Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series on former BYU standout and current Detroit Lions defensive end Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah.
ACCRA, Ghana — A sprawling city with a population of 4 million people, Ghana’s capital is filled with shantytowns and modern, concrete buildings.
Open sewage systems run parallel to the busy streets, and women clad in bright-colored clothing carry containers of fruits, nuts and other goods on their heads to sell. There are picturesque beaches dotted with palm trees, and, in some places, traffic congestion.
Known as the gateway to West Africa, Accra is an intriguing blend of modern and third-world.
Generally speaking, Ghanaians are humble and happy. They are spiritual people. Names of many businesses carry Biblical or Christian references, such as “God Is Great engineering — truck and diesel repair.”
Taxis and buses have phrases like “With God,” or "Psalm 23," or “Freedom,” or “Stay Cool” emblazoned on the back for all to see.
Located on the northern outskirts of Accra is the suburb of Adenta, where former BYU and current Detroit Lion defensive end Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah grew up.
There is one tangible indication that this is Ziggy’s hometown.
Draped across the front of the Golden Sunbeam School in Adenta is a giant banner that draws attention not just because it is striking, but also because it seems so out of place in this West African nation that reveres soccer players, not football players.
And it leaves no doubt that Ansah is an alum of the school.
The high-quality color sign features images of Ziggy being drafted, standing next to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and former Lions star and NFL Hall-of-Famer, Barry Sanders; Ziggy participating in the NFL combine; and Ziggy collaring a Georgia Tech quarterback last season during his senior season at BYU.
“Imagine the possibilities with A Golden Sunbeam Educational Experience,” the sign exclaims. “Now drafted into the NFL, Ezekiel is the FIRST Ghanaian national to ever play pro American football & he is a product of Golden Sunbeam School!!!”
Golden Sunbeam’s bespectacled, gray-haired headmaster, Emmanuel Opare Sr., wore a dark suit and carried an iPad when he welcomed a visitor from Utah in July.
As Opare Sr. points to the sign, he smiles with pride. And he has every reason to — he and his family made it possible for Ansah to attend BYU five years ago.
He’s not surprised at all that Ansah has made a name for himself in the United States.
Ziggy excelled in everything he did in school in Ghana. He earned straight A’s in the classroom. He was assistant student body president. He even sang bass in the school choir (he was the only bass in the choir). As a teenager, he served in the equivalent of Ghana’s naval ROTC, achieving the rank of regimental sergeant major. In class photos, he towers over the other students. And, of course, Ziggy stood out because of his height and athleticism, both on the soccer field and on the basketball court.
A different sport
So what was Opare Sr.’s reaction when he found out that Ansah had started playing football?
“I said, ‘Wow, when did he learn to play American football? On TV, American football is kind of rough, violent — always trying to push someone down. How did this boy get into this? We sent him (to Utah) because of his interest in basketball. He told us he wanted to be an NBA star. This came as a surprise when we heard he was playing football. We saw a clip of him and he was always bringing people down. I don’t know if that was his role. But he did it effectively.”
Adenta residents know Ziggy, and they’re pulling for him.
“They think he’s a hero,” Opare Sr. said. “That’s why we have that sign. Everyone wants to be like him.”
Said Opare Sr.’s son, Emmanuel Opare Jr., who also works at Golden Sunbeam: “In the eyes of the students here, he is a hero. He is a role model. You have students from Ghana, Nigeria and Ivory Coast here. He has touched students indirectly because of what he’s achieved.”
Opare Jr. attended college in the United States, and knows something about football. When he learned that Ziggy was playing the sport, he was concerned.
“I was like, ‘Man, your knees! What is going to happen to you?’” he recalled. “At first, I was worried for him, for his safety. I didn’t think he knew the sport well enough to be safe. I kept telling him to be careful. I asked him, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ This is where we are. I knew Ziggy could do it, but I just couldn’t fathom this guy from Adenta playing football. He was a person who did not even want to hurt a fly. In football, people are hitting you. It brings out a whole different dimension of you that you’ve never experienced.
"And it did. He’s a beast. That’s a part of Ziggy that we don’t know, which football has brought out of him.”
Left in awe
The average yearly salary in Ghana is about $2,000. So when Ghanaians find out that Ziggy signed a five-year NFL contract that will pay him a reported $18.59 million, with an $11.9 million signing bonus, it’s something they can’t fathom.
It’s hard for most Americans to fathom that kind of money.
At a recent PTA meeting at the Golden Sunbeam School (Ziggy’s sister has a young child who is among the hundreds of students that currently attend the school), the Opares shared Ziggy’s story, and mentioned his massive salary.
“The parents were in awe,” said Opare Jr. “They couldn’t believe it.”
The Opares encouraged parents to have their children participate in extracurricular activities, just like Ziggy did.
“The thinking here is too academic. Everyone wants their children to be doctors and lawyers,” Opare Jr. explained. “Ziggy’s success gives us something to talk about. I told the parents that engaging in extracurricular activities is what gave him an edge. Even where his intellect has helped him, his physical ability has earned him more. Sports, music and other activities are seen to be for the guys who have nothing else — those are the things they do. Even though people enjoy watching Ghana play (soccer), there is a stigma attached to it. They say, ‘These guys weren’t smart enough.’
"Ziggy is showing that’s not always the case. Now, that kind of thinking is changing to the extent that when we did our career day, we had some soccer players among us. They dressed in soccer jerseys. Their professional thing is soccer; that’s what they do in their careers. Now, because Ziggy took sports seriously, this is the money that he is earning. That began to change the attitudes of the children. They have seen a connection. Some of the children knew Ziggy personally. They know he was very smart. He taught some of them. They see what he is doing now.”
Learning the game
Even though football is much different than soccer or basketball, Opare Jr. said Ziggy applied principles and skills he learned in Ghana to that sport.
Opare Jr. said the time Ziggy spent in the Ghanaian ROTC served him well.
“In terms of his mental focus and discipline, in cadets, he has a lot of focus,” he said. “It takes a lot of hard work. You learn to stand in one place for so long and do drills that require discipline. I think some of the things that he’s exhibiting on the football field has prepared him somehow. He doesn’t quit. That shows on the football field.”
Two years ago, Opare Jr. and Ansah had a conversation about football. “He was a very good soccer player here. He made a statement that he carried onto the football field. It is a soccer philosophy — ‘If you miss the ball, you don’t miss the man. And if you miss the man, you don’t miss the ball.’ The same thing applies to football. Ziggy used his God-given abilities well. When he began to shine, it came easy for him and it pushed him forward.”
In Ghana, as the saying goes, kids are born playing soccer. They grow up playing soccer with socks or oranges or anything else that is round, if a soccer ball cannot be found.
“Ghanaians are glued to soccer. That will never change,” Opare Jr. said. “It is morning, afternoon, evening. They listen to it on the radio, look at it in the newspapers, watch it on television. If you would have been here a couple of months ago, everyone was watching the World Cup on television. That is the kind of feel here. When Ghana loses, the whole country is as quiet as if someone has died. That is how the people feel about soccer. Football would take some time to get the same kind of emotion behind it.”
Does American football have a future in Ghana?
“The media plays a huge role,” Opare Jr. said. “People here haven’t made the connection between the sport on TV, and what it is in real life. ‘We know about American football.’ That’s where the conversation ends. I think Ziggy is the only one who will be able to move it forward.”
Ansah has stated on several occasions since being drafted No. 5 in the NFL draft last April that he wants to return to Ghana someday to give back to his people and to his country. He would love to put on football clinics and teach kids in Ghana the game.
“I think he will do that,” Opare Jr. said. “I think he wants to build a gym to give youth the chance to experience things like this. I actually believe he will do it. I have no doubt.”
Perhaps some more hidden football talent, like Ziggy, will be discovered.
“There are many people like him in Ghana, if only they are identified, and they have the opportunity,” Opare Jr. said. “I believe Ghana American football can beat America’s best football teams. I think so, if our ability is developed here. We have some really skilled, talented athletes. It would be a very tough competition. But they have to learn the game.”
If Ziggy could do it, why not?
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company