Editor’s note: This is the third in a three-part series on former BYU standout and current Detroit Lions defensive end Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah.
ACCRA, Ghana — During his teenage years, Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah spent most of his time in the home of the Opare family.
Emmanuel Opare Sr. and Monica Opare have been like parents to him.
“Somewhere along the line,” Monica said, “he became my son. He calls me 'Mom.'”
One of the Opares’ biological sons, Alma, who graduated from BYU and currently lives in Utah, had been Ansah’s teacher at the Golden Sunbeam School in Accra years ago.
Ziggy was drawn to Alma, and he spent most of his time in the Opare home, playing video games, eating meals, and participating in various activities associated with a typical LDS household, such as family prayer and family home evening.
“We took interest in him. He was always in our house,” Opare Sr., the Golden Sunbeam School headmaster, recalled. “Sometimes we had to tell him, ‘Why don’t you go home? It’s getting dark.’”
“We took him in as part of the family,” Monica said. “When Alma left for (an LDS mission), Ezekiel replaced Alma in the family.”
Throughout that time, the Opares had been careful to not talk to Ziggy about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because they didn’t want his family to think they were exerting too much influence on him.
Later, Ziggy met LDS missionaries while playing basketball on the Sport Court at Golden Sunbeam and ended up joining the LDS Church.
This past July, at the Golden Sunbeam School, the Opares showed a reporter a photo album filled with pictures of Ansah serving in the Ghanaian ROTC, singing in the choir, and dunking a basketball at the Sport Court. They made a photocopy of a transcript of his perfect grades at Golden Sunbeam, where he attended from fourth grade through ninth grade.
“Everything started from here,” Opare Sr. said. “He went to another school for senior high because our school just went through the ninth grade. When he finished there, he came back here again as a teaching assistant. He was good at math, so we put him to help those who were weak at math to coach them. That is Ezekiel for you.”
It was the Opares that arranged for Ansah to go to school at BYU. They helped him apply, and paid for him to travel to the United States.
When Ziggy was drafted No. 5 overall by the Detroit Lions in April’s National Football League draft, Alma was one of the handful of people Ziggy invited to be with him in New York City for the once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Through Alma, the Opares kept close tabs on Ziggy in Provo, following, from a long distance, his many ups and downs.
At one point at BYU, Ziggy expressed a desire to serve an LDS mission, according to the Opares. But he didn’t want to place a burden on his family. He wanted to pay for it himself.
“I know he still has that desire to serve,” said Emmanuel Opare Jr.
Ziggy later told the Opares that playing football could be a way for him to share the gospel.
“We’ll see about his mission on the football field,” Opare Jr. said, chuckling. “Teaching the gospel while bumping someone.”
While Monica regularly worried about Ziggy while he was at BYU, one day she saw something on her computer screen that bothered her. It was a picture of Ziggy sporting a dreadlocks hair style, and Monica groaned. She didn’t like it at all.
“I said, ‘What is my son up to?’” she remembered with a smile. “We called him and asked him to cut it off. I told him, ‘Ezekiel, I don’t think I like to have my son with this kind of hair. I do not think I like this hairdo. This hairdo looks like somebody who is a ruffian.’’”
Not long after that conversation, Ziggy obediently cut off his hair.
Avoiding the spotlight
The Opares were sorry to inform a reporter, who had traveled 7,000 miles from Utah to Accra, that Ziggy’s family wouldn’t be doing any interviews.
That morning, Monica Opare went to the Ansah home, located a few blocks up the dusty road from the Golden Sunbeam School in Adenta, to remind Ziggy’s mother, Elizabeth, about the interview with the reporter.
Ziggy's mom is a tall, reserved woman. She had done some interviews when she was an invited guest of the NFL to attend the draft in New York City in April.
After that overwhelming experience, Elizabeth accompanied her son to Detroit. Then it was off to Provo, so she could see where Ziggy had spent the previous four years of his life.
But Elizabeth, a registered nurse who is naturally shy and soft-spoken, felt she had said some embarrassing things during interviews in New York City.
One thing she said that week did make headlines, but it wasn’t something she said directly to the media. BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall told reporters that in the Radio City Music Hall green room just before the draft began, Elizabeth asked Mendenhall what the chances were of an NFL team from Utah drafting her son. Mendenhall, of course, had to explain that there are no NFL teams in Utah. It seemed like a humorous, harmless anecdote.
Perhaps that’s what Elizabeth felt had embarrassed her son.
“She doesn’t know anything about football,” Monica explained. “She said something that was not correct, that she didn’t know much about. She feels she embarrassed Ezekiel. She’s afraid of making more mistakes, and more people will hear about it. That’s what her main concern is. She doesn’t want to make mistakes. I don’t know what mistakes she made. Ezekiel told her, ‘Mom, you make my friends tease me.’”
That’s why Elizabeth declined to be interviewed, despite Monica’s concerted efforts.
“When I went there this morning, I said, ‘You need to talk to the reporter. Ezekiel is your son,’” Monica said. “She told me, ‘You know Ezekiel is your son. I gave Ezekiel to you. He’s your son. So why don’t you say everything? You know more than I know about Ezekiel.’
"I said, ‘Yes, but you gave birth to Ezekiel before you brought him to my school.’ She said, ‘I gave him to you and you took charge of him. All I know is, you sent him to BYU. That’s all. You know the whole story.’”
Staying the course
Around the time Ziggy was drafted, the BBC Radio network produced a story about Ziggy that aired on a Ghanaian station. Ansah’s older brother was interviewed. The report helped elevate Ziggy’s status in Ghana, but he remains relatively unknown. That’s not surprising because, when it comes to sports in Ghana, soccer is unquestionably king.
Apparently, the Ansahs are trying to come to grips with all of the changes in Ziggy’s life. He is the youngest of five children and the only member of the LDS Church in his family.
At one point before Ziggy left for the United States, Monica said, one of Ziggy’s brothers advised him that once he arrived in America he should cut off ties with the Opares and live his own life.
“Is that what you are going to do?” Monica asked Ziggy one day.
“No. My brother thinks I joined the church because I want you to help me,” Ziggy told her. “I didn’t join the church because I wanted you to help me. I joined the church because I can see the gospel is true.”
While Elizabeth has been supportive of her son — she faithfully attended Ziggy’s school events and even his LDS baptism — Monica said some of Ziggy’s family members remain skeptical.
“They never liked Ezekiel’s decision to be with us,” she said. “I get scared that if Ezekiel doesn’t turn out well, this whole family will blame me. I took their son away from them and look what became of him. I am responsible. I still worry about him.”
The Opare family continually prays for Ziggy, and they hope for the best for him. They hope he’s true to himself and that he’s able to avoid the temptations and potential pitfalls that come with being a professional athlete. They want him to be a success — not just in the world’s eyes, but, more importantly, in the eyes of his country and in the eyes of his church.
“My only prayer is that he continues to stay a role model,” Opare Jr. said. “I recently sent him an email. I told him, ‘The media can be your friend, but it also can be your worst nightmare.’ He needs to represent himself well, and his country. He represents his nation and his religion. I think Ziggy understands that. The hope is that he keeps remembering that.”
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company