Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah grew up playing soccer in his home country of Ghana, but dreamed of playing basketball in the NBA. When he finally came to the United States, he ran track for Brigham Young University. Two years later, he walked onto the football team.
Now, the 6-foot-6, 270-pound defensive lineman is a likely first-round pick in the NFL draft. (Note: Ansah ended up being drafted fifth overall by the Detroit Lions)
“I think he has become the kind of football player that NFL teams long to find,” said Jeff Benedict, who wrote profiled Ansah for Sports Illustrated. “He’s got this very unique combination of speed, size and strength. It’s very rare that you find a guy who’s that tall and that big and can run as fast as he does, especially laterally.”
Growing up in Ghana, American football wasn’t on Ansah’s sports radar, but he dreamed of playing along side LeBron James.
“My brother was a huge basketball fan and he had the opportunity to watch basketball on TV,” Ansah said. “He learned a lot from watching the NBA and he actually introduced me to basketball. I watched him play, and through him I was able to learn a lot about the game.”
Ansah arrived at BYU and ran track, but also tried to walk on to the basketball team, without success.
“It took two years for people to tell me to try out for football. That was because I was focused on playing basketball the whole time I was out here.”
Benedict first saw Ansah’s name while he was scanning the BYU roster during a game this season.
“I thought, ‘Maybe he’s a kicker because soccer’s big [in Ghana],’” Benedict said. “Soon I learned this guy had walked on the team three years ago not knowing anything about football.”
Ansah’s speed, strength, and general athleticism translated well to the football field.
“Most scouts didn’t know about Ziggy because he wasn’t playing that much [until 2012],” Benedict said. “As soon as scouts [see] his speed combined with his size and strength, they say is it’s so rare to find a guy who’s built like that and has that.”
Ansah’s first play on the football field was on special teams, during a BYU kickoff. Ansah failed to make the tackle, but his teammates celebrated anyway. Ansah had simply run over three opponents in his attempt to reach the returner.
“It was pretty funny, I was just on kickoff, just [to] run down and make a play. But that didn’t happen. I came on the sideline and I had a lot of people hitting my head and yelling my name, I was like, ‘What are y’all doing? I didn’t even make a play.’”
Benedict says since then Ansah has proved his adaptability in more ways than one, a trait that would be an asset in the NFL.
“Coming from Ghana to Utah, that’s a pretty big transition: climate, weather, people, culture, food. But, he’s also done it in sports. To be able to walk into Division-I college football at a team like BYU and be able to adapt the way he has I think is a pretty good predictor of his ability to do that.”
As for Ansah, he’s happy he got the chance to give up his dream of playing in the NBA.
“I think everything happens for a reason. One of our games the basketball trainer was around and he’s like, ‘Aren’t you happy we cut you off the basketball team?’ and I was like, ‘Well, thank you very much for doing that.’ So, I don’t regret it, I look back and really thank them for giving me the opportunity to play football.”
One thing Ansah hasn’t gotten used to is snow and he admits he wouldn’t mind being drafted by a warm-climate team. (Note: Plays in Detroit, Michigan http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Detroit#Climate )
“I wouldn’t want to jinx that, but let’s just hope so. That would be great.”