The first time I ever heard of Ezekial Ansah was in August 2010, during BYU’s fall camp. It was nothing of note, no big thing, even though Ansah, himself, was an extraordinarily large man. A large project. A large well-this-is-sort-of-curious-so-let’s-wait-and-see-kind-of-deal. He was easy to miss. Easy to dismiss. He had a cool name and a good frame, he ran a little track, and other than that … nobody seemed to care all that much. Not the media, not even the coaches, not nobody.
We were all wrapped up in who the Cougars’ starting quarterback was going to be: Jake Heaps or Riley Nelson? Riley Nelson or Jake Heaps?
Talk about missing the point. Talk about whiffing on the real story. Talk about a lack of vision.
It’s laughable to think back on that now.
A kid nicknamed Ziggy from Ghana — or was it Nigeria or the Ivory Coast or Sierra Leone? — who after converting to Mormonism actually came to BYU as a serious student, wanting to play college basketball, hiding in the corners of the Indoor Practice Facility somewhere, trying to figure out the basics of … how you say, American football? Of course, none of us knew much of that back then. After his first practice that fall, the story did surface about the West African sprinter who had to be shown how to put on his shoulder pads.
Other than that … nothing.
The not-so-real news was over with the quarterbacks, where a spotlight was burning hot on a couple of guys — one who transferred out of BYU and the other who completed a spotty career there — who will never touch the football heights now within the reach of the unknown athlete.
Speaking about Ansah, after that first fall practice, Bronco Mendenhall told reporters: “He’s a work in progress.”
Translation: “I have no clue.”
Neither did Ziggy.
Neither did any of us.
Show me one person who says he thought at that time the embryonic defensive lineman, an individual who had never played a single down of football, would be projected just two-and-a-half years later as a top 10 pick in the NFL draft and I’ll show you someone short on truth and long on lies.
Once he mastered the art of donning his equipment, though, the 6-foot-5, 270-pound Ansah started turning heads, even though necks were a little stiff. A year later, nearly to the day, Mendenhall told The Salt Lake Tribune’s Jay Drew: “Ziggy will play for us in nickel situations rushing the passer this year. We kind of go step-by-step, and that’s a good place for him to start.”
A week later, he made the two-deep chart as an outside linebacker. Through his junior year, his biggest impact for the Cougars was on special teams.
Heading into last season, his senior year, Ansah was still a backup who Mendenhall planned on using at linebacker and defensive end. Ansah eventually took a spot on the line because of injuries to other players. This is where, on the short route from nothing big to something big, a critic could wonder how an athlete special enough to be considered one of the best in the 2013 NFL Draft could be considered not good enough to start against the kind of competition Ansah was facing among teammates at BYU. On the other hand, his development during his senior season, when he watched NFL games on TV to garner tips from players such as Clay Matthews and Jason Pierre-Paul on rushing the passer, was ridiculous, despite moving around to different positions. By the latter half of it, he was causing major problems for opposing offenses that weren’t sure what to do with him. He had eight tackles, for instance, against Georgia Tech, including a sack that was the first the Jackets had given up in a month.
By November, NFL scouts were paying close attention and Ansah was being contacted by dozens of agents. In December, he was invited to play in the Senior Bowl, a significant occurrence considering his dominant performance in that game shot him up draft boards around the NFL. His showing at the NFL Combine did nothing to level that rise. Any number of teams badly want him.
Now, his rocket ride to pro football is a few hours from being complete. He’s likely to be taken in the first hour — maybe the first half-hour — of Thursday night’s first round. After that, his steep climb begins again. He knows he has much to learn, a lot of football to play and a whole lot of money to make.
“It’s been a crazy journey,” he recently said, shaking his head at the wonder of his own story.
Everybody knows Ziggy’s good frame and cool name now. The large man is … larger, still, suddenly difficult to miss and impossible to dismiss.
Gordon Monson hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM, 1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.