Four years ago, football was as foreign to Ezekiel Ansah as Provo.
The native of Accra, Ghana, came to BYU to study math at a good university and be around other members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to which he had converted. Sports were an afterthought. He had never seen a game of football before moving to the states. But now, three years later, Ziggy, as he likes to be called, is a starting defensive lineman on one of the nation’s top-ranked defenses and is the talk of NFL scouts.
It was during the 2009 school year that Ansah tried out for his first sport: track and field. He participated as a member of the track team throughout that year, but some of his friends began to take notice of his 6-foot-6 frame.
“A lot of people were telling me I had the size for football and should just try out and see how it goes,” Ansah said. “So I did.”
However, for Ansah, football wasn’t a part of his upbringing in Africa. There were no leagues or pick-up games. There weren’t television stations devoted to the American sport. So the extent of Ansah’s football education came while living in Provo.
“I watched a few games when I first came here,” he said. “The family I lived with said that football was a big game out here, so every Saturday morning we would watch football and they would try to explain some things to me. I didn’t totally understand it.”
Ansah walked on to the BYU football team in 2010 but was not awarded any playing time. He dealt with a steep learning curve, as the majority of the Cougars on the team have played competitive football the better part of their lives.
“The first time I put on a helmet, somebody smacked me right away, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is going to be miserable,'” he said.
Ansah faced some doubt that he could catch up to the other players’ experience but found motivation from coaches and players.
“I remember when I came here for the first time and went to weight training, after working out I was so sore, I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know how I’m going to do this,'” he said. “The coaches and the other players told me to not give up, and it just kept me going.”
Ansah has remained true to his love of math, majoring in actuarial science, a major that combines math and statistics to assess risk in industries and corporations.
“Actuarial science is a really tough major,” Ansah said. “A lot of statistics and math. I love math, and that’s why I chose that. I go to class, come do football, then try to do homework and study after football. It’s not easy, but you just got to make time and study.”
During his junior season in 2011, Ansah played in 12 games, mainly on special teams, but saw some time as outside linebacker. He totaled seven tackles on the season, along with a quarterback hurry.
This season, Ansah has rotated through different positions, seeing more time as outside linebacker, as well as in the inside and at defensive end, where he has stepped into the vacancy caused by senior Eathyn Manumaleuna’s injury. Through six games, Ansah has amassed 27 tackles, eight of which were for losses, three sacks, three quarterback hurries and three pass breakups. The variety of roles Ansah has filled in so short a time is something Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall said he had never seen before.
“He’s playing up to three positions per game plus multiple special teams,” Mendenhall said. “From where he was till now, it’s incredible.”
Ansah’s combination of size (6’6”, 270 lbs), speed and power is such to make opposing offensive coordinators lose some sleep figuring out how to block him.
“(Ziggy’s) worked really, really hard, and it’s paying off for him,” senior linebacker and team captain Brandon Ogletree said. “He’s a really rare combination of size and speed and aggressiveness. So it’s just really fun. Every time he makes a play, we get juiced for him. He’s worked really hard, and he’s come a long way, so it’s a really cool thing. It’s a lot of fun to see.”
Ansah is part of a defense that ranks in the top 10 in almost every defensive category in the 2012 season. The Cougars allow 59.5 rushing yards per game, which leads the nation. They also allow 229.3 total yards per game, which is third in the country, and part of a 12-game streak of holding opponents to under 300 total yards. They also rank in the top 10 in passing yards allowed, 1st downs allowed and points allowed per game.
NFL scouts across the country have started to take notice of Ansah’s aggressiveness and pure skill on defense. With the 2013 NFL Draft in every scout’s mind, Ansah is on many of their lists.
“Ziggy’s a remarkable story,” Mendenhall said. “And for this season to go by without acknowledging that three years ago he didn’t know how to put on his gear to now being literally the talk on the west coast of almost every NFL team and scout that comes through, you could make a movie at some point. It’s amazing, and I’m lucky to help him.”
Coming so far in so short a time, Ziggy Ansah is just happy to be playing on the BYU team and to help out in any way he can.
“My focus right now is on the BYU team,” he said. “I just want to help my teammates be dominant on every play. They’ve been great. I really love them. I love the brotherhood on the team.”
There’s no doubt that Ziggy has a bright future in something he never even knew about four years ago.