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NFL draft: BYU's Ziggy Ansah hopes to promote the NFL in Africa

Published: Thursday, April 25 2013 9:35 a.m. MDT

BYU's Ziggy Ansah participates in the NFL "Play 60" event for kids prior to the 2013 NFL draft. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU) BYU's Ziggy Ansah participates in the NFL "Play 60" event for kids prior to the 2013 NFL draft. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU)

NEW YORK — Sporting fluorescent yellow shoes and socks, Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah stood out among nearly two dozen National Football League prospects.

And not just because of his bright-colored attire.

The soft-spoken Ansah flashed his 100-watt smile frequently while he and other NFL hopefuls taught hundreds of New York City schoolchildren football skills at a Manhattan park Wednesday.

Ironically, it wasn't that long ago that Ansah, a native of Accra, Ghana, was learning those same drills himself — in 2010 — when he tried out at BYU having never played football before.

With skyscrapers and sunny skies serving as a backdrop on a beautiful spring morning in the Big Apple, Ansah clearly had fun during this youth clinic sponsored by the NFL.

BYU's Ziggy Ansah participates in the NFL "Play 60" event for kids prior to the 2013 NFL draft. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU) BYU's Ziggy Ansah participates in the NFL "Play 60" event for kids prior to the 2013 NFL draft. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU)

"It was good," said the 6-foot-5, 271-pound defensive lineman. "I really enjoyed being out here."

So much so that Ansah would love to be an ambassador for the NFL someday, promoting football in his homeland of Ghana, where, for now, there is little interest in the sport.

"That's what I want to do," Ansah told the Deseret News. "It's something I want to try to do after I'm done playing — take it back to Africa and help the little kids with it."

While Ansah's meteoric rise in popularity — he was surrounded by an army of reporters after the clinic ended — is expected to continue soaring when the NFL draft begins Thursday (6 p.m. MDT, ESPN/NFL Network) at Radio City Music Hall, the NFL could also take a leap forward in popularity in the soccer-loving, West African nation of Ghana.

BYU's Ziggy Ansah participates in the NFL "Play 60" event for kids prior to the 2013 NFL draft. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU) BYU's Ziggy Ansah participates in the NFL "Play 60" event for kids prior to the 2013 NFL draft. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU)

Ansah is projected to be a top-10 pick in the draft, and four other foreign-born players also could be selected in the first round. It could go down as the most international-oriented draft in league history.

But Ziggy Ansah's unlikely story is unique, even among foreign players — featuring elements that inspire movies.

"It would be a best-selling book, or a box-office smash if anyone of real quality told the story," BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall has said. "That I was able to be part of it in some way has been one of the highlights of my career (at BYU)."

Among the many media outlets that conducted interviews with Ansah on Wednesday included the London-based BBC.

"You're here with a number of NFL prospects that have great stories, but none more extraordinary than yours," the BBC reporter said before firing off questions.

BYU's Ziggy Ansah participates in the NFL "Play 60" event for kids prior to the 2013 NFL draft. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU) BYU's Ziggy Ansah participates in the NFL "Play 60" event for kids prior to the 2013 NFL draft. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU)

Ansah's first connection with BYU began when he met LDS missionaries serving in Ghana. From there, Ansah joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, became a BYU student, and, eventually, gave football a shot after being cut twice from the Cougar basketball team. Football, as it turned out, was the sport he was destined to play.

NFL officials say they are intrigued by Ansah's willingness to promote the game overseas, but that probably won't happen until he's established himself at this level.

Mark Waller, who hails from England, is the chief marketing officer for the NFL — the United States' most popular league.

"We've got a lot of interest from players who realize the great opportunities to represent 'The Shield' (the NFL) outside the United States," Waller told the Deseret News. "This sport is only going to grow, and we're going to get more and more international players. You're seeing that this year. It's a huge opportunity for them, and a huge responsibility. To take a game like ours globally is a great responsibility."

BYU's Ziggy Ansah participates in the NFL "Play 60" event for kids prior to the 2013 NFL draft. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU) BYU's Ziggy Ansah participates in the NFL "Play 60" event for kids prior to the 2013 NFL draft. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU)

Former BYU and NFL tight end Chad Lewis has done extensive work promoting the NFL in China. Lewis served an LDS mission in Taiwan in the early 1990s.

"We've got a great fan base growing there in China. He's fantastic," Waller said of Lewis. "He's fluent in Mandarin. He has a huge passion for the game and for that country. That's important. You want players who feel responsibility for the game and for the country that they want us to grow in."

And what about the sport's popularity in Africa?

"It's probably not quantifiable. It's obviously small. But it's growing," Waller said. "The more media exposure we get, the more accessible we are on digital media, the more it's going to grow. Every time we have international players come into the game, it's a step forward. The more visibility and the higher the pick, the better that is. We have a great roster of international players this year."

BYU's Ziggy Ansah participates in the NFL "Play 60" event for kids prior to the 2013 NFL draft. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU) BYU's Ziggy Ansah participates in the NFL "Play 60" event for kids prior to the 2013 NFL draft. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU)

That roster includes SMU's Margus Hunt (Estonia), Florida State's Bjoern Werner (Germany) and Alabama's Jesse Williams (Australia).

Is there a future for football in Ghana?

"It's been awhile since I've been back in Ghana, so I don't know," Ansah said. "But I've heard from a few of my friends that people there are starting to watch it. So I think it's growing out there."

No doubt, if Ansah is drafted high in the first round, expect that West African nation to have an increased interest in the NFL.

Or at least in a native son named Ziggy.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company