ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Ziggy Ansah was born and raised in Ghana, playing soccer and shooting hoops without ever seeing a snap of football.
When he moved to the United States in 2008, some missionaries suggested he attend Brigham Young and try out for the basketball team. He fell short there, but was willing to listen again when friends persuaded him to play football for the first time in 2010.
It has paid off and then some: On Thursday night, the Detroit Lions made him the No. 5 overall draft pick.
"It's been a humbling experience," Ansah said with a thick accent on a conference call with Detroit-area reporters. "A crazy journey."
What if someone told him a few years ago he would end up being drafted fifth overall in 2013?
"I would be like, 'I don't know what you're thinking,'" Ansah said.
If Ansah doesn't play up to his potential, some people may be saying the same thing about the gamble the Lions took with an inexperienced player.
Detroit desperately needed an offensive tackle, but three were drafted within the first four picks. The franchise's decision-makers knew they also had a glaring void at defensive end. Instead of trading down to acquire additional picks, the Lions stuck with their slot and took a player they evaluated up close for a week at the Senior Bowl.
"He's the best player available," Lions general manager Martin Mayhew said. "And, he fills a need. This was an opportunity where the grade matched up with the need and it worked out great for us."
Detroit didn't re-sign defensive end Cliff Avril, who joined Seattle in free agency, and cut its other starting defensive end, Kyle Vanden Bosch, from last year's 4-12 team.
The Lions' poor season put them in a position to coach a team at the Senior Bowl and they took advantage, getting to know an intriguing player in a way no other team in the league could've this offseason.
It eased any concern Mayhew had about a player very new to the game.
"If we didn't have the opportunity to coach him at the Senior Bowl, that would have been a bigger issue," Mayhew said. "But we had the opportunity to work with him and teach him and we saw the way that he could learn, how quickly he picks things up and we saw the impact that he had in the game so we felt very comfortable with him."
Ansah, whose first name is Ezekiel, didn't know how to put on shoulder pads just three years ago.
"He had no idea," BYU center Braden Hansen recalled last season.
Slowly, he turned himself into a player widely expected to be among the first chosen Thursday night — and he was soon after Detroit was on the clock.
Now, the 6-foot-5, 271-pound Ansah has got a great shot to start on an NFL team.
"We didn't draft him to be a project," Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said.
Ansah should be able to benefit from playing alongside one of the league's best tandem of defensive tackles — Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley — that will put him in one-one-situations when he's trying to sack quarterbacks.
"I just can't wait to be a part of that line," Ansah said.
Ansah's athletic ability could create mismatches that Detroit's shaky defense needs next season.
He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.63 seconds at the NFL Combine and had a 34.5-inch vertical leap. In track at BYU, he ran the 200-meter dash in less than 22 seconds and had a sub-11-second 100-meter dash.
"Phenomenal, phenomenal athlete," Mayhew said.
Impressive person, too.
The actuarial science major, the youngest of five children, speaks two Ghanaian dialects and hopes his unique path inspires an entire continent .
"One thing I want to do is just to be an ambassador with the NFL and bring the game back to Ghana because I know that there are little kids back home that are going to be pretty good at this game," Ansah said. "I can try to introduce the game to the people in Africa."
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