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Ziggy Ansah's improbable journey continues in New York

NEW YORK — As of one 23 prospects invited to attend the National Football League Draft at Radio City Music Hall, former BYU defensive lineman Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah is standing on the threshold of another daunting challenge.

His life is about to change — again.

After spending most of three years in obscurity on the Cougar roster, trying to learn the game of football from scratch, Ansah is projected as a first round — many say top 10 — pick in Thursday's NFL draft (6 p.m. MDT, ESPN/NFL Network).

Wednesday morning, as part of draft week festivities, Ansah will join NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in helping lead a youth football clinic at Chelsea Waterside Park in New York City.

Accompanying Ansah at the draft are members of his family — including his mother, Betty. She is flying in from Ansah's hometown of Accra, Ghana, at the NFL's expense. Ansah's family has never seen him play football, except for highlights they've seen on the Internet.

BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall will also be in the Green Room with Ansah at Radio City Music Hall, as will Ansah's agents, Frank Bauer and Dan Van Woerkom of Sun West Sports Associates.

It's been an improbable journey for Ansah, who arrived in Provo several years ago as a newly baptized member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to attend BYU. In 2010, Ansah walked on to the Cougar football team, not having a clue about the sport.

Three years later, he's still learning.

But Ansah has come a long way since he asked teammate Brandon Ogletree last fall the difference between the AFC and the NFC.

"It's really fun to watch Ziggy," said Van Woerkom, an attorney and agent who lives in Pleasant Grove and teaches at BYU's law school. "He deserves it. He's the one who put in all of the hard work. He had to learn all the rules of the game. He had to learn the whole culture of football. And he's still learning it. It's amazing to watch somebody rise so quickly. There's no stopping him. That's what everyone's saying right now, that his potential is unlimited because you can't tell where it stops."

As a first-round pick, Ansah will instantly become a multimillionaire, saddled with big expectations.

The first defensive end selected in last year's NFL draft, Bruce Irvin, signed a four-year contract for $9.34 million with the Seattle Seahawks. He was picked No. 15 overall.

"My biggest concern is hopefully he can handle what he doesn't have an idea is what's getting ready to hit him," Mendenhall said of Ansah. "I've been trying to be helpful to him in who he surrounds himself in terms of agents and mentors and friends, and making sure he's strong in the (LDS) Church and being able to withstand the superficial forces that are going to come after him to help him remain who he is. Ziggy is very intelligent, he's very smart, but he's also very sincere, genuine, humble and naïve in a lot of ways in relation to what he's getting ready to go into. I'd love for him to be able to remain that way."

Ansah almost turned down the opportunity to come to New York for the draft because it conflicts with BYU graduation ceremonies, which also take place Thursday.

But at the urging of friends and others, Ansah changed his mind and decided to attend the draft rather than his graduation when he found out he could still participate in commencement exercises in August.

"I got that figured out," Ansah said with a broad smile. "I get to go to the draft, which is good."

Instead of taking off winter semester and preparing for the draft, Ansah enrolled in the final class he needed to graduate — American heritage. A serious student, he will graduate with a degree in actuarial science with a minor in math.

On the field, Ansah burst onto the college football scene last fall as he displayed his amazing athleticism and play-making abilities. He started attracting extensive attention from scouts, NFL executives and draft experts.

"He honestly has no clue of what's happened to him," BYU linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga said.

Last December, Ansah was featured in the pages of Sports Illustrated.

"He doesn't get that. It doesn't make sense to him," Poppinga said. "I was talking to him about it and he looked at me like, 'What's the big deal?' It's cool to see a kid that's come as far as he's come and being as humble as he's stayed and not got caught up into everything. He's an impressive kid."

Last fall, agents from around the country began stalking Ansah in hopes of signing him as a client.

Because of the overwhelming interest in Ansah, BYU implemented a new protocol, assigning compliance coordinator Adam Sanft to oversee the process of helping Ansah select an agent.

Sun West Sports, a Stockton, Calif.,-based agency, identified Ansah as a potential client and followed BYU's protocol. Van Woerkom has represented former Cougars Chris Hoke, Hans Olsen, Dallas Reynolds and Vic So'oto. Van Woerkom also represents Mendenhall.

"We came to several games and watched Ziggy," Van Woerkom recalled. "BYU started a new procedure where we talk to the Compliance Office and schedule a meeting at the end of the season. We did that. It went from there. We stayed in touch with him. It took Ziggy a little while to make his decision. It takes Ziggy time to make decisions. It certainly didn't happen overnight. It was a lot of work. He decided he wanted to be with us. We signed him, and away we went."

Following an MVP performance in the Senior Bowl and a successful NFL Combine, Ansah is here in New York now, preparing for his next challenge, somewhere with an NFL team.

Ziggy Ansah's life is about to change — again.