ACCRA, Ghana — When National Football League Hall of Famer Steve Young started doing charity work in this West African nation six years ago, he had no way of knowing that some of his labors would play a major role in producing a future BYU defensive lineman, let alone a first-round NFL draft pick.
Of course, nobody on Earth could have predicted that a Ghanaian named Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah would burst onto the football scene the same way that he bursts into opposing teams' backfields. Ansah, an NFL rookie who was selected No. 5 overall in the draft last April despite having played football for only a few years, continued his improbable journey this week as he began participating in his first training camp with the Detroit Lions.
"It's a crazy story," Young said.
Young, and his Forever Young Foundation, unwittingly became part of that story — along with a cast of many others.
The former BYU quarterback established the Forever Young Foundation in 1993, when he was still playing for the San Francisco 49ers. After years of charitable giving, Young set up the foundation as a way of giving back on a larger scale. For 20 years, the organization has helped children throughout the United States battling life-threatening illnesses and inner-city kids whose opportunities are limited.
Young's close friend, Elder Robert Gay, who is currently a member of the Quorum of the Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, served as president of the Ghana Accra Mission from 2004-07. Elder Gay was determined to use his resources to help the people in Ghana. Also known for his work with Mitt Romney at Bain Capital, Elder Gay had started his own charitable organization, Engage Now Africa, in 2002. Engage Now Africa started collaborating with the Forever Young Foundation to assist people throughout the African continent.
Forever Young "is committed to fighting poverty, illiteracy, and disease in the countries of Ethiopia, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Namibia. Through the funding of schools, microcredit loans, and humanitarian assistance, Forever Young and Engage Now Africa are empowering Africans to address their challenges with sustainable solutions," according to the organization's website.
"Bob had been a longtime supporter of our foundation," Young said of Elder Gay. "When he was over in Ghana, he began projects on schools and playgrounds, and did it through and with our foundation. So we became international at that point."
In 2007, the Forever Young Foundation began installing playgrounds, Sport Courts and artificial turf fields in Ghana.
The Forever Young Foundation built a Sport Court in Accra at the Golden Sunbeam School, owned and operated by members of the LDS Church — the Opare family. It is believed to be one of the first Sport Courts ever installed in Africa.
"It was the nicest basketball court in Ghana at that time," Sterling Tanner, president of the Forever Young Foundation, said of the Golden Sunbeam Sport Court. "We partnered with a group in the U.S. that generously made it possible for us to put in a beautiful, state-of-the-art Sport Court as well as an artificial turf soccer field."
"Those are things that just weren't around in Africa," Young said. "We put those kinds of things in place there. Now, the fruits have been enormous. I really appreciate Bob for getting us involved. One of the fruits is the story of Ziggy Ansah."
Ansah graduated from Golden Sunbeam and moved on to a different school because Golden Sunbeam did not have a senior high program at that time.
Even though Ansah did not attend Golden Sunbeam anymore, he spent a lot of time on the gleaming Sport Court to play basketball. Prior to that time, Ansah was a talented soccer player, but he had never played basketball. It was on that court at Golden Sunbeam that Ziggy learned how to play and honed his skills. He wowed onlookers with his ability to dunk the ball. At Presbyterian Boys School, Ansah became the MVP of his basketball team.
Meanwhile, the Sport Court at Golden Sunbeam also attracted LDS missionaries serving in Ghana. It was there that Ansah became acquainted with the missionaries, which led to him to joining the LDS Church.
"The new Sport Court that we put in, all the missionaries would come and play there on certain nights," Young said. "Pickup games would happen."
Who knows? Had there not been a Sport Court there, it's likely that Ziggy wouldn't have hung out at Golden Sunbeam as much as he did, and perhaps he wouldn't have met the missionaries, listened to their message, and joined the LDS Church. And Ansah probably wouldn't have ended up at BYU, where he learned the game of football and eventually became a defensive star.
When Young arrived in Accra in 2007, he played basketball with numerous Ghanaian kids.
"I might have played basketball with Ziggy when I was over there," Young said. "I just don't have any memory of it."
The Sunbeam School headmaster, Emmanuel Opare, remembers telling Forever Young representatives about Ansah.
"When Forever Young came to Ghana and visited the school, I introduced Ziggy to them and told them that we were looking for sponsorship for this young man whom we strongly believed had some potential in sports and was also academically outstanding," Opare said. "However, nothing happened. At that time, he was 18 years old and 6-foot-3-inches tall, which in our Ghanaian eyes, was very tall for basketball and therefore merited some consideration."
Tanner recalls his second encounter with the kid known as Ziggy.
"On a subsequent trip to Ghana, the headmaster of the school said, 'Hey, you've got to come watch this kid play basketball.' I actually took a few photos of Ziggy playing on that Sport Court. Now I wish I had taken better photos. You just don't see any great basketball players in Ghana typically. It's a pretty new sport in Ghana. Ghanaians are typically not big. He was easily dunking the basketball, and he was quite a physical specimen. I didn't think anything of it. The headmaster made the comment, 'Someday, he's going to play basketball in the U.S.,' and that was the last I ever thought of him."
In addition to his natural athletic ability, Ansah excelled in the classroom, posting outstanding grades and scoring high on college entrance exams. While waiting to enroll in college, Ansah returned to Golden Sunbeam as a teaching assistant and tutored students in mathematics. After being baptized by Ken Frei, one of the missionaries that taught the gospel to Ansah, Opare confirmed Ziggy a member of the LDS Church. It was the Opare family, confident that Ansah would succeed in the United States, that helped Ziggy apply to attend BYU.
"We strongly believed he would be able to fulfill his dreams in sports," Opare said.
Though, of course, Opare thought that sport would be basketball — not football.
Once Ansah was accepted as a student to BYU, the Opares came to the rescue again by obtaining a visa for him, financing his trip to Provo, and providing funds for him to be a student.
"To the glory of God," Opare said, "upon enrollment, Ziggy was given an academic scholarship by BYU. We saw the potential in that young man and actually took a chance on him, and it has worked. We have big dreams for the children who pass through our school, and we hope to achieve this, one student at a time, in spite of all our challenges, God willing.
"In a nutshell, (Opare's wife) Monica and I feel very proud that we laid the foundation for Ziggy to reach this far. In fact, Ziggy was not only a student of Golden Sunbeam but was more of a son to us. He spent most of his time in our home, and his mother once remarked that she always knew where her son was, anytime she did not find him home. We wish him very well and hope he will visit his alma mater in the nearest future to help others to fulfill their dreams."
Last summer, it was Opare who told Tanner, "Hey, did you know that Ziggy's playing football for BYU?"
Tanner hadn't made that connection, and neither had Young. Then came Ansah's breakthrough season last fall at BYU, the same place that launched Young's legendary football career.
"It's heartwarming and it makes me feel like it's come full-circle, right?" Young said of Ziggy. "I'm just a bit player in it. We're all kind of in it together. These are the things that can come of it. I appreciate everybody's parts in it. These are my closest relationships and my closest friends — Bob, Sterling and (Young's wife) Barb and all of us that work in the foundation. The story is a neat thing for us."
Last fall, Young met with Ansah to get acquainted with him and to provide him with another support system.
"The things that were going to happen to Ziggy were obvious to me, and probably were obvious to everybody else," Young said. "He was going to have some things happen to him where he was going to need help and resources. We got in contact with each other and spoke. I got a meeting with Bob. He has a lot of resources in Ghana and here, the things that Ziggy might need because his family is not here, and just to make sure that he was supported, No. 1. That was the crux of it. And also making sure he was getting good support in finding the right people to represent him. Who would have known that he would be the fifth pick in the draft? But I knew that we needed to make sure that he was supported. That's what started the conversations, and now it's just a friendship. It's making sure that things are going well."
Young describes Ziggy as "soft-spoken. He really wants to please people and make them feel good. Just an all-around great guy."
Ansah has said that, at some point, he would like to return to Ghana and be an ambassador for the NFL and put on clinics for kids, finding ways to offer service to his homeland. That's something that Young would like to help facilitate.
"He's been an ambassador for Forever Young, even though he didn't really know it," Young said. "What we'd love to do is what Bob did for us — which was get him doing his own thing, and we can help him with that and figure that out. Whether he does it with us or through us or on his own, we could be supportive of that kind of a thing. There's plenty of time to do that. It certainly doesn't have to happen all at once. But certainly that he wants to do that is great. We look forward to figuring that out."
Young enjoyed his time in Ghana, and he is planning to return soon.
"They're the happiest people on Earth, everyone you meet," Young said of Ghanaians. "They're a very happy people. For us in the West that have so much, it was a great lesson for me. It was great to see people have so little and be so happy. It really struck me that happiness is not about things. You hear it, but you have to experience it. It changes you a little bit. There are a lot of things I could say about Ghana, but that is the No. 1 thing."
During his trip to Ghana, Young flew under the radar. That's because few people in Ghana know what American football is. The vast majority of Ghanaians do not care about American football. However, because of Ziggy Ansah, that might not be the case for long.
"The only people who knew who Steve was or knew what American football was were the American missionaries over there," Tanner said. "My sense is, that's going to change."
Tanner was attending his son's graduation from BYU on the night of the NFL draft last April.
"It's funny," Tanner said. "I actually heard about Ziggy being drafted by way of Ghana. Emmanuel Opare sent me a text, telling me Ziggy had been drafted No. 5. I don't think he even knew what that meant. He had heard about it immediately from his son, Alma, who was in New York for the draft.
"Ziggy is going to be fun to watch in the NFL. I have a feeling the next time he goes back to Ghana, a few more people are going to know what the NFL is. For a Ghanaian to reach that level of any sport in the U.S., it will be another Dikembe Mutombo or a Yao Ming moment, where you'll see an entire country suddenly embrace not only Ziggy, but the NFL as well."
This week, Tanner and other Forever Young Foundation representatives from the United States returned to Accra. They visited Golden Sunbeam and immediately noticed a giant sign draped across the front of the school, touting Ansah's exploits as a football player. "It all started on Golden Sunbeam's basketball court," the sign exclaims, "where Ezekiel Ansah discovered and nurtured his basketball abilities."
Those who know Ziggy here are proud of their native son and what he has accomplished in the United States — in a sport that they do not understand. They call him "a hero." They will be following his NFL career as closely as they can.
In recent weeks, the rims on the basketball hoops on the Sport Court, installed back in 2007, had to be replaced. They had deteriorated and were falling apart. People here attribute that to two factors — to the humidity in Ghana, and to the ferocious dunks Ansah threw down at the expense of those rims.
Now, Ziggy Ansah, against all odds, is transferring that ferociousness to the NFL. And, as those involved with the Forever Young Foundation and the Golden Sunbeam School will tell you, it all started here.
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company