticed you’ve never registered me in football.”
Reese had never really gotten the chance to put his sizable frame to good use, and given his interest in contact sports, football was a logical fit.
“You’re going against people; you’re using your size and strength to your advantage,” Reese said. “Obviously, you can’t do that in gym class, so I was like, ‘I’ll finally play football.”
On his first day of practice as a high school freshman, Reese was placed at defensive tackle. By the end of the week, coaches noticed his advanced feel for the game and put him at offensive tackle instead.
But Reese said he wasn’t serious about the sport in his first season playing it.
“Once I started doing better, improving my skill in my second year, that’s when I really kind of kicked things off with my career and enjoyed it more,” he said.
Playing football in Canada, Wasson said, comes with a universal truth.
“If you’re serious about football,” she said, “you leave home.”
Realizing he had the talent to continue in the sport, Reese did just that prior to the spring semester of his final year of high school, trading Edmonton’s 40-below winters for the sunny skies of Florida.
Culture shock set in at first, but Reese soon cultivated a group of friends at the academy in Clearwater, a school with plenty of other Canadian students.
Under football coach Jesse Chinchar, Reese played against strong opponents across the country and got his name and tape out to Division I coaches.
“It definitely helped to go down and get recognized and to play some good competition and get some good highlights,” Reese said.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he stayed in Clearwater, working at the school’s training facility and transforming his body to prepare himself for the next level. In May 2020, Reese committed to Rutgers, but the calls kept coming in.
Reese received 30 Division I offers in all, and recruiting became nearly all he and his mother thought about. Wasson estimated she spent 20 hours a week on Zoom calls with coaches; her son was even more occupied.
“It was a phenomenal experience but stressful at the same time because you’re busy — more so for him because he talked to way more coaches and had to study and practice,” Wasson said.
Reese liked what he saw in Mississippi State. He got to know offensive line coach Mason Miller, then head coach Mike Leach. The Bulldogs’ sports management program appealed to him, too.
Wasson told her son to choose whatever felt right in his gut, although she still stayed up 24 hours straight before Reese’s commitment, doing as much research as she could. On Dec. 7, realizing Mississippi State still checked all the boxes for him, Reese announced he’d decommitted from Rutgers and had chosen MSU instead.
“Up in Canada, Mississippi State never would have even looked at Albert or noticed him,” Wasson said. “There’s such competition. It’s so high.”
Together in Starkville
Wasson stayed in Starkville for five days when she dropped Reese off at school in January before returning to Canada.
When she came back to the South in June, she bought a one-way ticket.
Wasson is about midway through a six-month sojourn in Starkville, there to make up for the time she couldn’t spend with her son last year. She saw him only twice in Clearwater — when she dropped him off and, later, a solitary football game. Reese’s 18th birthday, a major rite of passage for Canadians, was celebrated virtually.
Now, mother and son see each other all the time. They make meals and try new recipes, or they go on drives together, with Reese taking his mom around to his favorite catch-and-release fishing spots: Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge or even Chadwick Lake on campus. (The latter produced only a few small fish, Reese said.)
Wasson runs her business, Little A Accounting — the A is for Albert — from home, attends home and road Mississippi State games and still makes time for a social life, she said.
“It’s great having her down here,” Reese said. “She’s obviously having a great time, and it definitely helps with being so far from where I’m from.”
The love of football ingrained in Southern culture has also helped Reese adjust. He said he’s been recognized as part of the team several times — though his 6-foot-7, 315-pound frame is certainly a hint — by fans who just want to talk football.
“This is a great college town, and pretty much anywhere you go, you might get recognized if you’re part of the football team, and they’ll respect you for that,” Reese said. “You can have a good conversation about anything regarding football, so I like that.”
In just a few months with the Bulldogs, Reese certainly has plenty to talk about. While the freshman’s favorite position is left tackle, he’s practiced at every spot on the offensive line but center. Reese is currently listed as Mississippi State’s backup right tackle, but it’s something he was ready for.
“Whenever I’d go out to a field and train, I’d be sure to practice on both the right and left side so that it wasn’t such a shock when it actually happened,” he said. “And when it did, I was prepared, so it went well.”
Miller said early in preseason camp he hopes Reese can relax his upper body and be less “robotic,” changes that seem destined to come with time for a player as young as Reese. With Wasson watching from the sidelines at practice, he celebrated his 19th birthday on Aug. 13.
“I’m just so blessed to be here with him now, and he’s so happy that I’m here,” Wasson said. “He always tells me that.”
In Starkville, Reese has the three things that Wasson said define him — faith, family and football — close at hand.
“It definitely is really good to keep your stress down,” Reese said. “It definitely helps to be close with your family, have good faith. It’s just good to have all those things to help you go through life.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.