BYU head coach Coach Mendenhall flew out to New York City to be alongside Ansah at the draft.
"It's been a fantastic experience to be in New York, to be a part of Ziggy Ansah's life for the past three years," said Coach Mendenhall. "It was also one of the highlights, I would say, of my coaching career to be with Ziggy backstage last evening and with his family to see a culmination of three years of hard work provide an opportunity for him to now start the next phase and adventure in his life.
"I'm really pleased that I had a chance to meet his family. I'm very fortunate to have been considered a friend and a mentor to Ziggy and thrilled that he was able to not only balance that but his graduation and remain as humble and hardworking as he been and not lose his sense of humor, which you could see through the 3D glasses that he was wearing during the draft. He is and was the compelling story of the night. I'm spending two or three times as much time with all the interviewers and every possible media outlet available in New York City. He was exhausted by the time the night was over, but it's been well earned and he's already off to Detroit with all his agents and starting the next phase. It was kind of sad for me to see him go, and it's a reality now that he's moving on."
Mendenhall shared one of his favorite moments from the draft experience.
"Man, there were a couple favorite parts, but probably the favorite part … we were sitting in the green room and I was next to Ziggy's mom," Coach Mendenhall said. "And Ziggy was next to her and then a couple of cousins. While we were just trying to alleviate some of the tension a little bit, the NFL provide M&Ms to each table – red, white and blue – so we started playing a little game of just sculpting the M&Ms into numbers of the draft pick we thought Ziggy would go in.
"So we were looking over at each other's numbers and we excluded the red ones, and all you could use were the blue and white ones. And so, I saw Ziggy had himself at number one, and one of his cousins had him at number three and etcetera. We were joking around and I had him at number five, and when Ziggy went as the fifth pick he looked over at me …"
Coach Mendenhall paused while telling his story for a moment and began to laugh as he reflected upon the M&M game. Always the teacher and always the opportunist to be a source of influence, Coach Mendenhall used that moment to remind Ansah, now that he was on the cusp of leaving his side, to always remember the lessons, influences and moral principles his head coach sought to instill within him.
"We've had these kind of moments before where he knew he should have listened but he didn't, and that was kind another one of those moments where at least he knows he's going off to Detroit knowing that I still have some say and influence maybe on what might happen to him."
However, it would be shortsighted to think that, in Coach Mendenhall's mind, a final teaching moment at the Radio City Music Hall would be the pinnacle of his experience with Ansah. That's because there's more to Coach Mendenhall than just teaching sound principles. There is no doubt that having one of his players be a first-round draft pick after earning his degree is the crown jewel of his program's intent.
"It really just optimizes what I believe personally and what I hope to instill or at least influence in our players," said Coach Mendenhall. "From what I saw backstage in the NFL Draft, it really wasn't reflective of necessarily the balance, but it was also a great celebration. So my hope is for all those kids that were backstage that they had a similar experience. You know, that they focused hard on their school work.
"They did what was necessary to not only be great football players, but get their educations as well to help them be maybe the most secure and have the most comprehensive opportunities besides just as a football player. I visited with Ziggy before I left town and he had one more final to take. I could tell that he was really happy, and I think he was proud of himself for the way he's been able to manage it all. I know for his mom, and visiting with her, that particular event had as much or more importance to her than anything else. Now her next focus was making sure he was surrounded by just quality people that he could trust and he could build great relationships with, and I share a similar sentiment to that."
Coach Mendenhall reflected upon the day in which Ansah was given his first small but very important task of special teams coverage on game day.
"When I first knew we had something special in Ziggy, it was the very first live play he actually got in the game," said Coach Mendenhall. "And that was just running down in the kickoff where he was 10-to-12 yards ahead of the next closest cover man, and to see someone that big running that fast, I looked and just thought, ‘Wow, what an amazing thing!' I didn't know at that time … I knew it was special at least for that play, but I didn't know it was special for the NFL."
As time went on, Mendenhall began to see Ansah's NFL potential.
"I didn't think he was a special player in terms of an NFL top-rounder until this past season where he was a down-in and down-out player," Mendenhall said. "And then he had learned our defense so well that we could use him in two or three spots. I then thought, man, for him to have learned this much this fast and be doing it this well with the size and speed that he has, I knew he would then have a great opportunity to go on and play."
It's easy to understand why Coach Mendenhall felt the way he did initially. Ansah was young, raw and very inexperienced. Many of the same perceptions that Coach Mendenhall once had are now had within some skeptical minds in Detroit. Coach Mendenhall wanted to put fans' concerns to rest.
"The potential is unlimited," Coach Mendenhall said. "He's fast enough, he's quick enough, he's strong enough and he's a hard enough worker. He retains information well enough, he's consistent well enough both on and off the field that there really is no downside. He's made the fastest ascent that I've ever heard or, or seen, or even believed was possible in going from not having played the game to being a first-round draft pick. To me there's zero reason why he can't do that from a first-round pick to whatever level they would like him to perform at in a similar timeframe, if not shorter.
"Again, you also need to be reminded – and anyone who is writing or anyone who is listening – this entire coaching staff watched him every single day at the Senior Bowl. When we bring players into our program, if we see them at just one practice in a camp setting, our risk goes way down and we have a great idea of what we're getting. They worked with him for an entire week. They know what they're getting. I know what they're getting, and that in and of itself is a great place to start from in terms of limiting risk and giving everyone great security that he can not only play, but play within the system they want him to play in."
Ansah's unlimited potential, coupled with the manner in which the Detroit Lions are planning to use him, will further help him excel within the NFL.
"Detroit's plans to use him as a wide rusher, it really highlights all of his strengths," said Coach Mendenhall. "He's very quick off the ball, he has long leverage. I think he can become a master at his craft in terms of becoming a true technician only doing pass rush, only handling the edge, only maintaining leverage, and doing it at a super high and at a super fast level. I think that will give him an accelerated opportunity to really contribute for what the Lions will need him to do at a fast course than if he was doing multiple things as we had him do."
So to all the Detroit Lions fans out there, rest assured general manager Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz have made an outstanding decision. Ansah will not only bring a unique amount of athleticism to the Detroit defensive line, but he'll bring a unique personal quality to Motor City not often found among today's athletes.
"Ziggy is a phenomenal person," Coach Mendenhall said. "He would just as soon be out of the spotlight if possible. It was a very interesting thing to see last night where he received the most attention in terms of interviews and the amount of time spent after he was drafted than any other player there. He handles it very well.
"He's conscientious and he has plenty of courtesy and he's kind and very nice, but he would just as soon avoid the limelight. But he is very, very intelligent and he's very smart and he's a practical joker. He has an excellent sense of humor and it will come across in just this naive and unassuming way. That actually makes the punch lines and the different practical jokes he'll play more poignant because you're not expecting it as much."
Because of Ansah's unassuming, caring, humble and fun-loving personality, Detroit Lions fans will come to love him much the same way BYU fans have come to love him in just a few short years.
"He'll endear himself to the fans that will come to watch. He loves little kids," said Coach Mendenhall. "He loves to spend time with the youth in terms of playing with them. He's playful at heart but he's also, again, very bright and cerebral with his math and statistics emphasis. He's very faith oriented [and has] strong morals, strong values, but [is] also youthful where he loves to have a good time. I think for the families in Detroit that are looking for a great role model and a great person, he'll endear himself to the community and they'll just become enthralled and just really love him."
There is no question it will be but a short time before the fans of Detroit fully understand what kind of a special young man Ansah is. The next chapter in his legacy hasn't been written yet and the brightness of his future is still uncertain. But as far as BYU is concerned, the legacy of Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah hopes to continue within the hearts and mind of BYU fans and Coach Mendenhall alike.
It's the hope of many that what Ansah's been able to accomplish and what he will accomplish in the NFL in the future will begin a pipeline to BYU of quality young men of similar talents and character. It is also hoped that what he has accomplished will inspire others holding onto uncertainty to sojourn down that unfamiliar path to BYU much like he did, rather than this incredible tale simply being one extraordinary moment in time for BYU history.
"I'm hoping it's a lifetime of a pipeline," said Coach Mendenhall. "I visited with Ziggy backstage last night and said, ‘The only thing I expect now is for you to go back to Ghana every year and do a camp for kids and start teaching them to play the game. Make sure that you share your morals and values about what kind of person we'd like these kids to be as well as well as what kind of football players.' I think it would be a great way for Ziggy to give back to his homeland, but also help the game of college football and more specifically to help our program at BYU. So, we talked about that and hopefully he might be able to get a foundation going to help facilitate that, but I hope it's not once in a lifetime."
Exclusive Ansah draft day video
Total Blue Sports had representation at Radio City Music Hall in New York to bring BYU fans an exclusive video of Ansah following him being drafted by the Detroit Lions.