Ghanian Ziggy seeks US football fame

Ghana native Ziggy Ansah begins a promising American football career on Sunday, completing an unlikely odyssey towards a game watched by few and played by even fewer in his west African homeland.

"The next thing I heard was he was now playing football. Football?" said Monica Ohene Opare, one of the founders of a school Ansah attended and where he later worked as a teaching assistant.

"I know football is kind of a rough game, so I was kind of worried."

Ansah's journey from Ghana to the Detroit Lions of the National Football League in the United States involves his conversion to Mormonism, rare athletic talent and a bit of luck.

He is considered one the most promising young players in the league, yet Ziggy, whose real name is Ezekiel, has only been playing the sport for about three years. Ghana is a football-mad nation -- but football meaning soccer, not the American version.

Some have even predicted he will end up as the NFL's best first-year defensive player. He was the fifth pick of the NFL draft, the highest-ever for a player from an African country.

"For someone who has played such little football, Ansah has an unbelievable feel for the game," NFL analyst Gil Brandt wrote on the league's website. "He can look like a 10-year veteran out there."

Ansah will first however have to overcome a setback. There has been speculation over whether he will play in Sunday's season opener after suffering an injury in practice.

Whether he takes the field Sunday or later in the season, expectations will be high, both in the United States and among his friends and family back home.

Ansah, 24, grew up in a middle-class family in the emerging west African nation of 25 million people, his mother a nurse and his father a sales manager for a petroleum company.

Most Ghanaians think of football as a sport of goalkeepers and strikers, and Ansah also enjoyed playing soccer in his youth, Ohene Opare said.

But by high school, he had become a standout in athletics and basketball, pursuing the latter when a charity run by retired NFL Hall of Famer Steve Young built a court at Ohene Opare's Golden Sunbeam Schools, where he attended.

At six-foot five-inches (1.98 metres), Ansah would dominate pickup games and soon became a hoops enthusiast.

He would return to Golden Sunbeam, located in a middle-class neighbourhood of quiet, dusty streets on the northern edge of bustling Accra, to play on the court, even when he went to high school in another area.

In school athletics competitions, Ansah outran his competition in the 200-metre sprint and also participated in the long jump, said Paul Kofi Yesu Dadzie, his track coach in high school.

By the end of high school, Ansah had his sights set on being a professional basketball athlete.

Recognising this, Ohene Opare helped sponsor him for admission to Brigham Young University in the United States in 2008. The school is the pre-eminent university of Ansah's Mormon faith and home to top-level sports teams.

He had converted to Mormonism about a year before college. The Ohene Opare family, themselves Mormon, would allow missionaries to come to their school to check email and they ended up converting and baptising Ansah.

"When I got his results and he did so well, I thought that maybe (he) should go to school outside," Ohene Opare said.

With an academic scholarship in hand, he headed to the university in the US state of Utah, but soon found his dreams of basketball stardom falling short. Two try-outs for the basketball team ended in failure.

But he excelled at sprinting on the BYU track team, where an assistant coach recommended him for the football team.

He at first struggled with the unfamiliar equipment used by football players and often ended practices exhausted by the training regimen, remembers Eathyn Manumaleuna, a teammate of his originally from the US state of Alaska.

But when it came to running, Ansah would leave his competition in the dust.

"He was fast," Manumaleuna said. "He had a base and a foundation in that sense which helped him a lot. All he really needed to do was learn the game."

He became an integral part of BYU's defence, at one point keeping a quarterback pinned down through sheer speed and laser-like focus, Manumaleuna remembered.

Speaking of that game, Manumaleuna said that "with Ziggy there, (the quarterback) couldn't go anywhere."

As Ansah rose through the ranks -- from his starting season in 2010 to an increasingly avid grasp of the game -- his friends in Accra kept watch from afar.

At his old school, Ohene Opare's son, Emmanuel Jr., spends time editing Ansah's Wikipedia page and reading about his results on NFL websites.

Monica Ohene Opare hasn't figured out a way yet to watch Ansah play, as NFL isn't available on Ghanaian television stations. Nonetheless, she hopes he'll become a mentor to young athletes following in his footsteps.

"They will be so excited about it. Everybody will want to watch him," Ohene Opare said. "But whether they will understand the game is another thing."