A diamond in the rough - Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah

(Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)

Reaching new heights has always come naturally for Ezekiel Ansah.

Known as “Ziggy” to his teammates, fans, family and friends, Ezekiel Ansah continues to defy the odds on and off the gridiron.

What does it take to play football at the collegiate level? What does it take to play football for BYU? While most players follow a path of progression through the ranks of pee-wee, club and high school football, Ziggy defined his own path – a path filled with trials, adversity and hard work.

How about joining a church which was unfamiliar to family?

How about leaving a distant continent to live in a town known as Provo, Utah?

How about trying out for a Division 1 collegiate sport, not once or twice, but three times?

You can check those off the list. The 6-foot-6, 270-pound senior from Accra, Ghana found a home away from home in Provo, Utah – a place where he learned a new game among new people.
    
“It wasn’t easy at first,” Ansah said. “It’s just a different sport to me.”

A different sport on a different continent is what Ziggy Ansah found in addition to a talent not common among many.

Growing up in Ghana, Ziggy discovered his niche in a city of over two million people, attending Presbyterian Boys’ Secondary School during the day and playing basketball with his friends and peers at night and on weekends.

Ziggy excelled in school, earning honors as overall best business student. During his free time he competed on the court, jumping and dunking over his peers. He knew he possessed athletic skills different from others, but where those skills would take him, he did not know.

“I thought I could be better playing in the NBA, but I didn’t know I was going to divert to playing football, so it all helped,” Ansah said. “I was really good [at basketball]. I could throw down. That’s my bread and butter.”

After joining the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in January 2008 in Accra, Ansah found himself enrolled in classes at Brigham Young University in the fall. Before long, Ansah returned to the basketball court, this time trying out for the BYU basketball team.

Despite his desire to compete on the hardwood, it just wasn’t meant to be. Ansah turned to the BYU track team, earning a spot on the roster in 2009. There he competed in the 60-meter dash and 200-meters, displaying impressive power and speed for his large stature and size.

He clocked 3.8 in the 30, 7.01 in the 60, 10.9 in the 100 and 21.9 in the 200 meters.

“I’ve never encountered any athlete with such a figure,” BYU track coach Leonard Myles-Mills said. “He is a monster, a big guy. Considering his size, and how athletic and very agile and very nimble [he is], I would say that makes him a unique athlete.”

His athleticism was visible to the coaches, but there was just one problem – he was too big.

During one time-trial meet, Ziggy stood in lane two anxious to run the 60-meter dash. He got off of the blocks so strong that with the first swing of his arm he hit the runner in lane one completely displacing him. One step later he found himself hitting the opposite runner in lane three with the same results. He was very apologetic to the runners who he mistakenly hit following the race.
 
Finding a specific event for Ziggy to compete on the track team was difficult for coaches, but with his size the decathlon seemed a viable option. Coach Myles-Mills, who was an Olympic sprinter for their native Ghana, tried helping Ansah lose weight, but he was just too heavy to compete at pole vault.

“The poles are really strong, but with Ziggy’s weight I’ve never seen anybody with that weight pole vaulting before,” Myles-Mills said. “To be on the safer side I thought, ‘I don’t think track is good for you,’ so I said ‘Have you thought about playing football?’”

One day after practice, Myles-Mills brought Ziggy over to the football office and the rest was history. He was introduced to assistant coach Paul Tidwell, who summoned fellow coaches to see this diamond in the rough.

Ziggy turned his attention to the football field where he embarked upon an unexpected journey. No longer did Ziggy have to feel apologetic for hitting people. Now he could let his athletic abilities run free.

“I had a lot of people telling me I should play, the size, I should just try to do it and see how it goes,” Ziggy says, “I just decided to.”

At first glance, Ziggy looked like a football player, an athlete with potential, but on the practice field he was far from it. Just like many students Ziggy got an All-Sports Pass when he came to BYU, where he began watching the game of football regularly, trying to pick up on the rules and regulations of the game. Having only watched the game, Ziggy knew little about the technique and conventions of the game, let alone how to suit up for practice.

“He struggled to even put on his pads,” linebacker Kyle Van Noy said. “He didn’t know what he was doing. His stance was all jacked up. He was just lost out there, but you could tell he was smart.”

Ziggy had to start from scratch learning all the ins and outs of the game from rushing the quarterback to understanding how to watch game film. Workouts and practice stretched him to a new level of physical activity he had never before experienced.

“I remember when I came here, the first time in the training room after our workouts I was so sore,” Ansah said. “I thought ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do this.’ The coaches kept telling me to never give up and the players kept telling me to never give up. I had a lot of support from my parents too. I just kept it going.”

Ziggy worked hard, learning the game of football and following the example of his more experienced teammates. Despite his lack of experience, Ziggy picked up the game quickly and is continuing to learn in his young career.

“When the game started I just had to learn from the seniors and the other players, whatever they did,” Ansah said. “I just studied and learned from watching film.”

While BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall was uncertain if Ziggy could actually make it as a football player, he continued to push him everyday. In the end, Ziggy is glad he did. So is Coach Mendenhall.

“Something I wouldn’t forget is Coach Mendenhall always yelling at me every single day at practice when I first started,” Ansah said. “My motivation is, nobody gave me any special treatment. He treated me like all the other people.”

Since earning a spot on the roster in 2010, Ziggy has seen action in a variety of roles on the football team. During his first season, Ansah saw action in six games, earning time on the special teams squad and playing on the defensive line.

The following year as a junior, he played in 12 games on special teams and outside linebacker. Now during his senior season he has become a common name among NFL scouts, a force to be reckoned with on the defensive front.

While no longer competing on the basketball court, Ziggy discovered a new game, a game that is exciting and a game in which he is continually improving. Ansah plays with vigor and intensity and enjoys making plays in front of the 60,000-plus people at LaVell Edwards Stadium. Even though he boasts a 39 ¼-inch vertical jump, he feels it isn’t good enough. He wants to take it above 40 inches.
“He’s everything you want to be: big, physical and fast,” Van Noy said. “He has all the attributes the NFL is looking for and he doesn’t get enough credit for how smart he is. He’s still raw and has a lot of learning to do. He just picks up the game fast.”

Week in and week out Ziggy is garnering attention, be it the likes of announcers on ESPN, ABC or NBC. Ziggy has the physical skills needed to take it to the next level and appears to have the smarts too, studying actuarial science (managing risk) and minoring in business. How does he feel about one day playing in the league?

“I do have goals of playing in the NFL,” Ansah said. “Right now my goals are just to be a teammate here at BYU, help my teammates out, help myself out, just focus on every single play, every single team, just winning and dominating, and the NFL is going to take care of itself.”

While football is a big part of Ziggy’s life now, he still continues to remember his African roots. Ziggy continues to speak Twi and Fante, two local Ghanaian dialects with roommates and friends and peanut-butter soup is still a main staple of Ziggy’s diet. While American football is lacking popularity in his home continent, Ziggy hopes to one day go home and spread the game of football to the people of Africa.

Starting as a BYU student from Ghana, turned track athlete, turned potential NFL defensive end, just where exactly did the nickname “Ziggy” come from?

“We were playing a game back home in high school and we were trying to make jerseys and we were just asking the names we wanted to put behind our jerseys,” Ansah said. “I don’t know if I said it or if a friend of mine said it, but Ziggy just came out of nowhere.”

The nickname stuck ever since and Ziggy’s right – his nickname came out of nowhere and so did he.

BYU ATHLETES ‘OUT OF AFRICA’
         
Defensive lineman Ezekiel Ansah comes from a longer line of BYU athletes that hail from Africa. Ansah is one of 55 students currently at BYU, representing 16 countries in Africa, led by 13 students from Ghana.

Perhaps your understanding of the vast continent of Africa is through Humphrey Bogart starring in the movie African Queen, or through Alex Haley’s 1970s epic movie/book Roots or through studies of the Egyptian pyramids.

If you stretch your sports memory, a handful of Cougar athletes should come to mind.  There’s Olympic sprinters Frank Fredericks, Oluyemi Kayode and current BYU track coach Leonard Myles-Mills. And from last year’s BYU basketball and baseball teams are transplants Charles Abouo and Chris Capper.

And in football there’s 1989 Outland Trophy winner Mohammed Elewonibi and 2008 wide receiver signee Atem Bol from the Sudan via Hurst, Texas, who ended up playing for Snow College.

Check the list below of current and past BYU athletes who come from Africa:

Charles Abouo, basketball               Ivory Coast
Emmanuel Adeleke, soccer             Nigeria
Eric Akogyiram, track                       Ghana
Thobias Akwenye, track                   Namibia
Clifford Andam, track                        Ghana
Kenneth Andam, track                      Ghana
Felix Andam, track                            Ghana
Michael Andam, track                        Ghana
Ezekiel Ansah, football                     Ghana
Caroline Avbovbede, track                  Nigeria
Lesley Barbour, tennis                         Zimbabwe
George Onen Belazo, soccer              Uganda   
Chris Capper, baseball                        South Africa
Evelyn Cobbinah, track                        Ghana
Shreedhar Dusara, soccer                   Tanzania
Michelle DuToit, track                           South Africa
Mohammed Elewonibi, football            Nigeria
Obi Eze, soccer                                    Nigeria
Tayo Fabuluje, track                             Nigeria
Frank Fredericks, track                         Namibia
Arlene Gowar, track                              South Africa
Timothy Hesse, track                            Ghana
Kip Kangogo, track                                Kenya
Oluyemi Kayode, track                           Nigeria
Sowah Marley, track                               Ghana
Kip Mibey, track                                      Kenya
Peter Milanzi, track                                 South Africa
Gary Morton, track                                  South Africa
John Myles-Mills, track                           Ghana
Leonard Myles-Mills, track                      Ghana
Robert Mugagga, track                           Uganda
Joseph Ngassa, soccer & track              Cameroon
Lucien Niang, soccer                              Senegal
Ken  Ojuka, soccer                                  Uganda
Lydia  Ojuka, soccer                                Uganda
Christy Opara Thompson, track              Nigeria
Edwin Randolph, track                            Ghana
Othello Richards, track                            Liberia
Mao Tjiroze, track                                    Namibia
Angela Wagner, cross country & track     South Africa