Andrew Gonnella was still 16 years old and wrapping up his senior season in high school when his football career was forever changed.
The offensive lineman had an offer to become a priority walk-on at Stony Brook, and nearly his entire list of potential schools - Cortland, Ithaca, Rochester and Utica among them - was more accessible from the New York State Thruway than via the sport’s standard byways.
Yet there was the lightly recruited Gonnella, sitting in his Monroe, N.Y., high school and meeting with Dave Sollazzo. The Maryland recruiting coordinator made a modest but potentially valuable offer: A preferred walk-on spot with the chance to earn more.
“I pretty much said yes about two seconds later,” Gonnella said.
It was a wise choice. Less than three years later, Gonnella is on scholarship and likely will start at left guard when the Terrapins open the season Sept. 5 at No. 12 California.
And a strong family tie helped make it happen.
Gonnella is the nephew of J.D. Maarleveld, a former Maryland tackle who was a consensus All-America pick in 1985. Friedgen was his position coach and Sollazzo was a graduate assistant for a season during his career, so Maarleveld made a call to ensure the highlight tape Gonnella submitted to the staff at least received a look.
Gonnella’s invitation, though, guaranteed nothing. He arrived at Maryland at just 270 pounds and took a place where most walk-ons begin - at the bottom rung.
He was a self-described “practice dummy,” but it hardly mattered. He was in a major program, albeit far from playing.
“I was still kind of in awe with how everything worked here,” Gonnella said. “You go to your locker, and you have a new shirt every day. I just kind of kept my mouth shut. I figured it was like high school. You come in as a freshman in high school; you have to work your way up. You come in as a freshman in college; you have to work your way up.”
It wasn’t long before Gonnella surpassed several scholarship players on the depth chart. His weight room work helped him bulk up to 310 pounds, impressively filling out his 6-foot-6 frame. His bench press, once underwhelming for an offensive lineman at 295 pounds, improved to 420 pounds.
And he never slowed down. His steady energy impressed offensive coordinator James Franklin and Friedgen, with the latter mentioning Gonnella on nearly a weekly basis late last season.
“The thing about Gonnella was he was always going so hard. Even when he was messing up and making mistakes, he was always taking someone out with him,” quarterback Chris Turner said. “That’s what stood out to Coach Franklin. I remember being in meetings [last year], and he’d say, ‘What’s Gonnella doing?’ He’d mess up, and he’d still knock a guy out and make a pancake.”
Gonnella’s industriousness ensured some of his uncle’s old colleagues took notice. Maarleveld, who usually attends two games a year, caught up with both Sollazzo and former teammate Kevin Glover (now the Terps’ director of character education) last season, and both praised the sophomore.
“Kevin Glover said, ‘This kid could have hung out with us,’ ” said Maarleveld, who lettered on two ACC title teams. “He’s an old-time, tough football player.”