Ken Frei recognized the athleticism of Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah the first time they played basketball at the Golden Sunbeam School in Accra, Ghana.
But the Mormon missionary, then a sophomore at Brigham Young University, wasn’t prepared for the man vs. mouse scenario that arose when the 5-foot-9, 170-pound Frei baptized 6-foot-5 Ansah into the Latter Day Saints faith.
As he stood alongside the 8-foot by 4-foot font in the Accra LDS chapel, Frei faced the daunting task of helping Ansah lean back for the immersion.
“With someone as big as Ziggy, that was kind of a challenge,” Frei said. “He went back with such force to make sure he got all the way under, I could barely hold him up. He about pulled me down into the water with him.
“He and I joke about it now, I probably strained his back a little bit. It was kind of a funny experience.”
Starting next season, Ansah might be the one inflicting pain. With a meteoric rise that ESPN NFL Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. called the most stunning he has seen in his 35 years in the business. Despite playing football for only three years and starting only nine games, the 23-year-old defensive end has a chance to be a top 10 pick in the draft that starts Thursday.
When Frei took him to his first BYU game, Ansah didn’t know what a first down was. When Ansah joined the team in 2010, he didn’t know how to put his uniform on. Now he’s among the players the Browns could consider with the sixth overall pick.
“Anywhere between two, five and eight is where he should come off the board, which is amazing considering he was off the radar, completely undrafted, when the season began,” Kiper said during an April 10 conference call.
“You’re not sure what you’re going to get, but there is a potential for this huge upside,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said during a conference call Thursday. “I think it’s the best story in the draft. … It scares me, and it scares teams how little he has played.”
A series of nurturing and motivating relationships, including the one with Frei, led Ansah to the doorstep of NFL stardom.
During the six months they spent together in Ghana, they developed a close friendship that included being roommates for a year at BYU. Frei said Ansah’s sports heroes were LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and soccer’s Lionel Messi. Now they talk about Ansah’s growing fame.
“I say, ‘Do you realize you’re going to be a professional athlete like some of these guys you’ve idolized? It’s a neat opportunity very few people get,’ ” Frei said in an April 10 telephone interview from Provo, Utah. “He’s pretty excited.”
While Frei is considered the person who discovered Ansah, he was not the first missionary who approached him. During his two years in Ghana, Frei was transferred to Accra, the capital of Ghana, where he was one of four LDS disciples. Frei said he was told to seek out Ansah when he arrived.
They were introduced at Golden Sunbeam, a K-through-12 school where Ansah served as an 18-year-old teaching assistant. It was owned by a Mormon and boasted a basketball court and soccer field donated by hall of fame quarterback Steve Young’s “Forever Young” foundation.
“When I got there, of course he stands out,” Frei said of Ansah. “He wasn’t all well-built and muscular as he is now. He was a skinny kid.”
Rather than dig into the Book of Mormon right away, Frei decided to first become Ansah’s friend. Frei, a varsity point guard in high school in Idaho Falls, Idaho, played basketball or soccer at Sunbeam on his off day.
“You could tell he was pretty athletic,” Frei said. “He was a very good soccer player. He was fast for his size. But when I first started playing I kind of underestimated him because I’d seen several Ghanaians play basketball and frankly none of them were any good. It’s just not their sport. So even though he was big, I didn’t think he could play that much.”
Frei was quickly impressed. Ansah could dribble and rebound and above all else, dunk.
Eventually Frei and Ansah began to discuss LDS beliefs. Ansah had reservations, Frei said. According to Sports Illustrated, Ansah was raised an Anglican and attended Charismatic Church, an all-black congregation with a passionate, music-filled service. Frei said one of Ansah’s best friends was the son of a pastor, who said negative things about Mormons and told the boy they could no longer hang out together if Ansah joined the LDS church.
Ansah’s parents, both now retired, were also skeptical. Ansah’s father was a sales manager for Shell Petroleum, his mother a nurse.
“He decided to get baptized,” Frei said. “We got his mother to come. We showed her around the church and talked to her about some of the things we believed. I remember her saying, ‘This isn’t anything like what I’ve heard. This church is great and what you’ve told me about the teachings are wonderful.’
“She was pleasantly surprised once she opened up her mind and came and saw for herself. That was good for Ziggy to have her a lot more supportive.”
Frei did not convince Ansah to come back with him to BYU. Frei said they hardly talked about college.
“It wasn’t like I was heavily recruiting him,” Frei said. “He wanted to play sports. The family he was really close with who owned that school had sons who had served missions in the U.S. and had gone to BYU. There were some missionaries who came after I left who encouraged him to do that as well. That family helped him apply, get his visa and passport.”
Ansah kept his BYU enrollment a secret from Frei until a day or two before he arrived for the fall semester.
“It was a little bit unexpected,” Frei said.
Driven to be an athlete, Ansah twice tried out for the BYU basketball team, only to be cut both times. Frei believes that might have been different if Ansah had more organized training.
“He made the final cut, they were considering him for the practice squad. He just missed it,” Frei said.
BYU outside linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga has been entertained by now-270-pound Ansah during dunk contests.
“Doing 360 dunks off the backboard, between his legs. He can dunk with the best of ‘em,” Poppinga said during an April 1 telephone interview. “He has a (34½)-inch vertical. For a guy who has really long arms and is 6-5, that’s pretty good.”
The rejection prompted Ansah to try track.
“We saw him running around the track one day as we were working out,” Poppinga said. “We said, ‘That guy doesn’t belong on the track, he belongs on the football field.’ ”
But Ansah said football was frustrating in the beginning, even as he took out three opponents covering his first kickoff.
“I wasn’t treated like Ziggy hasn’t played football at all,” Ansah said at the NFL Scouting Combine. “They were pushing me like I was playing football for 25 years. It was crazy.”
Ansah started out on special teams and defensive line, switched to outside linebacker in 2011 before becoming a defensive end last season. In 13 games in 2012 he recorded 62 tackles, 13 for losses, 4½ sacks, an interception, nine pass breakups, six quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. He was unimpressive in Senior Bowl practices — with Ansah explaining he was trying not to make mistakes — but dominated the game.
Frei, 26, a 2012 BYU graduate, remains in Provo running a small start-up company called Screenie, which provides video interviewing software. He thinks back to the time he and Ansah lived together, battling intensely in FIFA soccer video games and talking about Ansah’s passion for cooking Ghanaian dishes. He pictures Ansah’s messy room strewn with shoes, which Ansah loves. He mentions Ansah’s dry sense of humor.
But most of all, Frei considers how far Ansah has come.
“Ziggy really has had some good people around him who have been very encouraging,” Frei said. “He’s been very blessed that people have been willing to help and push him in the right direction until he kind of found his niche. It’s been neat to see that progression.
“It’s unbelievable to me that this is happening and people are talking about him in the top five potentially. Four or five years ago I was taking him to his first football game and he didn’t know the difference in offense and defense and how to keep score.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.