LARRY LAGE, AP Sports Writer
ALLEN PARK, Mich. (AP) — Ezekiel Ansah put his right cleat on a football, rolled it toward his toes, flipped it up onto his foot and kicked it.READ MORE: ACLU Sues Michigan State Police, Claims Racial Profiling, Black Drivers Pulled Over More
“That’s soccer,” Detroit Lions senior coaching advisor Gunther Cunningham said Thursday after witnessing the impressive feat.
Soccer is one of the activities Ansah did growing up in Ghana, and it is a sport he hasn’t given up even though he’s in the NFL.
“I still play,” Ansah said. “I play with my friends — 10 on 10 — when I go to Ghana, or when I’m out in Utah.”
The 6-foot-5, 279-pound Ansah was a soccer and basketball player as a kid. When he moved to the U.S. in 2008, he ran track for Brigham Young before friends persuaded him to play football for the first time in 2010.
Three years later, Detroit drafted the defensive end No. 5 overall.
Three more years later, he is an emerging star in the league.
The Lions are thankful they had the opportunity to coach him at the Senior Bowl coming out of college.
“We were really lousy in those days, trying to rebuild, but that allowed us to see him up close every day at the Senior Bowl,” said Cunningham, a former Detroit defensive coordinator with nearly five decades of coaching experience.
“We got a lot of grief about drafting him because of his lack of experience. Some people think we reached for him. Now, no one does.
“I’ve seen them all since 1981, and I don’t think I’ve seen anyone like him.”
The man known as “Ziggy,” ranked third in the NFL with 14½ sacks last season. He became the first player in franchise history to have 30 sacks in his first three seasons since sacks became an official stat in 1982.
His combination of size, speed and strength make him one of the best in the league. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.63 seconds at the 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.READ MORE: Woman Finds 95-Year-Old Message In A Bottle In Michigan
Among teammates and coaches in the Motor City, he’s among the most popular people in the organization because of how hard he works and how nice he is to everyone that crosses his path.
When Ansah is doing a drill with fellow defensive linemen, he competes as if his job is on the line. When he is watching teammates, he cheers and jeers with an ear-to-ear grin.
“He’s an unusual guy,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “He loves what he’s doing. It’s a real competitive atmosphere at the position in which he plays. … He does it with an unusual amount of energy, every single day, and he’s talented. When you put that kind of work ethic together with a very, very talented guy it’s pretty special.”
Ansah shrugged his shoulders and wouldn’t answer when asked if he was regarded as a star back in Ghana.
Did people recognize him when he visited this offseason?
“Yeah, sometimes,” he said in a voice slightly louder than a whisper.
Like Calvin Johnson, the superstar receiver who retired during the offseason, Ansah would be the last person to tell someone else how great he is as a player or a person.
That is just another reason everyone around him lights up with a smile when his name is mentioned.
“When your better players are your humblest, your hardest-working, I think that sets the tone through your organization so you don’t have a lot of ‘me’ guys,” Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said.
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