Jabari and Ziggy.
Two great names. You might think they are reggae singers or hip-hop performers. But if you are a BYU sports fan, you know better.
Jabari Parker is considered the best high school basketball player since LeBron James. He made a recruiting visit to BYU last week.
Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah is a BYU football star from Africa, and he's projected to be a first-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft.
I've gotten to know Jabari and Ziggy pretty well. Six months ago, I wrote the Sports Illustrated cover story on Jabari. This week in Sports Illustrated, I've written a feature on Ziggy.
Both guys are real-life characters. This past Halloween, Jabari dressed up as the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and wore one Shaquille O'Neal-size sneaker to school. Ziggy routinely wears glasses — just rims, no lenses — to appear more intellectual. The NBA and the NFL need a couple guys like this.
Before profiling Jabari, I did a lot of background research on him. Then I approached his parents and obtained permission to spend time with Jabari at home, at school and on the road with his team.
The profile on Ziggy was more accidental. Three months ago, I had never heard of him. Here's the backstory that led to the magazine profile.
I'm currently writing a book on college football called "The System." Doubleday will publish it in September 2013. My co-writer is Armen Keteyian from CBS News/60 Minutes. Back in the summer, we chose a handful of teams to follow through the season.
One of them is BYU. So I was in Provo for BYU's season opener against Washington State on Aug. 30. The guy I was really there to watch was linebacker Kyle Van Noy.
About an hour before kickoff, I was on the field. With time to kill, I scanned BYU's roster, checking for players from states other than Utah. My index finger stopped on No. 47, Ezekiel Ansah, from Accra, Ghana.
I just couldn't picture Bronco Mendenhall recruiting in Ghana. It is a small country on the west coast of Africa, between Liberia and Nigeria. Accra is its capital. I've spent time there as a journalist. So I knew firsthand that Ghanaians don't play American football. They don't even know what it is. They play soccer.
Naturally, I figured Ezekiel must be a kicker. But he was listed at 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds. Not exactly the build of a soccer player.
None of this made sense.
As the Cougars took the field to warm up, I looked for No. 47. He was easy to spot. Turns out he's 270 pounds, not 250. And sculpted. I saw no one built like him during my travels to Ghana. There wasn't even anyone built like him on the football field.
When the game started, I observed that Ezekiel was not a starter. But he saw some action and made three tackles. He also terrorized the quarterback.
Plus, he had the appearance of a player who could have been on the Green Bay Packers in the Lombardi era — high-top cleats, socks pulled up to his knees, a clump of grass imbedded in his facemask. I couldn't help wondering when, where and how this guy learned to play America's most violent team sport. That night I learned his nickname is "Ziggy."
As the season progressed, I went on the road with BYU, and Ziggy eventually cracked the starting lineup in the fifth week of the season. Here's the crazy part. By the time BYU played Georgia Tech in Atlanta in late October, Ziggy had soared to the top of NFL draft boards. By then I was talking to NFL personnel and my editor at the magazine.
The fact is that the football odyssey of Ziggy is a modern-day Book of Mormon story. Five years ago, Ziggy was an Anglican in Africa who had never seen American football, much less played it. Today, he is a Mormon in America who has a chance to do what the vast majority of college football players only dream of — getting paid to play their sport.
Mormonism, it turns out, was Ziggy's pathway to the gridiron. Ken Frei, a BYU student from Idaho Falls, baptized Ziggy while on a mission in Ghana. But for that, Ziggy doesn't discover America's secular religion — football.
After baptizing Ziggy, Frei encouraged him to attend BYU. Six months later, Ziggy was rooming with Frei in Provo. Frei took Ziggy to his first football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium. Eventually, Ziggy walked on. That's part of the story I tell in Sports Illustrated.
Another element of the SI story is the unsung role of Van Noy. He is the most NFL-ready player on BYU's defense and may be the best defensive player to wear a Cougar uniform during Mendenhall's tenure. Early on, the team assigned Van Noy to room with Ziggy on all road trips, which afforded Ziggy the opportunity to learn the game from a future pro. "Kyle is like a brother to me," Ziggy told me. "I love him."
I've grown to love Kyle, too. I know it is unusual for a journalist to use those words about a subject. But I've spent a great deal of time with Van Noy this year. And he will be a major player in "The System" when it comes out next year. All I'll say here is that I can't think of a better mentor for Ziggy.
With Ziggy, there is an undercurrent of destiny. Consider that Frei met Ziggy on a basketball court in Ghana. Their common love of basketball turned them into fast friends. The interesting thing is that Steve Young partnered with Engage Now Africa to build the sports court where Frei and Ziggy met. The school's headmaster, a Mormon, allowed the missionaries to play pick-up basketball games there. And Ziggy worked there as a teaching assistant.
I called Young while writing the Sports Illustrated story on Ziggy. The former BYU quarterback still keeps close tabs on the Cougars. So he's familiar with Ziggy. But he had no idea that the court he helped build in Ghana proved to be the meeting place between Ziggy and the Mormon missionaries.
"The idea that Ziggy's story began there is heartwarming to all of us," Young said.
Nor did Frei set out to convert a football star. That wasn't the mission.
"But," he told me, "It is a nice side benefit."
Jeff Benedict is a special features contributor for Sports Illustrated and the author of 11 books. His website is www.jeffbenedict.com.
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