As a broadcaster and writer, I am interested in the journeys of people. I believe the stories of athletes are particularly inspiring because it is intriguing to understand what it is that makes an athlete different from the normal person. As a person, I grew up around a lot of people that enjoyed sport and business. That’s all I have ever known and that is where my journey started. As someone who grew up doing sports, I have always felt a lot different to the normal person. My focus, commitment, loyalty and passion for anything I do has always come from the one thing that gave me the life I have now – Sport.
So, imagine only in 2014 my brother called me to tell me about this amazing athlete who had just been drafted to the NFL and the athlete was Ghanaian. I remember this call like it was yesterday because my brother was adamant that, this guy was and will be the next big thing. During the conversation, I was confused because I had never heard of this athlete he was talking about and this is exactly how he described him
“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.”
The pressure was on but I didn’t know where to start. I love all sports and the truth be told, I have only ever watched NFL when I am back in DC, when the super bowl is on or when the NFL visits London. It wasn’t a sport that I followed regularly until I got to know the man named Ezekiel Ansah.
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 278pounds. He was drafted by the Lions fifth overall in the 2013 NFL Draft. He played college football at Brigham Young University in Utah, USA.
But what is the NFL? Because to 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? Why should we pay attention?
NFL stands for the National Football League, the largest and longest enduring professional football league in the United States. The NFL 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. The Super Bowl is among the biggest club sporting events in the world and 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 thirteen; 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 or in Africa simply because they haven’t had the spotlight they deserved. 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 one has made a bigger impact in the league than the one and only Ezekiel Ansah.
Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah has a football story nearly unheard of in the sports world. Ezekiel, commonly known as Ziggy, who had grown up playing soccer in the streets of Accra, Ghana 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 a basketball team for two years, but he was rejected. Not giving up, he also tried athletics but his size caused problems for other athletes, so that career came to an end. Can you imagine?
This sounds almost unbelievable but when you look at Ziggy and his athleticism, you would wonder why any coach would turn this talent down? He is an all-rounder. But he finally made it onto the BYU football team despite having never playing American Football in his entire life. He asked the coach for an opportunity to be part of the team and he got the chance. It was a struggle for him as you can imagine – and he had tried to quit many times, but he was resilient and kept going back and showed the willingness to learn and that is what 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 scholarship for the two of his three years at BYU, so he had to work to stay in school just to carry on with his opportunity of playing football.
When you hear or read Ansah’s story, you can’t help but fall in love with his journey and his mindset. It has truly taken me almost a month to write this article because writing this was very personal to me because of the person Ansah is. I wanted to do him justice with this. 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 but also someone that inspires the next generation while raising the profile and image of the sport.
I remember sitting in a café in Washington DC and reading a tweet from Ziggy Ansah. It was a picture of him and his teammates in London preparing for their NFL International Series. I was so quick to tweet back to ask for the opportunity to interview him. To my shock, he replied and was keen to talk. I remember for the rest of my trip in the states, I couldn’t wait to get on the flight to get back to London. Like a lady with a crush, I became addicted before meeting him. I had heard of Ansah from my brother and I had occasionally followed his progress in the league because he was Ghanaian and because I loved his story, his journey but most importantly, I was inspired by him in his persona and attitude to his work. But why was I taken back by this man? What makes him stand out from the rest? And why should we – fans of sports outside the United States should sit up and pay attention?
To me 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. To me, what makes Ansah special is his ability to adapt to every situation he has been in, his focus is unbreakable and his ability to turn this opportunity into something special for him and his family is simply something astonishing. Because the journey wasn’t only about him but it was about the people who sacrificed and believed in him to become the athlete he is today. 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 black star proud. Ansah is a one in million and that is just him as a person, not the athlete.
As an athlete, what makes Ansah standout is he 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 8 sacks, leading all NFL rookies, and second in Lions rookie history. He was named the Mel Farr Rookie of the Year, honoring the Detroit Lions’ most outstanding rookie and this season, he ties for the NFL lead in sacks (11.5). This is an amazing achievement for someone who just in his third year of playing the sport professionally.
Ansah is a big deal when it comes to defense 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.
And the beautiful thing about all this is, he has just started his career and there is so much more to come and with the NFL growing the game globally, it is important for us all to sit up, pay attention and support the likes of Ziggy Ansah, who is changing the game but also putting Africa on the amp when it comes to American Football.
The NFL over the years have focused their attention on raising the profile of the game internationally. If there is anything I know or understand better, I understand why it is important for the NFL to expand outside of the USA. I have spent the past 5yrs doing this with the NBA. It is big business and this is why we need to pay attention to our own.
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 v Kanas City) 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.
Wembley was filled with over 80,000 fans and the atmosphere was electric. For a sport that is relatively new in England, the fans enjoyed it like it was a regular premier league Sunday and based on a study conducted last year which found that the NFL international series had generated £32m from two games in 2013 and could generate £60m from four in 2016, this year’s economic impact is estimated to be around £45m. To be there to witness it, I am not surprised with the success of the sport globally so far. For me, I was 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 could have in Africa and perhaps, we could have more Ziggy Ansah 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?
Having the opportunity to spend time with Ansah, it has really opened my eyes to why it is really is important to share the journey of this man because these are stories that creates the next heroes like him. 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.
This is probably one of the most personal article I have ever written and this is simply because I have fallen in love with the many possibilities of an opportunity given to a young Ansah, who believed and trusted his vision and journey. He created his own future along with a gained degree in actuarial science, minoring in Business. 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 and with that attitude and focus; you can only expect great things from him. In years to come, he should be seen as one of the great sporting heroes of Africa not just Ghana. I say this because I believe in his journey and so should you.