Ghana native Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah begins a promising American football career today, completing an unlikely odyssey toward a game watched by few and played by even fewer in his west African homeland.
“The next thing I heard was he was now playing football. Football?” said Monica Ohene Opare, one of the founders of a school Ansah attended and where he later worked as a teaching assistant. “I know football is kind of a rough game, so I was kind of worried.”
Ansah’s journey from Ghana to the Detroit Lions of the NFL in the US involves his conversion to Mormonism, rare athletic talent and a bit of luck.
He is considered one of the most promising young players in the league, yet Ziggy, whose real name is Ezekiel, has only been playing the sport for about three years. Ghana is a football-mad nation — but football meaning soccer, not the US game.
Some have even predicted he will end up as the NFL’s best first-year defensive player. He was the fifth pick of the NFL draft, the highest-ever for a player from an African country.
“For someone who has played such little football, Ansah has an unbelievable feel for the game,” NFL analyst Gil Brandt wrote on the league’s Web site. “He can look like a 10-year veteran out there.”
However, Ansah will first have to overcome a setback. There has been speculation over whether he will play in today’s season opener after suffering an injury in practice.
Whether he takes the field today or later in the season, expectations will be high, both in the US and among his friends and family back home.
Ansah, 24, grew up in a middle-class family in the emerging west African nation of 25 million people, his mother a nurse and his father a sales manager for a petroleum company.
By high school, he had become a standout in athletics and basketball, pursuing the latter when a charity run by retired NFL Hall of Famer Steve Young built a court at Ohene Opare’s Golden Sunbeam Schools, where he attended.
At 1.98m, Ansah would dominate pickup games and soon became a hoops enthusiast.
He would return to Golden Sunbeam, located in a middle-class neighborhood of quiet, dusty streets on the northern edge of bustling Accra, to play on the court, even when he went to high school in another area.
In school athletics competitions, Ansah outran his competition in the 200m sprint and also participated in the long jump, said Paul Kofi Yesu Dadzie, his track coach in high school.
By the end of high school, Ansah had his sights set on being a professional basketball player.
Recognizing this, Ohene Opare helped sponsor him for admission to Brigham Young University (BYU) in the US in 2008. The school is the preeminent university of Ansah’s Mormon faith and home to top-level sports teams.
He had converted to Mormonism about a year before college. The Ohene Opare family, themselves Mormon, would allow missionaries to come to their school to check e-mail and they ended up converting and baptizing Ansah.
With an academic scholarship in hand, he headed to the university in the US state of Utah, but soon found his dreams of basketball stardom falling short. Two try-outs for the basketball team ended in failure.
However, he excelled at sprinting on the BYU track team, where an assistant coach recommended him for the football team.
He at first struggled with the unfamiliar equipment used by football players and often ended practices exhausted by the training regimen, remembers Eathyn Manumaleuna, a teammate of his from Alaska.
However, when it came to running, Ansah would leave his competition in the dust.
“He was fast,” Manumaleuna said. “He had a base and a foundation in that sense which helped him a lot. All he really needed to do was learn the game.”
He became an integral part of BYU’s defense, at one point keeping a quarterback pinned down through sheer speed and laser-like focus, Manumaleuna remembered.