PROVO — Right away, Leonard Myles-Mills saw potential in the imposing, soft-spoken stranger standing before him, and he decided to do something about it.
The way Myles-Mills likes to tell it, one day a few years ago, Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah walked into his office on BYU's campus, where Myles-Mills serves as an assistant track coach. Myles-Mills' first impression of Ansah?
"I looked at him, and I said, 'Holy smokes!' "
The 6-foot-6 Ansah introduced himself and told him he was from Accra, Ghana, and Myles-Mills could relate. Myles-Mills is also a native of Ghana, having arrived at BYU on a track scholarship in the mid-1990s. During their conversation, Ansah told him he would like to try out for the track team.
Myles-Mills figured that would be a good idea, and it didn't take long for him to notice Ansah's speed, strength and athleticism.
"What can I do with him?" Myles-Mills wondered. "I thought he'd be a decathlete. But what about the pole vault? He's going to break every pole we have."
During the indoor track season, Myles-Mills had Ansah run a sprint against other athletes, with less-than-favorable results. "He was so big, he hit the guy to his right and bumped him off his lane. After the race, I told him, 'You can't do that. This is track and field.' "
Myles-Mills hadn't seen someone with Ansah's size run like he could — clocking at 21.9 seconds in the 200 meters.
"I asked him if he would like to play football," Myles-Mills recalled. "He was hesitant at first because he didn't know much about it."
Before arriving in the United States in 2008 to attend BYU, Ansah had never seen a football, let alone watched a football game.
But Myles-Mills took matters into his own hands.
"I told him, 'As much as I'd like to help you, you need to play football.' I literally held his hand and walked him up there to the (BYU) football office and dropped him off like child being left at a day care," Myles-Mills said. "I told the coaches, 'You guys have him. He's all yours.' "
In the football office that day was assistant coach Paul Tidwell, who oversees the walk-on program. Tidwell immediately recognized that Ansah looked like a football player, straight out of Central Casting.
"Obviously, my eyes were big and I welcomed him," Tidwell said. "I sat down with him, mapped out the plan, how it works, and what he needed to do. Man, he's become a diamond in the rough."
In just a few short years, Ziggy Ansah, now a senior, has gone from a football novice to a player that's now on scholarship, and many are projecting that he'll play in the National Football League.
"Ziggy's a remarkable story," coach Bronco Mendenhall said. "For this season to go by without acknowledging that three years ago he didn't know how to put on his gear — to now literally he's the talk on the West Coast of almost every NFL team and scout that comes through — you could make a movie about it at some point."
Though the 6-foot-6, 270-pound Ansah picked up football relatively quickly, he is no overnight sensation. It's only recently that he's been recognized as a force on the football field.
In the Cougars' 6-3 victory over Utah State last Friday night, Ansah was dominant, recording five tackles, three tackles-for-loss and two quarterback sacks and two quarterback hurries.
"Ziggy didn't just sack (Aggie quarterback Chuckie Keeton)," said Cougar linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who is Ansah's roommate. "He wrapped him up, swallowed him, and dumped him on his head."
A little more than a couple of years since he started playing football, Ansah has begun to tap into his vast potential. These days, NFL scouts are flocking to Provo to watch Ansah and learn more about him. ESPN commentators are gushing about his jaw-dropping burst into the backfield. Ansah's playing style has drawn comparisons to Jason Pierre-Paul of the New York Giants.
"While he remains a raw, unpolished player at this point, an NFC South scout described Ansah as an 'athletic freak' with unlimited upside," wrote NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks. "If he can continue to put flashes of dominance on tape over the course of the season, it wouldn't be surprising to see Ansah enjoy a late run up the charts heading into the 2013 NFL Draft."
Ansah's teammates appreciate the strides he's made.
"Ziggy has worked really, really hard," said linebacker Brandon Ogletree. "It's paying off for him. It's a lot of fun to see. He's a great kid. It's not just his speed, he's a rare combination of size and speed and aggressiveness. He's finally starting to understand. It's really fun. Every time he makes a play, we get juiced for him because he's put in a lot of hard work and he's come a long ways."
If nothing else, Ansah looks good in a uniform. It was no coincidence that the muscle-bound Ansah was chosen to model the black uniforms in videos promoting Saturday's "blackout" game against Oregon State.
"He's one of us. Everyone has a different path to getting here, and his is just another exclamation mark on our defense," said Van Noy. "All our stories are different, and all meshed together. He means a lot to our defense."
But in between the first day he walked into the BYU football office, and his current role as a starter on the Cougars' defensive line, there were long days and discouraging moments.
Mendenhall remembers his first meeting with Ansah.
"I said, 'I don't know you, I don't trust you and I don't know if you can even make it through a workout.' I certainly didn't believe he would play after watching him go through winter conditioning because he couldn't get enough oxygen to finish a drill. And it didn't look like he wanted to very bad. His English is kind of broken so he wasn't communicating very well. I was then thinking he wasn't interested or wasn't passionate about trying, but he kept showing up every day. I was wondering why. I never thought he would even make it to fall camp. He did, then we helped him put his stuff on and the rest is kind of history. Unlikely would be an understatement that he'd be at this point."
"It hasn't been easy for him," Tidwell said. "There have been times where injuries and soreness and trying to learn the culture of football — not only football, but coach Mendenhall's culture of football — and it's been tough."
Back in Ghana, a third-world nation located in West Africa, the naturally gifted Ansah played basketball and soccer.
He had no clue about American football.
Heck, that first day at BYU practices in 2010, Ansah didn't know how to put on his pads.
"I remember the first time I put on the helmet, somebody smacked me right away," Ansah remembered. "I was like, 'Oh man, this is going to be miserable.' My teammates helped me put on my stuff and I just went out there."
As a newcomer to the sport, Ansah learned everything from scratch.
"We do a drill call the pursuit drill. It's by far the hardest drill we do," said outside linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga. "He could only do one rep. He'd fall on the ground, pass out, and be lying on his back."
During Ansah's first fall camp, the team was going through the chow line and Tidwell happened to be on the opposite side of Ansah.
"Ziggy, are you having fun?" Tidwell asked.
"No, not yet," Ansah replied.
Tidwell asked Ansah that question every year during fall camp.
"This year, I asked him and he said, 'Yes.' It's been a long road for him," Tidwell said. "It's like learning a new language. Everything's new. You don't understand certain things and terminology. It's been fun to watch him progress and become the player that he is."
Ansah started out on special teams, and then learned how to play with the defense.
"I thought he could become something special," said Tidwell. "There were times when you'd see bits and pieces and say, 'Wow.' On kickoff cover, for example, he could not be blocked. He's run over two or three people getting down field. He didn't always make the play, but he was fast and physical and tough and nobody could block him. Then you put him in the game and he'd make a mistake. Then other times you'd think, 'This kid is going to be special.' It was a growing period."
Last spring, Mendenhall mentioned "NFL" and "Ansah" in the same sentence, prompting skeptical reactions from some reporters and fans. Ansah was expected to be a backup outside linebacker when the season started, but due to some injuries on the defensive line, he has found a home there. Through six games, Ansah has 27 tackles, including 8.5-for-loss, three sacks and three pass breakups.
So far this fall, Ansah seems to be proving he has the ability to play after college.
Invariably, people compare Ansah's story to the movie "The Blind Side," which chronicles the improbable rise of Michael Oher from homeless kid that didn't know much about football to first-round NFL draft pick.
Among the obvious differences, of course, is that Oher protects quarterbacks. Ansah devours them.
Ezekiel Ansah's football journey began when he joined the LDS Church at age 19.
An LDS family that he knew in Ghana encouraged him to listen to the missionaries and he did. Ansah was impressed with the family, their good moral values and their unity.
After three or four months, Ansah chose to be baptized, though some in his family opposed that decision.
"It wasn't easy joining the Church," he said. "My siblings weren't too happy with me. My parents just told me if I thought it was right for me, I should do it."
Ansah wanted to come to the United States and go to college. The missionaries who taught him asked what his career plans were. He told them he wanted to play in the NBA, like his favorite player, LeBron James.
In Ghana, Ansah loved basketball and played for Presbyterian Boys' Secondary School.
"You want to play in the NBA?" the missionaries asked. "You're in the wrong place. You need to go to BYU."
The missionaries helped Ansah submit his application papers to BYU, and he was accepted.
Even before he tried out for the track and football teams, Ansah tried out for the BYU basketball team twice. He was cut twice, but he made an impression, recording a vertical leap of 39 inches. Ansah reportedly can touch the rim with his elbow.
"Obviously, that didn't work out too good for me," Ansah said of his hoops tryout. "I love the sport, but it didn't work out. There's a good reason why they didn't choose me."
Apparently, he was destined to play football instead.
Yet Ansah is not just your average jock. He is majoring in actuarial science with a minor in math.
"He's a very brilliant student, a really smart kid," said Myles-Mills. "I asked him how he did in school one semester and he said he had a 3.3 or 3.4 GPA and he said he didn't do very well. He's very ambitious. He wants to do well in school. That is No. 1 for him."
Ansah learned to speak English in Ghana, and he also speaks Twi and Fante, two local Ghanaian dialects. His favorite food is fufu and peanut butter soup, a Ghanaian delicacy.
Those who know him describe him as quiet and fun-loving.
"He's a very funny kid," said Myles-Mills. "He looks very serious when he's coming at you. He's like a big teddy bear — really tough on the outside, soft on the inside. That's the humility that comes with his attitude."
Because of the distance between Provo and his homeland, Ansah isn't able to see his family very often. After the season-opener against Washington State, Ansah, who is the youngest of five siblings, flew to New York City to spend the weekend with his mom and sister. He hadn't seen them in four years.
At BYU, meanwhile, Ansah has been embraced by his football family.
"My teammates been great," he said. "I really love them. I love the brotherhood on the team. They not only praise me for what I do, but they tell me my mistakes and how I can get better. I really appreciate that."
Back in Ghana, very few people know about Ansah's college football exploits. But in Provo, he's become a celebrity. Everyone seems to know about Ziggy.
"Every time there's a football game, my kids say, 'Dad, are we going?' " Myles-Mills said. "I ask who BYU is playing and they'll say, 'We want to watch Ziggy' before they tell me who BYU is playing. He's a household name right now. Everybody knows him. I went to buy fertilizer for my yard last weekend and the sales guy and asked me if I knew anyone on the team. I said, 'Yeah.' I said, 'Who do you think that would be?' He said, 'Ziggy?' I said, 'Yeah.' Watching BYU football is always fun, but knowing him, what he's gone through to get there and to see him get all of those tackles, it's so much fun watching him."
And there's a chance football fans will be watching Ansah on Sundays. Ansah admits that thoughts of playing in the NFL dance in the back of his mind.
"If I said I don't think about it, then I'm lying," he said. "But I try really hard not to think about it. I just focus on helping my team and doing my thing here in college."
Will Ansah end up in the NFL? If it happens, who knows? Maybe Hollywood will make a movie about it.
"Ziggy's picked up a knowledge of the game faster than anybody that I've been around," said Poppinga. "This is a guy that came from Ghana three years ago. All of the sudden, two years ago, he played his first year of football, not knowing anything. Very similar to the guy in 'The Blind Side.' He didn't know how to get in a stance or do anything. He didn't know how to play with his hands. And how fast he's picked up everything has blown me away. Seriously, it's unbelievable."
Cougars on the air
No. 10 Oregon State (4-0) at BYU (4-2)
Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MT
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