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Jeff Benedict: Former BYU standout Ziggy Ansah making a big impact with Detroit Lions

Published: Sunday, Aug. 2 2015 7:26 p.m. MDT

Ezekiel Ansah shakes hands with fans during Detroit Lions fall camp. (Jeff Benedict) Ezekiel Ansah shakes hands with fans during Detroit Lions fall camp. (Jeff Benedict)

At this time one year ago I had never heard of Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah. It’s fair to say few people outside of Provo had. Certainly nobody in the NFL knew his name. Why would they? Ansah’s claim to fame was that he didn’t know how to put on his shoulder pads when he walked on at BYU. He wasn’t even a starter when I covered BYU’s season opener last year against Washington State.

Back then it was hard to fathom this scene that I witnessed two weeks ago at the Detroit Lions training camp in Allen Park, Mich. It was a few minutes past nine on a picture perfect Sunday morning. U2’s “Beautiful Day” pumped through the sound system. More than 2,000 fans decked out in blue and silver looked on as Ansah emerged from the locker room wearing No. 94. Kids chanted “Ziggy, Ziggy” as he stepped onto the practice field to stretch.

Ziggy Ansah during defensive line drills at the Detroit Lions fall camp. (Jeff Benedict) Ziggy Ansah during defensive line drills at the Detroit Lions fall camp. (Jeff Benedict)

Camp had been underway for a few days. But this was the first day in pads. I thought to myself: What a difference a year makes.

In April, Ansah was the fifth overall pick in the NFL draft. In May he signed a four-year, $18.6 million contract that included an $11.9 million signing bonus. All eyes were on him when he dropped into a three-point stance for his first pass rushing drill. How would the big rookie perform?

Answer: Fast. On the snap of the ball, Ansah exploded past a veteran offensive tackle. Untouched, Ansah pummeled a pop-up dummy representing a quarterback. It was a bang-bang play that had the left tackle cursing, the coaches smiling, and Lions’ beat writers nodding their heads with approval.

I spent a few days observing Ansah and interviewing his teammates and coaches at training camp. Everyone agrees that the evolution of Ziggy from Ghana to BYU to the NFL is unprecedented.

Ziggy Ansah during defensive line drills at the Detroit Lions fall camp. (Jeff Benedict) Ziggy Ansah during defensive line drills at the Detroit Lions fall camp. (Jeff Benedict)

"For a guy to go from not knowing how to strap on his shoulder pads to being the fifth pick in the NFL draft just doesn't happen," said Lions defensive line coach Kris Kocurek. "I've never seen anything like it. Especially in the position he plays. Ziggy is out there taking on 300-pound men."

Ansah is as surprised as everyone else. "I can't believe I'm doing this," Ansah told me after his first scrimmage. "I pinch myself every day. I get paid to play. It's something I can't really comprehend.

"I'm just grateful for this opportunity," he continued. "I want to make the most of it. So I approach every day as a day to get better. You can't be the best in just one day."

It’s that kind of approach – gratitude and humility – that has endeared Ansah to his teammates and his coaches.

Fans of the Detroit Lions watch players during the NFL team\'s fall camp. (Jeff Benedict) Fans of the Detroit Lions watch players during the NFL team\'s fall camp. (Jeff Benedict)

It also helps that Ansah is performing extremely well on the field. He has memorized the defensive schemes and is always in the right position.

“The sky is the limit with Ziggy,” said Lions head coach Jim Schwartz. “He doesn’t have a lot of experience. But he’s a very instinctive player. He’s really aware. He gets things. He picks up schemes quickly. He knocks down passes and plays screen passes. He breaks the mold.”

He’s also proven that he’s capable of adapting to any situation. When he came to BYU as a freshman from Africa he had to get used to extreme differences in culture and weather. The transition from the college game to the pro game is just as extreme.

"It's like an all-star game every day," Ansah said. "Everyone is big. Everyone is fast. Everyone is strong. It's very different than college."

The lifestyle is different, too. But Ansah’s teammates on the defensive line have embraced him. "This is a brotherhood," said 12-year veteran defensive end Israel Idonije. "The guys who come in and accept the culture will be accepted and nurtured by the other guys. We want to help a guy who buys into the system. That's what Ziggy has done."

As soon as Ansah arrived in Detroit the players started taking him out. They even took Ansah to his first Major League Baseball game, which they watched from Justin Verlander’s private suite. Ansah is now a Tigers fan.

“I love the city of Detroit,” Ansah said. “I love the people here and the atmosphere.

One reason Ansah has quickly become a favorite on the team is his attitude. Despite being a first-round draft choice, he expects no special treatment. After the first day in pads, starting quarterback Matthew Stafford removed his helmet and shoulder pads, set them on the ground, and hustled off to do some media interviews. Ansah stayed behind for some additional coaching instructions. Then he gathered up Stafford’s gear and headed off the field.

As Stafford entered the locker room, Ansah held up his gear. “I got you,” Ansah said, grinning. Stafford smiled. “Thank you.”

“He’s one of those guys that’s just a pleasure to be around,” said Lions VP of Communications Bill Keenist.

These days every GM and head coach in the NFL knows Ziggy’s name. When the Lions open the preseason against the New York Jets on Friday, Ansah will be starting at defensive end. Soon he’ll be getting personally acquainted with NFL quarterbacks.

Jeff Benedict is a special features writer for Sports Illustrated. His new book — The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football — will be released next month. It features chapters on his experience covering BYU’s program

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company