Ansah brings walk-on mentality to Detroit

NEW YORK — He tried out for BYU’s basketball team — twice — with designs on being the next LeBron James.

Both times, Ziggy Ansah made it through the first round of cuts to the final 10, only to get politely sent home with an invitation to come back again next year.

In the spring of 2010, Ansah walked on to the men’s track team at BYU. He ran the 200 meters with little acclaim, though at 6-feet-5 and with little formal training, he was clearly in a class of athlete unique to himself.

When the track season ended, one of Ansah’s coaches said there might be a sport better suited to his skills — football.

Ansah had never seen the game until he arrived at BYU two years earlier. He grew up in the West African nation of Ghana, in a suburb of Accra, the bustling capital city of 2 million people on the Atlantic coast.

But Ansah liked his experience as a fan, having attended a couple of BYU games as a freshman, and he knew a few football players casually from campus, so he scheduled a meeting with Cougars coach Bronco Mendenhall and asked if he could join the team.

“He asked me a lot of questions, ‘Have you played this game before?’ Do you know how intense it is?’ And pretty much all I said was no,” Ansah recalled. “I don’t know anything about it, but I wanted to try out. And I could tell that he was hesitant, he didn’t even know what to tell me. But he just gave me a shot, go work out with the team, and we’ll see what happens.”

Mendenhall laid out a few ground rules for Ansah’s unusual but intriguing request: Show up for a 6 a.m. workout the next day, he told him, and for the next six weeks you’re not allowed to miss a single workout or a single class.

“A lot of people want to try out, but I wanted to know if he was sincere or not,” Mendenhall said. “So we watched him closely for six weeks, never thought he would make it through six weeks. Most walk-ons don’t.”

But as Mendenhall quickly found out, Ansah was nothing like most


Three years after his introduction to the sport, after sweating through every morning workout that first summer, a humbling set of practices in the fall and two years of little playing time, Ansah emerged as a top NFL prospect, a pass rusher with just nine career starts but so much upside that the Lions snapped him up with the fifth pick of this week’s draft.

He’s expected to play significant minutes as a rookie, as he’s being counted on to help fill the void left by the departures of starting defensive ends Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch.

“We couldn’t be prouder to have him as a member of the Detroit Lions,” Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. “He’s a multidimensional player, he’s good against the run, he’s a very good pass rusher, one of the most instinctive players that we scouted. And like we said (after we took him), don’t mistake inexperienced for instinctive because he has very, very good football instincts and he’s still new to the game.”


Basketball was Ansah’s first love growing up in


The youngest of five children, he watched his brother play the sport and eventually starred at it, too. In fact, it was at a high school basketball tournament back home where Ezekiel Ansah got his nickname.

“I think they wanted to put names behind our jerseys, so they’re like, it’s your turn, what name should we put there?” Ansah said. “One of my friends just said, ‘Let’s just give him Ziggy’ and I think that’s how it all started.”

Ansah earned an academic scholarship to BYU after joining the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Ghana, according to the school’s website. He left his home without much hesitation in 2008 — “I was happy,” he said. “(My mom) was crying when I was leaving, and I was like, I’ll see you later” — and thought a basketball career was sure to follow.

“That has been his ambition that whatever he did in the U.S., wherever he goes, he would be a baller,” said Ansah’s mother, Elizabeth, a retired nurse. “That is what he said to me, whether football, basketball or baseball. So I’m not really surprised.”

Ansah joked at his introductory news conference Friday that when he returns to Utah he plans to visit BYU basketball coach Dave Rose to “thank him so much for not letting me play.”

But Ansah got his biggest break last year when BYU nose tackle Eathyn Manumaleuna suffered a knee injury in the fourth game of the season and missed the rest of the year.

A backup lineman and special-teams contributor up to that point, Ansah started the last nine games, made 4 1/2 sacks and caught the eye of NFL scouts with his blend of size and


“If Eathyn hadn’t have gone down, maybe Ziggy wouldn’t be in the position he was today,” Mendenhall said.


Truthfully, Mendenhall is as surprised as anyone by Ansah’s meteoric rise.

“He’s made the fastest ascent that I’ve ever heard of or seen or even believed was possible in going from not having played the game to being a first-round draft pick,” he said.

But the BYU coach said there are plenty of reasons to believe Ansah will continue on the same high-arching path as a pro.

Even with his limited football background, Ansah was a quick enough study on the field and in the classroom that the Cougars were able to deploy him in a variety roles last year. He played defensive end, on the interior of the line and even outside linebacker.

From a work-ethic standpoint, Mendenhall said Ansah compares to the best player he has ever coached, future Hall of Fame linebacker Brian Urlacher.

“They’re not similar in terms of players,” Mendenhall said. “All I would say is what Brian Urlacher possessed that really struck me, when I was coaching him at New Mexico, was he really worked like a walk-on. He wasn’t expecting or entitled to anything. Ziggy is similar.

“All this is so new to him that he relishes and just kind of takes on every new challenge. While it’s new and different, he won’t walk away from the challenges, he doesn’t see himself above anything and really has kind of an I will work and I’ll prove and I’ll earn my worth rather than I expect anything. Those two things I think the two players have similar.”

The Lions are counting on Ansah to make a similar transition to the NFL.

With Avril and Vanden Bosch gone, two players who accounted for 13 of the Lions’ 34 sacks last year, the opportunity is there for him to start at right end and put up big numbers playing alongside defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley.

Ultimately, whether he succeeds or not could play a big role in the futures of Schwartz and Lions general manager Martin Mayhew, both of whom are entering a make-or-break year.

Mayhew said Lions scouts visited BYU’s campus three times during the season, and coaches spent enough time working with Ansah at the Senior Bowl that they’re confident he can be a playmaker this year.

“I think if we didn’t have the opportunity to coach him at the Senior Bowl, that would have been a bigger issue,” Mayhew said. “But we had the opportunity to work with him and teach him, and we saw the way that he could learn, how quickly he picks things up, and we saw the impact that he had in the game so we felt very comfortable with him.”

Ansah said he feels just as comfortable with the Lions — and after three whirlwind years, with football, too.

“All I can say is that I’ve given a lot for this game,” he said. “It hasn’t been an easy road. I like the fact that I’m able to learn this game quick and just the fact that it’s competitive and it’s a challenge to me. It just drives me. I want to be able to say at the end of my career I was able to achieve all that, and just staying focused and getting better every single day is what I’m aiming for.”


Posted by Tribune News Services

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