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Ziggy Ansah dons cap and gown prior to heading off to NFL draft

NEW YORK — Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah couldn't attend Thursday night's BYU graduation ceremonies in Provo, so a few BYU officials brought graduation to him.

Just hours before the start of the NFL draft at Radio City Music Hall, Ansah donned a cap and gown (provided by BYU), and posed for photos with his mother, Elizabeth Cole, who arrived from Ghana on Wednesday, and other family members and friends in his Manhattan hotel room.

"I'm the one only with my own cap and gown," Ansah joked.

Ansah's mom was thrilled to be in New York for this once-in-a-lifetime occasion. "I am extremely proud of him for graduating from college," Elizabeth Cole said.

Ansah's past, present and future intersected Thursday in New York City. He celebrated his graduation from BYU, he celebrated the start of his NFL career — and he was surrounded by many of those who are closest to him.

In the four years since he left Ghana for Provo, Ansah has seen his mother only one other time, last September, when they spent time together in New York.

"I'm so happy that she is here," Ansah said. "I can't put it into words. You can't explain the feeling."

It just so happened the NFL draft coincided with commencement exercises at BYU. Ansah originally planned to stay in Provo for graduation rather than attend the draft.

He changed his mind once learning that he could participate in graduation festivities in August. However, reality is, he may not be able to take part in commencement exercises then, either, because he'll likely be in the middle of NFL training camp at that time.

"We'll see what happens," Ansah said.

Ansah has attracted considerable attention for his football skills, but he is much more than a football player. He graduated from BYU with a degree in actuarial science, with a minor in math. Ansah puts the student in the term student-athlete.

While many future NFL stars stop attending class after football season is over to concentrate on preparing for the draft, Ansah finished up his final class — American Heritage — this past semester so he could graduate.

Of course, getting an education, not playing football, was the reason he came to the United States in the first place. Along the way, in serendipitous fashion, he became a standout defensive end coveted by NFL teams.

Fittingly, one of those who joined Ansah in New York was Alma Ohene-Opare, who taught English to Ansah in Ghana. Ohene-Opare's family operated a school in Ghana where Ansah attended.

"I thought his potential was more in academics," recalled Ohene-Opare, who moved to Utah from Ghana years ago. "What we knew Ziggy for was his smartness. He topped the school in academics. There was a time when we as a school needed to prove ourselves. He was one of the kids who made that happen for us because he is so smart. He got a perfect score on the standardized test, which is like the SAT. He was the smartest kid in our school."

It was Ohene-Opare's family that did much of the legwork and paperwork that made it possible for Ansah to enroll at BYU, and the family helped out financially so he could fly to Utah from Ghana.

"Education is very important in Ghana," Ohene-Opare said. "The way you help Ghana is to get educated. That gets you out of that kind of economic prison. It liberates people. We demand a lot of our kids. Ziggy proved himself."

Chris Washburn and his wife Nancy were also with Ansah in New York on draft day. The Washburns and their five children have known Ansah for a few years, and Ansah has been living in the Washburns' home in Lindon since the end of December.

"He started coming over to our house, and he turned into a member of the family," Chris Washburn said. "He's like a big brother to my kids. He's just part of our family."

Ansah serves as a tutor for the Washburn kids.

"With our younger girls, he's very patient. He tutors them with math and spends hours with them," Washburn said. "He's tutored our 15-year-old on chemistry. He tutored our 12-year-old on algebra and geometry. He would look at my daughter and say, 'Are you getting it?' She'd say 'Yeah.' He told her, 'You're not getting it. Go for a walk around the kitchen and come back and we'll do it again.' He's a very patient person, to take the time to spend hours helping them. It's a neat thing.”

Ansah’s twin passions have always been his education and sports.

Elizabeth Cole said her son grew up playing soccer and basketball. "He is a person who is determined. He is always gentle, ready to help," she said. "I was expecting him to be a basketball player and he ended up on the football team. I am happy for him."

After the draft, Elizabeth is flying to Utah for the first time. "I want to see where my boy became a football player," she said.

And a college graduate.