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Former Cougar Ziggy Ansah fulfilling dream of helping kids in Ghana through football

PROVO — On the day before the 2013 NFL draft in New York City, BYU's Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah and other draft hopefuls helped with an NFL-sponsored clinic involving hundreds of schoolchildren.

Standing on a field in a park surrounded by skyscrapers in Manhattan beneath sunny skies that warm spring morning, Ansah sported fluorescent yellow shoes and a broad smile as he taught the kids a variety of football fundamentals.

Only a few years earlier, the 6-foot-5, 270-pound defensive lineman was learning those same drills when he walked onto the BYU football team, having never played the sport before.

After telling reporters how much he enjoyed spending time with the schoolchildren that day, Ansah shed some insight about his future plans.

"That's what I want to do," Ansah said. "It's something I want to try to do after I'm done playing — take it back to Africa and help the little kids with it."

As it’s turned out, Ansah didn’t have to wait until he was done playing to realize that goal.

ESPN’s Monday Night Countdown chronicled Ansah’s return to Ghana last summer as he hosted his first-ever Ziggy Ansah Football Camp in a feature titled, “Ziggy’s Pride.”

The Detroit Lions made Ansah the No. 5 overall pick of the 2013 draft and he was named to the Pro Bowl in 2015. Ansah is the first Ghanaian to play in the NFL and he's an unofficial ambassador for the NFL in Ghana.

Like many sports fans in countries around the world, citizens of the West African nation are crazy about soccer but know very little about American football.

The Forever Young Foundation, Nike, the Detroit Lions and other organizations sponsored the camp in Ansah's hometown of Accra, which drew about 300 participants. Those kids threw and caught footballs for the first time in their lives and they learned a little bit about the game.

“Ghana has a big place in my heart. I try to represent it the best way that I can,” Ansah explained during the ESPN piece. “Whenever I go back to Ghana, there are people that have now watched the game and when I go to schools and visit it’s like, ‘I want to learn this game. I want to be like you and know what it feels like to play football.’ I thought, ‘It would be great to have the first one in Ghana.’”

After being profiled Monday night on ESPN, Ansah came through on the field, recording three sacks, six tackles and a forced fumble in the Lions’ 24-10 victory over the New York Giants.

Giving back to his homeland is among his highest priorities.

“One thing I have told myself is that, I can’t save the world, but if I am able to change the life of one kid, just one, I will be happy,” Ansah said.

Former Philadelphia Eagles Pro Bowler and former BYU tight end Chad Lewis, who currently serves as an associate athletic director at BYU, was among those that attended and helped out at the Ziggy Ansah Football Camp in Accra during the summer.

“The first time I went to Africa it was to hike Kilimanjaro. I had a hard time putting that trip into words. I will say the same thing with visiting Ghana with Ziggy,” Lewis said. “The African people, being in Africa, visiting slave castles that operated for 400 miserable years and then topping it off being with Ziggy as he shared the game of football with his people and to see their faces light up in appreciation for him coming back, it was an incredible experience. I’m so grateful that Ziggy has the desire to give back. Not just for this year. He has a determination to make this a long-term process of giving back. Not only do I salute that, but I support it.”

Video courtesy Chad Lewis

While Lewis met a lot of kids who didn’t know anything about football, he discovered many of them had raw talent. Lewis added that Ghana is fertile recruiting grounds and BYU coaches, in all sports, should travel there to witness the abundant talent.

“I wish I had every coach in every sport at BYU on the field for Ziggy’s football camp,” Lewis said. “A lot of them can play basketball or track or football. They were extremely talented, athletically gifted. It was eye-opening, to say the least. I saw a lot of kids with a lot of potential.”

Ansah was a kid with a lot of potential while growing up in Ghana.

After Monday night’s game, Ansah joined ESPN analyst and former BYU star quarterback Steve Young during the postgame show to discuss Ansah’s performance against the Giants.

“I knew one day we’d be on this set talking,” Young said to Ansah.

Young, who has spent time in Ghana with his Forever Young Foundation, briefly related the story how Engage Now Africa installed a Sport Court at the Golden Sunbeam School, where Ansah attended. On that Sport Court, Ansah learned to play basketball and met missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Ansah joined the LDS Church and ended up attending BYU, where he participated in track and tried out for the basketball team before joining the football team as a walk-on.

By his senior year, Ansah attracted the attention of NFL scouts, which led to him being an improbable first-round draft pick.

In 2015, Ansah ranked third in the NFL with 14.5 sacks. Last year, he suffered a high ankle sprain and finished with just two sacks during the regular season. Ansah came back and recorded two more sacks in a playoff setback to the Seattle Seahawks.

Ansah missed training camp with a knee injury but returned to the field in the season-opening win against the Arizona Cardinals before wreaking havoc against the Giants.

Clearly, Ansah hasn't forgotten his roots.

During his camp in Ghana, Ansah handed out dozens of shoes and cleats to camp participants, some of whom had no shoes at all. He loved seeing the genuine gratitude and smiles of the youth in Ghana.

But Ansah’s camp wasn't only about football. It was about providing hope to kids who have big goals, just like he did when he was a kid.

“Nobody,” he said, “can stop you from reaching your dream.”