In late October 2010, BYU was beating Wyoming 16--10 when coach Bronco Mendenhall decided to conduct an experiment on the opening kickoff of the third quarter. So Ezekiel Ansah trotted onto a field during a football game for the first time in his life. "It was scary," Ansah says. "I was trying to remember what I had been told, but it wasn't easy, especially with a lot of people screaming and yelling."
This is an article from the Dec. 3, 2012 issue
It should have been easy, because his instructions were simple: "We put him right in the middle of the field and said, 'Whoever catches the ball, run right to that guy,'" recalls Mendenhall. When the ball was kicked, Ansah did as he was told, but he didn't tackle the return man. Still, as he jogged back to the sideline his teammates and coaches mobbed him, shouting Zig-gy! while they smacked his helmet and slapped his butt. Without even realizing it, Ansah had taken out a trio of Wyoming blockers. He'd simply run through them.
"What?" he said.
"You just blew up three guys," players yelled. Ziggy shrugged.
The next day Mendenhall watched the game film with one thought running through his head: We have to find more ways to get Ansah on the field. "Ziggy was not only knocking down players, he was 10 yards in front of anyone else on our team," Mendenhall says. "This is a guy I never took seriously, and now we've had more NFL personnel in our facility this year than in my previous eight years put together."
"When the combines come," said one NFL scout who has been following Ansah since the beginning of the season, "Ziggy will be one of those players where people will be saying, Who in the hell is this guy?"
KEN FREI spent six days a week walking the dusty roads of Ghana's capital city, Accra, in search of people interested in learning about Mormonism. On his off days the 20-year-old BYU sophomore from Idaho Falls played pickup basketball with fellow missionaries at a private K-through-12 school called Golden Sunbeam. It had one of the few courts in the city, and the headmaster—a Mormon—allowed the missionaries to play there.
Frei often noticed Ansah, then an 18-year-old teaching assistant. One afternoon in December 2007, Frei invited him to join in a game of two-on-two. A 5'9" former high school point guard, Frei matched up against the big local. Though he gave up nine inches and nearly 100 pounds, Frei wasn't concerned; Ghanaians aren't known for their hoops prowess.
As if to prove the point, Ansah got the ball and flung up a wild shot that slammed off the glass. Frei expected as much, but he did not anticipate what happened next: Ansah elevated, snatched the rebound and threw down a two-handed dunk, his elbows nearly hitting the rim. Frei was speechless. Ansah grinned. "LeBron James is my favorite," he said, before adding, "One day I hope to play in the league."
Frei and Ansah bonded over their love of basketball, and Frei learned about Ziggy's life. The youngest of five children, Ansah had been raised in a crowded, working-class neighborhood of Accra. His father, Edward, was a sales manager for a petroleum company, and his mother, Elizabeth, was a nurse.
Ziggy's teenage years revolved around school, sports and religion. He ran track and played soccer, and to stay in shape he ran two to three miles through the busy streets each morning before school. At night he'd spend hours on a basketball court with his older brother practicing "LeBron" moves. Like most Accra families, the Ansahs didn't have cable TV, but a friend did, and Ziggy would go there whenever the Cavaliers were on.
Despite being raised as what he calls a "casual Anglican," Ansah started attending Charismatic Church, an all-black congregation with a passionate minister, soulful music and a rollicking atmosphere. He was devout, and religion became a regular topic of conversation between Frei and Ansah, who was already familiar with Mormon belief from working at the school. The pair spent hours discussing the Book of Mormon, and within six weeks, despite strong opposition from his family, Ziggy decided to convert.
He asked Frei to baptize him. Mormons practice baptism by immersion, so Frei wasn't quite sure how to proceed. "He is much bigger than me," Frei wrote in his journal hours after the rite. "It was hard to get him under the water. He almost pulled me under. I managed to hang on." Shortly after Frei completed his mission and returned to BYU, but not before giving his new friend some advice. "I told Ziggy that if he was serious about playing basketball, he should come to BYU and try out for the team," Frei says.
Ansah went to the headmaster at Golden Sunbeam, who had put two sons through BYU. With the headmaster's help, Ziggy gained admission. A couple of weeks before the start of the fall semester in 2008, Frei received an unexpected call: Ansah had just landed in Utah, and he needed a roommate.
The white things got to him. The temperature in Ghana lingers in the 70s and 80s throughout the year, so Ziggy had never seen snow. He didn't like it. He'd never experienced anything to prepare him for 20¬∫; he froze. He didn't like those white boxes with the buttons on the front, either. "Back home, whenever we wanted food we went to the market," Ansah says. "We didn't do any microwave stuff. We cooked everything fresh. No chicken that had been in a freezer for months. Here I had to get used to eating junk, nasty burgers and stuff."
The biggest adjustment was all the white people. In Ghana, Ziggy encountered only the occasional Caucasian, but Provo, a city of 120,000, is less than 1% black. "At first I couldn't handle it," he says. "Whenever I'd see a black person I'd say hi to them, because it might be the only black person I'd see that day."
That fall Frei told Ansah he should consider playing football, and he took Ziggy to his first Cougars game. "I didn't know what was going on," Ansah says. "I was cheering when everyone else was cheering, but I didn't know why." He also thought the game way too violent. "It was intense—everybody hitting each other," Ziggy says. "I said to my roommates, 'I don't think I ever want to do that.'"
Instead, Ansah tried walking on to the basketball team. Despite his 39-inch vertical, ferocious dunks and study of LeBron, he didn't make it. The next fall he tried again. He got cut again. Still, he was having some success: For the second year in a row Ziggy tore up BYU's intramural league. During a few of those games some football players were impressed by his size and physicality. They told him he should try out for the team. He thought they were crazy.
That spring Ansah walked on to the track team, and he ran a best of 21.9 seconds in the 200. (The last-place finisher in the final of the 2012 NCAA Outdoor Championships ran 20.9.) Leonard Myles-Mills, a former BYU runner and now an assistant track coach who is also from Ghana, had never seen someone so big run so fast. But when the season ended, he called Ziggy aside. He had some advice: Try out for the football team.
Mendenhall sat in his office a few days before the start of 2010 summer camp. He knew a potential walk-on was scheduled to stop by, but he wasn't expecting much. Track athletes rarely panned out. Even at the skill positions, football requires much more than just speed. And the kid was from Africa—soccer country.
When Ansah appeared in the door, Mendenhall's eyebrows shot up. This didn't look like a sprinter. He was 6' 6" and 250 pounds, and his shoulders filled the door frame. He didn't appear to have an ounce of fat on his body.
"I want to play football," Ansah said.
"Have you ever played before?"
"Do you know how to play?"
"If you are serious about this," Mendenhall continued, "workouts start tomorrow morning. Our players get here at 5:45. They lift at 6."
Getting up early was the easy part. Despite his size, Ansah had never lifted weights, and he had to be taught how to use the equipment as if he were a sixth-grade bookworm.
It got worse when uniforms were issued on the first day of camp. Jordan Johnson, a freshman defensive back from Springfield, Mass., was suiting up next to Ansah. "He was trying to shove the thigh pad in the knee pad slot," Johnson says. "He couldn't figure out how to put on his shoulder pads. It was hilarious. But nobody laughed at him. He was too big to laugh at."
Ziggy laughs about it now, though. "When I put on my helmet the first time, someone smacked my helmet from the back," he says. "I told myself, This is going to be terrible. I didn't know how I was going to run. The helmet felt so odd."
He learned quickly and began making an impression on the practice squad. "As soon as someone came to block him, it was like the blocker wasn't even there," says Chad Lewis, a walk-on tight end at BYU who played nine seasons in the NFL before returning as an associate athletic director. "He just exploded through people. He did it in a way that you could immediately tell football was foreign to him."
Unlike kids who grow up with the game, Ansah didn't know how to move on the field, how to initiate contact and create leverage. "He was not lowering down and gearing up to hit someone," Lewis says. "He was just running. That allowed him to hit opponents with a speed that they were not prepared for. But he also wasn't naturally protecting himself the way football players do. So he was taking blows to his body that most guys would never be able to endure."
After the kickoff against Wyoming, Ziggy started to see more time on special teams. It was only in certain situations, and he wasn't always successful, but he did begin to feel more comfortable. That extended off the field, as well. His sense of estrangement faded. Suddenly he was part of a team that did everything together, from conditioning and eating to traveling and attending church. He even began meeting women.
Ansah threw himself into football. He didn't go home at holidays or during breaks. Except for classes, he did nothing else. He began lifting every day and studying the game. After the season the coaches assigned him to room on the road with Kyle Van Noy, a 6'3", 235-pound linebacker from Reno, who had been a blue-chip recruit pursued by Oregon, LSU, Nebraska and other BCS schools. The previous summer, on the first day of full contact practice, Van Noy and Ansah had become acquainted. "I was just running," Ziggy says. "I didn't see it coming. Kyle hit me—oh, my goodness—I fell on the ground and rolled a few times."
Van Noy and Ansah spent hours together, lying awake at night, sharing their hopes and fears. Van Noy had never had a friend from Africa, and he'd never considered what it would be like to travel halfway around the world to attend college while learning a foreign game that is played before tens of thousands of fans that look different and speak a different language. He decided to mentor Ansah. "Kyle is like a brother to me," Ziggy says. "I love him. We watched a lot of film, and he taught me to stay low."
When Mendenhall saw Ansah starting to adopt Van Noy's training habits, he and the staff started to look at him as less of a project and more of a potential playmaker. When the 2011 season started—Ziggy's fourth year in school but only third year of eligibility—Mendenhall used Ansah on third downs as a defensive end or outside linebacker. Again, he was given simple instructions—get the quarterback.
In the off-season he continued to lift and work with Van Noy, and when 2012 began, he resumed his role as a situational player. Until Week 4, when everything changed. Noseguard Eathyn Manumaleuna, the Cougars' best defensive lineman, hurt his knee, and Ansah took his place. Boise State had no scouting report on number 47 as a nosetackle; Ziggy had never played the position. But when the Broncos recovered a fumble on BYU's one-yard line with 8:19 remaining in the third quarter, Ziggy introduced himself. On first-and-goal Ansah exploded out of his stance and met running back D.J. Harper just as he took the handoff, stuffing him for a one-yard loss. On second-and-goal Harper got the call again, and again Ansah beat his man, dropping Harper a yard behind the line.
The Cougars ended up taking over on downs. "It feels good when I [line up against] someone much bigger than me and I can dominate him," Ansah says. "Especially during the run plays. They can't run past me. I feel very good." That goal line stand erased any questions BYU coaches had about Ziggy's ability to stop the run. The next week he started. Over the final nine games of the season he is third on the team in tackles (48), second in sacks (4.5) and first in tackles for loss (13).
As the 2012 season winds down, Ezekiel Nana Ansah—a kid who had never touched a football before walking on—has become the dominant starter on BYU's defense, which is ranked third in the nation. He has bulked up to 270 pounds, and NFL analysts are predicting that he will be drafted in the first round this April. "The combination of his height, weight and speed is probably unmatched," one NFL scout says. "Plus, he's so strong. He's got that Jason Pierre-Paul type of physical upside."
"I always wanted to play pro basketball when I was a kid," Ansah says. "Coming to America, I had an idea I would have a chance to play in the league. Now it looks like I will play in a different league, the NFL. I've come a long way. But I can be better. I'm still learning."
In December, Ziggy will graduate with a degree in actuarial science. His only regret is that his parents have never seen him play. Neither of them has had the opportunity to visit BYU since Ziggy arrived in Provo five years ago. "My mother knows I play football," Ansah said, "but she doesn't really know what is going on. She just tells me to stay humble." His father is a different story altogether. "Every time I talk to my dad, he asks me how is basketball going. And every time I laugh and tell him, 'Dad, I play football.'"
No one, though, is laughing harder than Frei, the accidental recruiter. "I never imagined I'd find a guy who would end up as a top draft pick in the NFL," he says. "That wasn't the mission. But it is a nice side benefit."
The System by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian will be published by Doubleday in fall 2013.