By Small Things, Greatness Brought To Pass

When it comes to playing in the arena of higher-level football, deliberate violence and epic brutality unleashes man's inner gladiatorial beast deep from within. With every snap of the ball, the game chews up chiseled athletes with ravenous fervor on the field, the effects felt long after they've hung up their cleats.

Football has come a long ways since a 1905 article in the Chicago Times reporting that 26 players had been killed out on the gridiron. Although 107 years of safety advancements have been made, the college level is no place for on-the-job training. For Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah, he had nothing to lose.

The sane would shy away, and they'd be smart to do, but Ansah took on a most daunting challenge of learning a sport he'd never played before. That day of learning began one day in BYU's locker room when it came time to put on the pads.

"[Ansah] put them on backwards and didn't know how to put them on," Kyle Van Noy said with a smile. "Shoulder pads, hip pads, thigh pads, he didn't know where they went. He tried to put his hip pad in his butt pad and all that. It was kind of bad."

A superstar in BYU's nationally highly ranked defense, Van Noy sat back and simply enjoyed the show.

"I kind of watched and laughed," he said.

In time, Ansah mustered up the courage to ask someone to help him sort out the uniform mess he had made.

"He ended up asking someone next to him, but it was just funny to watch, to kind of sit back and watch," Van Noy said.

"There have been a thousand times where you have to kind of bring him along," said linebacker Brandon Ogletree with a laugh. "It's kind of like in the movie Sandlot when they have to tell the kids what a s'more is. They all know what s'mores are, and they're so surprised this one kid has never heard of a s'more. It's kind of like that with us all the time with him."

Trotting out onto the practice field with his helmet and pads finally located in all the right places, Ansah lined up across from none other than super athlete Kyle Van Noy in one-on-one drills. Van Noy introduced him to the physical world of college football.

"Then he put them on and then, of course, I got to hit him," said Van Noy. "I hit him pretty good and he didn't know what to do. Ever since then, we've became friends."

Following individual drills, it became time for both the offense and defense to square up. Ansah lined up from across his offensive opponent in a rather peculiar way.

"He was like in a little frog stance like he was going to leapfrog or something," said Coach Poppinga.

"The first time he lined up, he looked like he was a crouching frog," said Van Noy with a chuckle. "He didn't know how to get into a three-point stance. It was actually really entertaining."

As the quarterback's cadence rang out from behind hulking offensive linemen, the ball was snapped. Sharpened athletes with technique honed through years of experience flew with a blur in every direction.

"The first time he ever took on a block, he went like this," said a smiling Ogletree while shaking his head. "He had his arms sticking straight out and his hands facing down like he tried to catch the dude with his hands. The funny thing is he threw the dude off of his feet."

Van Noy also recalls that interesting and rather quite comical moment.

"Then when he would take on blocks, like when you would shove someone, he would reverse it to where he would shove someone with his palms up and pick people up and move them," said Van Noy. "So, he didn't know how to keep his hands the right way. We ended up having to correct every little detail about Ziggy so it was fun. It was a fun process."

"He never understood the physicality of the game," said Coach Poppinga. "He just never knew how to tackle. He never understood that you wrap up, run your feet and bring your hips through. It was just a huge learning curve for him."

It was apparent that Ansah's understanding of the game was like that of a child.

"Then he played with really high pad level," Poppinga said. "He didn't understand that he had to be lower than the guy that was coming to block him, get underneath his pads, so he was getting trucked by guys that were half his size. He just didn't understand the whole leverage of it.

"You think that he's here," said Ogletree while raising his hand above his head. "You know what I mean? You think that he's here in understanding, but then he'll say something that makes you realize that he's like a baby."

During his first year of learning the game, Ansah would eventually make the roster based on his raw athleticism alone. The coaches took a chance on him. His job? To run downfield in kickoff coverage on special teams.

"Then his first year we're running him down on kickoff, and he's running," recalled Coach Poppinga. "Not even running to the ball, he's just running. And so, he didn't know that the object of the game was to tackle the guy with the ball."

Majoring in actuarial science, a discipline that applies mathematical and statistical methods to assess risk, Ansah learned the sport of football line upon line. He learned the small details and how to execute them out on the field. In rapid time, he transformed from playing like an infant to playing like a 6-foot-6-inch, 270-pound dominant force.

"It's been really fun just watching him evolve and just seeing his understanding, his awareness and how much tougher he's gotten," said Ogletree. "He used to be the least physical player on the team, and now I would say there's no one more physical than he is. Just his whole mindset has evolved. It's been fun to watch."

"Just to see how far he's come and to now understand that game, I would say honestly he understands our defense," Coach Poppinga said. "And I'm saying all around from our front, to our coverages, to our pass rush, to everything. I would say next to Kyle, there's not another guy that understands it better than him, which is a lot to say.

"He can literally play five positions," continued Coach Poppinga. "He can play all three spots on the defensive line, and he can play both outside backer positions, which goes to tell you how smart the kid is and how fast he's picked up the game. It's just impressive intelligence-wise, he's an impressive kid."

Following an injury to senior defensive tackle Eathyn Manumaleuna against Boise State this year, Ansah was given the starting defensive tackle job.

"I mean, I was surprised," said Ogletree. "I kind of think the Boise State game when Eathyn got hurt, and he came in and played like a stud, I think that's when we realized that this dude really has no ceilings as to how far you he can go.

"It's been really cool to watch how far he's evolved. We're stoked for him and his future and everything he's going to do."

Ansah lit up the stat sheet against the Broncos, recording eight tackles (six solo), one sack, two and a half tackles for a loss and one pass breakup to lead the team. He also stopped a fake punt attempt.

"We knew how good he was, I guess, probably midway through last season when he was just so dominant running down on kickoff," said Ogletree. "He was probably just going to get drafted just off of that if not off nothing else, because he literally dominated that aspect of the game."

With just one game left in his college career, Ansah has played in 34 games at BYU. Over his career he has recorded 67 tackles (34 solo), four and a half sacks, 13 tackles for a loss, six quarterback hurries, and eight pass breakups.

"For me, I always thought Ziggy would do well," said Van Noy. "I didn't know he had first-round potential, but I knew he would be pretty legit at football. He's just raw. He still is raw. But the potential he has is more than anyone I've ever seen play a sport actually, so it's fun to watch and be around and be on a ride with him. No matter what success I have, or that comes to me, I think having someone that succeeds more than you is better than your own. That's why I'm so happy for him, because it's him that's doing it."

After just three years of playing football, Ansah is now projected to be a first-round NFL draft pick. ESPN's mock NFL draft board has him as the 21st pick in the first round.

"It's exciting," Ansah said. "On the other hand, there's a lot of expectations, you know. I know how people are if you make a mistake. Everybody is going to be against you. So I think there is more pressure on me than the word exciting."

Top NFL draft picks can expect to earn anywhere between 25 million to 30 million dollars in multi-year deals worth five-to-six million per year. Does the Ansah family back in Ghana have any idea that their son is about to step through shiny doors of golden opportunity?

"I don't think so," he said innocently.

The reason Ansah hasn't told his family is because he simply doesn't fully understand what it all means himself.

"He just honestly has no clue of everything that's happened to him," said Coach Poppinga. "I mean, being in Sports Illustrated? He doesn't get that. I mean, he's like, ‘Oh yeah, I'm in Sports Illustrated. Cool!' I mean, it doesn't make sense to him. He doesn't know what that means, and so I was talking him about that today and he was just looking at me like, ‘So what's the big deal?'"

"It's overwhelming," Ansah said. "I mean, I'm just a quiet person. I just like, you know, get away from all of this, but sometimes I can't help it. It's good. It helps get my name out there, and I think it's really humbling too. I'm not trying to be all over the place, but if I deserve to be on [Sports Illustrated], then I do."

Even his family has no understanding of what is about to happen. In fact, they don't even know much about football.

"I don't think they know much about it," said Ansah. "My brother [Elias] is just like starting to follow me and he's getting on it a little bit. Not the whole family though."

The reason is simple: no one has been able to watch him play or see his accomplishments on the football field.

However, he is making an effort to change that by making a personal highlight video to send home to his family. That way they can see for the first time his accomplishments and havoc he has wreaked over the course of this past season.

"I'm working on that," he said with a smile. "We'll see how I decide to do it."

With the NFL showing great interest in him, it appears Ansah is on the crest of riding a large wave of wealth – one that a majority of Ghanaians, who live below the world poverty level, only dream of. Ansah is about to win a lottery in a manner of speaking, but doesn't understand what that truly means.

"I mean, I still got a longs way to go, so I still have a ball game to play, the Senior Bowl and the combine," he said. "Anything can happen, so I'm not thinking about that yet."

Most would dream big dreams. With Ansah, he hasn't even thought of what his first big purchase would be.

Not even what his first car or house will be?

"No house, no car," he said. "Not until I get it."

In fact, all this time Ansah's been living in American, he's never even owned a car.

"I have friends," he said with a smile.

"It's cool to see a kid come as far as he's come and be as humble as he's stayed," said Coach Popoinga. "I mean, he's super humble and not got caught up in everything. He's just an impressive kid. I'm lucky as a coach to be surrounded by a guy like that and to see his progression over the past two years."

By being drafted, Ansah's life will instantly change with a lucrative contract. He'll be able to afford any car, and more than one, if he so desires. But as he said, he doesn't think much about that. Instead, he thinks about what it's going to be like when he leaves behind his friends and teammates at BYU.

"It's going to be bittersweet, you know," Ansah said. "I love this institution a lot. It's just going to be sad leaving my brotherhood here. But, I'm going to be going to a different family out there.

"[I'll miss] just the love that I feel in the locker room and in school and in class, everywhere. It's just an unreal thing."

When Ansah talks about ‘going to a different family,' he's referring to his future team. Possessing humility and a childlike innocence, Ansah's naiveté of the NFL world he's about to step into is abundantly clear.

"It's not going to be a hard transition for him because he's such a high-character dude," said Ogletree. "He'll flourish in any situation he's put in. I just think it will be funny to see how he adjusts."

It's clear why Ansah will miss his time at BYU. He has benefitted from the environment and lifelong lessons he's learned, as well as the love and nurturing he's received from his teammates and coaches alike.

"I don't think there is anywhere that you go to a football meeting where you open it with an opening prayer, or read the scriptures and talk about the Savior," Ansah said with a reverent tone. "I mean, there is a main purpose for us to be here on earth.

"I'm going to take what my coaches have been teaching me. We don't only talk about football. They teach you how to be a man, and that is one thing that is going to be stuck to me. It's not necessarily to be a great football player, but to be able to be a [good] father and take care of my family."

Then he paused for a brief moment. His eyes began to water as he drew in a deep breath. His voice began to flutter ever so slightly.

"It's to return back to our Heavenly Father. I don't think he's going to ask you how many tackles you made at the end of the day. He's just going to ask you about how many people you were able to serve while you were down here, so that's all I really want to do out here."

Reflecting upon the past years in which he's had to overcome numerous daunting trials, a fraction of which would have sent the most ambitious man away, Ansah hopes his life's experiences can serve as a beacon for what the human soul can accomplish for those who simply dream.

"Yeah, I'm actually looking forward to that, to be able to speak to the youth and to tell them to never give up," Ansah said. "Everything will work out regardless of how hard it is."

You will be missed by many. More than you'll ever know, Ezekiel Ansah.

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