Provo • It was about this time last year, in the middle of BYU’s 2012 spring football camp, when coach Bronco Mendenhall first put the name of seldom-used defensive end and outside linebacker Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah, a walk-on, and the National Football League in the same sentence.
When Mendenhall had finished extolling the freakishly athletic virtues of the player who put on football pads for the first time in his life just two years before that — incorrectly, as the much-told story goes — and had been in on only 10 tackles and one quarterback hurry his first two seasons, several reporters walked away from the pack laughing.
Did Mendenhall just say the football neophyte “could be a tremendous story” and “an NFL player if he continues to do what he has done the past two years”?
If Mendenhall wasn’t such a no-nonsense, serious-as-the-IRS coach, it could have been seen as a decent April Fools’ Day ruse.
Guess who’s laughing now?
The 78th annual NFL Draft begins Thursday at Radio City Music Hall in New York City (6 p.m. MT, ESPN), and the 6-foot-5, 275-pound Ansah not only will be taken in the draft, but he will be taken in the first round, perhaps in the top five.
“Hollywood could make a movie out of it,” Mendenhall says now, “but nobody would believe it.”
Colorful quarterback Jim McMahon is the highest NFL Draft pick in BYU history, going at No. 5 to the Chicago Bears in 1982.
Ziggy, who got that nickname from former BYU defensive end Vic So’oto because that’s what the name Ezekiel sounded like when he introduced himself to his skeptical teammates, also had to be shown how to lift weights, a tutorial that began at 6 a.m. each day because that’s when Mendenhall insisted the newcomer do his workouts, as a test of his dedication.
And then there was the first time Ansah tried to get into a defensive stance back in 2010.
“He got down on all fours,” recalled linebacker Kyle Van Noy. “He looked like a frog.”
Three years later, he is ready to hop over dozens of All-Americans to the top of the NFL Draft.
In his latest projections, ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has Ansah going at No. 2 to the Jacksonville Jaguars, who desperately need a big-time pass rusher. Kiper’s cohort, Todd McShay, has Ansah going at No. 5 to the Detroit Lions.
“He has enjoyed his meteoric rise up the [draft] board more than any other player in my 35 years covering the draft,” Kiper told The Salt Lake Tribune. “I would say two to Jacksonville or five to Detroit — at worst, eight to Buffalo. Anywhere between two, five and eight is where he could come off the board, which is amazing considering he was off the radar, completely undrafted, when the season began.”
McShay generally has not been as high as Kiper on Ansah’s prospects, but has gradually changed his tune the last month or so.
“Three years ago he didn’t know how to put on his shoulder pads, and now we’re talking about him as a top-five pick,” McShay said, shaking his head. “You just never know. ... If he is dedicated to it and willing to put in the time and energy and exhaust himself with his game, he’s got a chance because he’s got the natural tools to succeed.”
Even in 2012, when he finally earned a starting spot after Eathyn Manumaleuna left the Boise State game with a season-ending knee injury, Ansah did not put up eye-popping stats in every game. He finished the season with 13 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, one interception, nine pass breakups and one forced fumble in addition to 62 total tackles.
Through this whole remarkable journey, which began when missionary Ken Frei converted Ansah to the LDS Church in his native Ghana and suggested the LeBron James wannabe attend BYU and try out for coach Dave Rose’s basketball team (which he did twice, and was cut both times), Ansah has approached everything with a sense of amusement, and tenacity.
“It has been good,” he said last month at BYU’s Pro Day. “I am just taking it [casually], taking it day by day. I don’t know what is going to happen in the future, but I am enjoying every single minute of it. I am having a good time with it. You can’t stress too much about it, so I am just trying to let it flow.”
Don’t bother asking Ansah the usual pre-draft question about his favorite NFL team growing up. He didn’t even know the league existed until he got to America in 2008, and once last season famously asked BYU senior linebacker Brandon Ogletree, himself an NFL Draft hopeful, what the letters NFC and AFC meant. When he got his first fumble recovery last season, he seriously thought he got to keep the football.
Does he know how to work hard? The question alone makes BYU coaches such as Kelly Poppinga laugh out loud.
Here is a guy who didn’t receive a scholarship until his senior year and worked for years on the BYU janitorial and grounds crews to pay his way through school. Last fall, with the national spotlight growing bigger and bigger, he took and aced four statistics classes, often bolting from practice because it was his turn to lead a study group.
Although many suggested he take winter semester off and prepare for the draft, he still took the last class (American Heritage) he needed to graduate and earn his degree in actuarial science so he could walk with his class on Thursday. Alas, Ansah will miss graduation because he will be in the Big Apple with his family from Accra, Ghana, this week. His parents, Edward and Elizabeth, have never seen him play a down of football, except on replays, but they have taken a crash course on the sport via the Internet.
Ansah agreed to be one of 23 players in attendance only when he learned he could walk in August.
“At the [NFL] Combine, everybody was infatuated with the kid, impressed with him and what he did,” said his agent, Frank Bauer of Stockton-based Sun West Sports. “Ziggy is a breath of fresh air. He is very grateful for what is going on.”
Hollywood should be, too, if Mendenhall knows what he is talking about.
2010 • Joined BYU’s squad in the spring, played football for the first time and saw action in six games as a sophomore, making three tackles
2011 • Played sparingly in 12 games as a junior, recording three solo and four assisted tackles
2012 • Started nine games as a senior, becoming a starter only after Eathyn Manumaleuna suffered a season-ending knee injury against Boise State in the fourth week. Finished with 62 tackles, 4.5 sacks, one interception and one forced fumble
2013 • Shined at NFL Combine in Indianapolis, zooms up draft boards around the league
O Thursday, 6 p.m.
TV • ESPN