A football player grew up playing football. Nothing surprising. Call me Captain Obvious except Ezekiel ‘Ziggy’ Ansah is an ‘American football’ player in the NFL who grew up in Ghana playing the world’s type of ‘football’ – what Americans call ‘soccer’. See the peculiarity? How did a young Ghanaian boy who never watched American football become one the elite Defensive Ends in the National Football League? The story of Ziggy Ansah is a phenomenal testament to the value of hard-work and self-belief in navigating a globalized sports world. And it seems like it will only get better in coming years.
From Legon to Utah
Although Ziggy Ansah played football growing up like most Ghanaian youth, it was playing basketball that got him across the pond to the United States. While playing basketball at Golden Sunbeam Montessori School in Accra he was noticed by missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). Interestingly, Hall of Fame NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst Steve Young’s Forever Young Foundation erected the court in Ghana where Ziggy developed and was noticed by the missionaries.
One in particular, Ken Frei, stayed in contact with Ansah as he went on to attend Presbyterian Boys’ Senior Secondary School (PRESEC) in Legon in 2004. Ziggy continued to play basketball at PRESEC and excelled in the sport in high school. Frei, noticing his talent and drive, suggested he try out for Brigham Young University’s basketball program in Utah, USA when he was applying to colleges. BYU, with 99% of it’s 30,000 students identifying as members of the LDS church, competes in NCAA Division I, the highest level of college sports in the country.
Going from high school basketball in Ghana to playing Division I ball in the USA is a huge jump and so Ziggy had his work cut out for him. He was accepted to BYU on his academic credentials and earned an academic scholarship. His plan was to try out as a walk on – meaning he was not recruited by the basketball team and was not on an athletic scholarship. Most elite athletes at American colleges are on athletic scholarships. The key difference is that they must excel on the field in order to keep their financial support while academic scholarships are sustained in the classroom. Therefore a walk-on often has to balance excelling in the classroom to pay for college with putting in hours of hardwork on the field, against guys who are solely focused on sports.
As expected he tried out for their competitive basketball program multiple times with no success. Most people in his situation would have given up on college sports and looked to more traditional, less risky careers for college graduates like a 9-to-5 office job. The fact Ziggy took a different path here says a lot about his character that has helped him to capitalize on his potential when the chips were against him.
Football played with the hands
In his second year Ziggy tried out for the BYU Cougars football team and made the cut. He played other sports including track and field before making his way to the football tryouts. Football being the biggest sport in college football would be the most challenging for him.
Ziggy did it. He made the team. Well…he spent his first two seasons on the fringes of the team but the coaching staff saw his potential and determination to succeed despite the steep learning curve and lack of financial security. By his senior year Ziggy was ready to make an impact and had earned he athletic scholarship aspiring athletes crave. In three years playing for BYU he logged 72 tackles (67 in his senior year), 4.5 sacks (all in his senior year). Basically Ziggy lit it up his final season.
He entered the NFL draft but wasn’t expected to be picked up in the early rounds because teams didn’t have a lot of data on the guy with one blowout season. Most NFL teams don’t take huge risks early on in the draft and Ziggy was considered quite a risk back then. Things changed when Ziggy bossed the 2013 Senior bowl.
The Senior bowl pits the top NFL prospects against each other. It’s a chance for scouts to see the best players in the draft class lock horns with each other. Ziggy dominated the game defensively, recording 1.5 sacks, 7 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and forcing a fumble while NFL scouts looked on. Ziggy did it again.
Despite his amazing performance, doubts remained about whether Ansah could become an elite sack-artist who threatens off the edge. It seemed like there was nothing Ziggy could do to remove he ‘RISK’ label on him. However he proved to everyone that his raw potential greatly exceeded that of many of the more experienced NFL prospects and once in a while teams will take the risk.
In addition to his raw athletic talent the BYU star graduated with a degree in the analytical subject Actuarial Science plus a business minor. BYU football coach, Bronco Mendenhall mentions such analytical ability as one of Ziggy’s best skills, in addition to the hard work and perseverance that prevented him from giving up on learning a new sport in a new country. These traits would serve him well in the NFL where, more than any sport, the weak are quickly identified and eliminated.
On the 2012 NFL Draft night the Detroit Lions shocked American football fans when they picked Ziggy Ansah in the first round – with the 5th overall pick! It was a testament to the franchise’s faith in his work ethic and raw potential. In 2013 Ansah went on to record 8 sacks, 1st place among first-year rookies, and 2nd in Lions rookie history. The Lions bestowed upon him the Mel Farr Rookie of the Year award, honouring Ansah as their most outstanding rookie. He did it again.
Ansah’s rise to a favorite among the Detroit fan base was swift just like his grasp of the sport. The Ghanaian has stayed grounded despite all his success as evidenced by his recent donation of clean water to nearby Flint, Michigan.
Ziggy Ansah getting the water unloaded off the truck pic.twitter.com/rDMV6KvCRe
— Tim Twentyman (@ttwentyman) January 22, 2016
He even managed to recruit some of his teammates to join him in personally delivering the 94,000 clean water bottles to the struggling city himself.
Ansah recruited some friends to help him deliver 94,000 bottles of water to Flint pic.twitter.com/AmRPTFRTWI
— Tim Twentyman (@ttwentyman) January 22, 2016
Perhaps all Ziggy Ansah’s experiences in Ghana have prepared him for the challenge of life in the NFL more than anything. Many talented draftees have failed to make it in the NFL where the demands of professional sports and off-field distractions have killed many careers before they even started. Ansah appears to be level-headed and getting things right off the field so he can maximizes his momentous potential.
A season to remember
The Lem Barney Award is named after hall of famer Lem Barney, one of the most recognized defensive backs in NFL history. Today it’s presented to the Detroit Lions’ Most Valuable Defensive Player.
Lions players voted Ziggy Ansah this year’s Lem Barney Defensive MVP Award winner. The Ghanaian star tied the franchise record for most games with a sack in a season (11). He had 14.5 sacks total, the second-highest single-season total since 1982 (Robert Porcher’s 15 sacks in 1999 is the highest). In three NFL seasons, Ansah has made 30 sacks. The tally makes him the first Detroit player to do so in only three seasons. Ansah’s 33 QB hits this season surpassed Ndamukong Suh’s 32 in 2012, the most by a Lions player since 2007.
One to watch in the future
It is no surprise then that Ziggy Ansah also earned his first Pro Bowl selection this season where he went up against the best offensive players in American Football Confederation (AFC). Earning a Pro Bowl selection is a dream few football players fulfil. A week later is the Super Bowl – the main event. Even fewer will play in this game, the biggest, most watched sporting event in the United States. The true legends of the game have won the Vince Lombardi trophy to seal their place in the history books.
Ziggy Ansah’s is an amazing story of God-given talent, hard-work and humility to grasp every opportunity coming his way. He will not play in the Super Bowl this year but you get the feeling he will eventually get his shot. When he does, history suggests he will take it. He always does.
Author: KWAME AMANKWA OSEI
A digital media and technology enthusiast based in New York. An alum of Swarthmore College, Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (SEO) and Management Leadership of Tomorrow (MLT). Passionate about travel, futbol and technology for economic development.