As a kid in Ghana, Ezekiel Ansah idolized LeBron James and dreamed of playing in the NBA. In 2008, with the help of a Mormon missionary he met in his home country, Ansah enrolled at BYU to pursue the pro basketball career he envisioned. He tried and failed to make the Cougars’ basketball team—twice. He joined the track team as a way to stay in shape, and then a friend suggested he try football. (Never mind that he’d never seen a game.) The experiment worked: Ansah, 27, became a star at BYU and was a first-round pick by the Detroit Lions in 2013. Now he’s now in his fourth season as a defensive end for the team; last year he 14.5 sacks, third-most in the NFL, and made the Pro Bowl. SI caught up with Ansah to talk about his transition to a new sport and a new country.
SI: When you were growing up in Ghana did you know anything about American football?
ANSAH: No, soccer was my sport growing up, and my brother used to play basketball, so I used to go over and watch him play and then I started playing basketball when I was in middle school. I picked it up and then coming to America to study at BYU, I always wanted to play basketball and play in the NBA, so I ended up trying out for the BYU team.
SI: You’ve only been playing football for seven years. Are there moments today when you still find yourself surprised that you are an NFL star?
ANSAH: Yeah, that is something that I don’t think is ever going to leave me. It’s not an everyday thing, but one day when I am at home, or hanging out with my friends and something comes up about football and how it all started, it does really hit me about remembering how to play this game. Now, I'm just working hard to get better every day.
SI: Are you the first person in your family to come to the United States? Was it hard to leave your family?
ANSAH: My mom and her sisters had been here before I came. It wasn’t hard for me at all. I was coming from Africa to America! I couldn’t believe it.
SI: What was the hardest adjustment or biggest change to life in America? What did you miss the most?
ANSAH: In a way, when you talk about Utah, I don’t think you can generalize all of America. Utah is a great place and everybody there is pretty nice. One of the things that was hardest to adjust to was the food. Coming from Africa, every meat that we cook is pretty much fresh, if you want to cook chicken, you cook it fresh. But out here, they put chicken in a refrigerator. That was hard to figure out. I just couldn’t do it at the time. But I’m used it now.
SI: What’s your favorite Ghanaian dish to cook?
ANSAH: Fufu and peanut butter soup.
SI: Do you remember the first time you watched a football game? When and where? What did you think of it?
ANSAH: The first time I saw a game was on TV at my friends house and it went over my head. I didn’t know what the heck he was talking about. He was the one who made me keep watching, and saying you are going to do it. We watched a couple games at home and then my missionary ended up taking me to my first football game at BYU. A home game, I’m not sure who they were playing.
SI: Do you feel like you have a different perspective on football than other NFL players, since you didn’t grow up with football? Does your “newness” helps you in any way?
ANSAH: It depends on how you look at it. I’ve had a bunch of people tell me that I don’t have that wear and tear from playing from, coming from when I was younger. I played soccer and basketball growing up so I think growing up playing those other sports helped me out a little bit.
SI: Provo, Utah home of BYU, is a mostly white city. Was it difficult to be one of just a few black people in town?
ANSAH: I always try hard not to talk about that, but yeah, it was, it was weird. Coming out there it was pretty much like the only black people were me and two other people for the most part. It got better as the years went by. BYU became more diverse, more people came from Africa came from Ghana and all over the world actually, people from Asia, and there were a bunch of Polynesians out here too.
SI: Do you still play basketball or soccer today? Are you the best basketball player on the Lions?
ANSAH: Yeah I do, I play basketball and soccer during the offseason. You know how the guys are, they think they are the best at everything. But in soccer, nobody’s got a chance against me.