In 2014, my brother, who knows about these things, called me to tell me about this amazing athlete who had just been drafted to the National Football League in the US.
‘Yo, his name is Ziggy Ansah. He is a beast on and off the pitch. He is killing it in the NFL. Why don’t you know this? Why don’t you know him? He is Ghanaian too… Come on, woman… Research and tell his story.’
Ezekiel Nana ‘Ziggy’ Ansah is a Ghanaian-born American football player, who plays at the defensive end for the Detroit Lions of the National Football League. He is 6’6 tall and weighs 278 pounds. He was drafted by the Lions fifth overall in the 2013 NFL Draft. He played college football at Brigham Young University in Utah, USA.
It’s easy to forget about the NFL, an American institution which hasn’t been exported yet. For someone like me, originally from London via Ghana, it is hard to understand what this sport is and why we should be excited about it.
The National Football League is the largest and longest enduring professional football league in the United States. It is made up of 32 teams, in two conferences, the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC). The team that wins the AFC championship faces the winner of the NFC championship in the Super Bowl at the end of each season.
Today, the NFL has the highest average attendance 67,591 of any professional sports league in the world and is the most popular sports league in the United States. Individual Super Bowl games account for many of the most-watched television programs in American history. The team with the most NFL championships is the Green Bay Packers with 13; the team with the most Super Bowl championships is the Pittsburgh Steelers with six. The current NFL champions are the New England Patriots, who defeated the Seattle Seahawks 28–24 in Super Bowl XLIX.
And over the years, we have had many Africans who have played in the league successfully and have gone unnoticed globally and in Africa. To name a few of the Ghanaian players who have played at a higher standard within the league – this includes the likes of Jonathan Yao-Lante Asamoah, Edmund Kugbila, Charles Yaw Peprah, Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, Ernest Owusu, and Chris Owusu. But no African player has made a bigger impact in the league than Ezekiel Ansah.
zekiel, commonly known as Ziggy, grew up playing soccer in the streets of Accra, Ghana and really wanted to be a basketball player in the NBA. He didn’t initially approach the football team on his arrival to the Brigham Young University (BYU). Instead, he tried out for basketball team two years in a row, but he was rejected. He also tried athletics.
He had to work to stay in school just to carry on playing football.
‘Coming out of Ghana, growing up, I use to play sports all over the place. Trying out for football in the states, the coach said it’s not like soccer. I said I know but please give me a shot.’
He finally made it onto the BYU football team despite never having played American football in his entire life. He asked the coach for an opportunity to be part of the team and he got the chance. He was resilient and kept showing his willingness to learn. He won the hearts and minds of the coaches. Even though, he had won the hearts of the coaches, teammates and the BYU community and fans, the team didn’t know if Ziggy would return each season as he didn’t have the money. He didn’t have a scholarship for the two of his three years at BYU; he had to work to stay in school just to carry on playing football.
Ziggy is not a big media guy, he is extremely private and keeps himself to himself. I have sat for hours and hours watching videos, listening to interviews, talking to him and the feeling I get each time is the passion that Ansah has to be something special. He wants to inspire the next generation while raising the profile and image of the sport. He is also someone who intrigues those around him.
‘He reminds me of some of the great players I’ve seen,’ says Gunther Cunningham, the senior coaching assistant at the Detroit Lions. ‘With Ziggy, you really don’t notice it until you look at the tapes how many plays he’s made that are almost the side of impossible. People said he didn’t have football instincts. Well, I guess if you grow up in Africa, you get some instincts. I don’t know what he has, but he finds the ball really quickly. His future is bright. Ziggy stays within himself. He’s not a showboat. There’s a lot of blessings when it comes to him.’
As a Ghanaian, who also grew up in Accra along with many others, it is easy for me to understand the struggle and the challenges Ansah would have gone through in his journey but also why it was important for him to make something out of the opportunity he gained. Because the journey wasn’t only about him but it was about the people who sacrificed and believed in him. He loves his family; he is strong in his faith; and he is committed to making himself, family and the red, gold, green and the Blackstar proud.
‘I am not going to lie to you; it wasn’t easy at all at first. But I kept working harder every single day.’
Ansah has only been playing pro football for two years. He signed a five-year rookie contract with the Lions on May 10, 2013. Ansah finished his first year with eight sacks, leading all NFL rookies, and second in Lions rookie history. He was named the Mel Farr Rookie of the Year, honouring the Detroit Lions’ most outstanding rookie and this season, he ties for the NFL lead in sacks (11.5). It is an amazing achievement for someone who just in his third year of playing the sport professionally.
‘I had a little emotional moment with the coach on the sidelines. This is just the beginning for me. Double digits could be any number. But I am really grateful to be here,’ Ansah said after his record-breaking achievement.
Ansah is a big deal when it comes to defence for the Detroit Lions and in the NFL. He is solid, a great pro who is getting better and better by the day. He is tough mentally and physically. He can do just about anything; he is a physical guy. There are not too many ends in this league who are as giftedly talented as he is. There’s a reason he was able to pick up the game so quick – he is simply very intelligent.
Arriving in London after my trip to Washington DC, I had the opportunity of meeting Ansah. I was nervous to say the least. But I had no reason to be because he was the perfect gentleman. He offered me the opportunity to watch him play at Wembley arena (Lions versus Kansas City Chiefs) along with his awesome big sister Elizabeth Giddings and her two amazing sons Nick and Chris. A great afternoon in the cold, singing, dancing (even made it onto the big screen with his big sister dancing) and appreciating what the NFL is all about. I even found myself, arguing with Kanas fans in the stands and screaming for the lions throughout the game. After the game, his sister had whispered to me,
‘Do you know they made Ziggy the captain for the team for this game? Don’t forget to say congratulations.’ The joy and pride in his sister’s eyes filled me with joy. Ansah’s rise to the top in the NFL means a lot to everyone around him.
Stories like these create the next heroes.
Wembley was filled with over 80,000 fans and the atmosphere was electric. I am not surprised with the success of the sport globally so far. But I am perplexed as to why we in Africa are not jumping at the opportunity of celebrating our own in the league but also growing the sport back home?
Why can’t we do this in Africa? Maybe I am jumping the gun because I am besotted with our very own Ansah and I can see the potential this sport has in Africa. Perhaps, we could have more Ziggies in the league in years to come. But in order for that to happen, don’t we first have to keep putting the spotlight on the ones who are shining and making the continent proud?
tories like these create the next heroes. Because there is nothing we can’t do from Africa and there nothing stopping us supporting talent that will one day share knowledge with the continent.
Ansah was that guy; no one knew of him; he came out of nowhere; he didn’t have it but always found a way to make it happen. This has never happened in the history of college football or the journey to the NFL. Ansah is someone who is never ever going to give up. With his attitude and focus, you can only expect great things from him; he will be seen as one of the great sporting heroes of Africa not just Ghana.