He hasn’t really changed. He’s still that sweet person that I knew. Ziggy was high-spirited, a cheerful person. He was always smiling. —Matthew Lamptey, on Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah
Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series on former BYU standout and current Detroit Lions defensive end Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah.
ACCRA, Ghana — Walking briskly through the bustling outdoor market, the two friends were searching for something specific — but not easily found — here in Ghana’s capital city.
And they were running out of time.
Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah and Matthew Lamptey wandered around the busy market on that day in 2008 hunting for basketball shoes. Not just any basketball shoes, but ones that would fit the size 15 feet of Ansah, who is much taller and bigger than the average Ghanaian.
Lamptey remembers that experience well. It was the day before his good buddy, Ziggy, was to leave his homeland of Ghana for the United States, where he would enroll at BYU.
“We combed the whole market for shoes and we couldn’t get his size,” Lamptey recalled, smiling. “Everywhere we went, they told us they didn’t have his size. We finally found some, and we bought him two pair to play basketball.”
At the time, Ansah’s dream was to go to school and become a National Basketball Association star, like LeBron James.
But fate had something else in mind.
Some five years later, Ziggy Ansah is playing in the National Football League. Ansah, the former Cougar who was the No. 5 overall pick of the Detroit Lions in April, recorded three tackles and a half sack in his official NFL debut last Sunday in a season-opening 34-24 victory over the Minnesota Vikings.
Through regular emails and text messages, Lamptey — who currently works as a teacher at the LDS Missionary Training Center in Tema, Ghana — has kept in touch with Ansah over the years.
“He hasn’t really changed,” said Lamptey, who met Ansah in school. “He’s still that sweet person that I knew. Ziggy was high-spirited, a cheerful person. He was always smiling.”
When Ansah left Africa, he had little money or material possessions, but a lot of talent and goals — and he didn’t have a clue about football. Today, Ziggy is a multimillionaire, a professional athlete, a college graduate, a role model, and the pride of Adenta (located on the northern outskirts of Accra), Ghana.
Indeed, this hometown boy has made good.
Lamptey has never seen a football game in person. But, thanks to modern technology, he has watched Ansah play this violent sport. He has Ziggy’s football highlights and interviews downloaded on his laptop.
“I keep showing people how far my friend has gone. I’m so proud of it,” Lamptey said. “I don’t really know much about American football, but it is fascinating to me the way the game is. I wonder how they do it. I just wish I could go one day and see the game in person. It looks interesting.”
Watching Ziggy play football is an odd mental juxtaposition for Lamptey, because the Ansah he knows is good-natured, kind and gentle. It’s hard for him to believe it’s the same person inside that helmet and shoulder pads, chasing down quarterbacks and tossing them to the ground — which, essentially, is Ziggy’s job description.
The nickname, “Ziggy,” means passive, easygoing and friendly.
“In our African culture, people go by other names,” Lamptey said. “If there’s something peculiar about you, I can use that and give you a name that you and I know. Then I’ll just call you one of those names. We laugh about it and make fun of it.”
Ziggy’s given name, Ezekiel, is a Hebrew word that means “God strengthens” or “the strength of God.”
To Lamptey, Ansah’s physical metamorphosis, because of football, is stunning. Ziggy went from a skinny kid to a muscle-bound, 6-foot-6 giant that now weighs 270 pounds.
“It’s so surprising to see him now, how big he is,” he said. “But I can never miss that smile. It just brings back old memories. We’d sit together on the grass on the (soccer) pitch and crack jokes and laugh. He was so cheerful. We were really good friends. We’d just laugh and smile and people would be wondering, ‘What’s wrong with these guys, laughing and being happy?’”
When the fun-loving Ansah showed up at the NFL draft at Radio City Music Hall in New York City wearing 3-D glasses, it made perfect sense to Lamptey.
“That’s part of his personality,” he said. “The kids at school really loved him so much. Everywhere he went, they’d chant, ‘Ziggy, Ziggy, Ziggy.’ He was so fun. Everyone is talking about Ziggy. They’re happy for him.”
While living in Ghana, Ziggy harbored big dreams and he eventually achieved them — just not in the way anyone, including Ziggy himself, expected. More than anything, to many people in Ghana, Ansah represents something that transcends the NFL. He is the embodiment of the American dream.
“I am so happy to see him reach such heights,” Lamptey said. “It’s a great motivation to me and to others. I’ve read about, and I know about, so many athletes, musicians and presidents. Having someone I know personally reaching such heights is such an inspiration to me. I know him. I grew up with him.”
Ziggy frequently confided to Lamptey during his time at BYU, as Ansah struggled to adjust to a new sport, not to mention a new culture. Going from the humid, tropical climes of Ghana to the thin, dry mountain air of Utah was not easy. Until his arrival in Provo, Ziggy had never seen snow or a football game. Ghana's population is 99 percent black, while at BYU, less than 1 percent of the student body is black.
And, of course, his hoop dreams never materialized. Twice, Ziggy tried out for BYU’s basketball team. He was cut both times.
“He told me how challenging things were and that he needed to work hard to make things right,” Lamptey said. “There were times when he told me that he was a bit down and things weren’t going so well in school. There was a time that school re-opened and he did not go the first day. I was trying to find out what was wrong. I tried to encourage him. Things got better. He doesn’t give up. That’s one thing I know him for. He works hard until he achieves something, especially the things that he’s focused on. He never loses focus. He’s very hard-working.”
Displayed in Lamptey’s bedroom is a photo of Ziggy, wearing his Detroit Lions uniform.
“It’s nice to have it hanging on the wall,” Lamptey said. “That’s my friend. He’s made it.”
Lamptey is one of many Ghanaians who will be clicking through the cable TV channels, and surfing the Internet, over the next few months, searching for glimpses of Ziggy’s exploits with the Lions.
No doubt, from thousands of miles away on a different continent, they’ll be watching his rookie season — and his NFL career — intently.
Even if they have no clue what Ziggy is trying to do on the football field.