Dear President Albright,
The odds of becoming a professional football player in the NFL are literally less than one in a million. I remember as a kid, dreaming of playing professional football. Nothing was going to stop me, even though it was a long shot. I was determined to make it and worked hard to improve my athletic ability as a youth. As I got older and played high school football, I performed very well and was a standout on my team. However, as time went on, the stark reality of being 5’9″ and 165 lbs began to set in, and I realized that I would not play in the National Football League. What I did not realize at the time though, was that I would be part of a story that was even more of a long shot. It would be a story that would not only change my life but also the life of a special individual and millions more who he would have an effect on.
After high school I attended one year of college at BYU. Like most young men my age, I was excited to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I had planned on it since I was young, and the time was finally here. A few of my friends got their mission calls before me. Almost all were to exotic foreign places. I remember hoping that I would be called to a “cool” place and have a great mission experience. When my mission call finally arrived, I was extremely nervous. It was a little terrifying to me that the next two years of my life were contained in a white envelope from the First Presidency.
Surrounded by family and close personal friends, I opened my call and cried as I read the words, “Elder Frei, you are hereby called to serve as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You are assigned to labor in the Ghana Accra Mission.” I had no idea what was waiting for me in Ghana, but I felt totally at peace that that was where the Lord needed me to be.
When I began my mission and got to Ghana, there was obviously a lot of adjusting that I had to do. Ghana is a peaceful and relatively stable country, however, it is still a third world country, and the customs and traditions are totally different than Idaho where I grew up. I quickly adapted though and grew to love my mission. I loved the people of Ghana most of all. They are so kind, loving, and God-fearing. I don’t think I’ve ever known a better group of people.
The first 18 months of my mission were phenomenal. I had the chance to serve with great elders and sisters and in great areas. I was blessed to be a mission leader and was having the time of my life. When I hit my 18th month mark in the mission field, I knew that I was going to be transferred to a new area, probably for the last time. The mission president informed me that I would be going the city of Adenta, a suburb of the capital city, Accra, to finish my mission.
When word spread around the mission that I was going to Adenta, several elders who had served there before called to tell me about the place. They told me about the area and about the ward leadership. Knowing my personal love of sports, a couple of elders also told me about a young man who worked at an elementary school where the church met for sacrament meetings.
“There is this guy there named Ezekiel,” they told me. “He is huge! He is like 6’6″ and loves to play basketball. We’ve tried teaching him, but he wasn’t really interested in baptism. You should look him up when you get there. You guys will really hit it off, and you’ll love playing basketball with him on P-days.” I made a mental note of their comments but totally forgot most of what they said due to the hectic nature of transferring areas.
When I arrived in Adenta, I was excited to get to work. I was training a new missionary at the time, and he and I were eager to have success. We both prayed that the Lord would bless us to find those people who were prepared to hear our message and who could become leaders in His church.
About 10 days or so into our time in Adenta, I was at the elementary school where we met for church. It was then that I met for the first time, the tallest Ghanaian I had ever met. He stood 6’6″ tall and introduced himself to me as Ezekiel Ansah, better known as just Ziggy. He was a shy kid and seemed a little standoffish about talking with me at first. Here is what I wrote in my journal that night:
December 6, 2007
“This evening we taught a guy named Ezekiel. Ezekiel works at Sunbeam School where we meet for church. He is a really tall kid, about 6’6”. At first he told us that he was too tired to meet with us, but I asked him if we could just take 5 minutes with him and he agreed. He has been taught a time or two before by missionaries but has been reluctant to join the Church. Marian Opare told me it was because his family and friends were against the Church. I think I will try to just be his friend and not pressure him. In our “5 minute” lesson we just allowed him to ask us questions and he did for over an hour. Elder Thatcher bore a very powerful testimony at the end, and I think it really touched Ezekiel’s heart. It was great.”
I know this sounds clich, but from the first time I met Ziggy, I could tell he was a special person. I could just tell he really wanted to learn, and he was such a nice guy. He was hesitant at first to meet with us though, because as we later found out, he had some pressure from non-member family and friends to avoid us. However, he and I got along great and a friendship quickly blossomed. I think Ziggy felt he could trust me and that I cared about him as a true friend. Once that relationship was established, he felt more comfortable to ask me some of the questions that he had about the church. We began teaching Ziggy several times a week. Here are some of the journal entries from our first few lessons with Ziggy:
December 10, 2007 (P-day)
..In the afternoon we went over to Sunbeam School and played basketball. It was a lot of fun. We played 2 on 2 for a while and then Elder Uwadi got tired and wanted to rest. Ezekiel, who we are teaching, came and played for him. Ezekiel is an ATHLETE. He is about 6’6″ and can jump and handle the ball well. We had a fun game. Ezekiel dunked it hard like 4 or 5 times, once on top of me.”
December 12, 2007
“…This afternoon we went to visit Ezekiel. Ezekiel is doing great, I think. He has been receiving pressure from friends to stay away from the Church but has come in spite of that. We read from the Book of Mormon with him and it went great. As we chatted with him after the lesson he really opened up to us, and I think he will get baptized.”
December 14, 2007
“In the evening we went and taught Ezekiel. It was awesome. We talked about the gospel of Jesus Christ and about baptism. We challenged him to pray about baptism. He asked a few questions about being baptized again, but I knew that he already knew the answer so I told him to answer his own question. He said that he knew he needed to do it. In his prayer and the end of the lesson, he told the Lord that he wanted to join the Church and asked God to confirm that it was right. It was a huge blessing!”
As you can see from those entries, Ziggy was a quick study and was learning very quickly about the Church. He was also gaining a testimony of what we were teaching and had a desire to be baptized. I remember talking about Ziggy with my companion, Elder Thatcher. We loved Ziggy and wanted him to experience the peace that comes from making sacred covenants with the Lord through baptism. We knew that Ziggy had a desire to be baptized. But we also knew he was facing outside pressure to stay away from the Church and was struggling with what to do. We fasted and prayed that he would have the strength to make the right decision and the decision that Heavenly Father wanted him to make. We asked the Lord to give Ziggy the answers he was looking for and to help us know how to help him. We determined to challenge him to be baptized and to set a firm date. Here is my journal entry from our next meeting:
December 19, 2007
“This evening we went to Sunbeam School to teach Ezekiel. We had planned to challenge him to be baptized. He beat us to the punch. We asked if he had prayed about it and he said that he thinks that he has waited too long and that he wants to be baptized as soon as possible. We are so excited. Ezekiel will be a fantastic member. I have no doubt he will be a leader.”
Elder Thatcher and I were so happy! We had no doubt that Ezekiel would be a leader in the Church and that he would greatly bless the life of his family. We just had no idea how much he would bless his family. As is customary, we took Ezekiel to be interviewed for his baptism:
January 4, 2008
“In the afternoon we met Ezekiel and went to Accra with him to meet President Brockbank so he could be interviewed for baptism. President Brockbank was very impressed with him and told us that he thought Ezekiel had Stake President potential.”
Ezekiel seemed to be gaining confidence every day, and the leadership potential was just oozing out of him. He really radiated the light of Christ and you could tell that he had a testimony of Jesus Christ. Finally, the day of his baptism came. It was incredibly special to me, as were all my baptisms. Ezekiel had asked me to perform the baptism, which was a great honor. It is a sacred experience to stand in the water with someone and help them make covenants with God.
January 12, 2008
“Today was a sweet day. We got up early to go to Madina for Ezekiel’s baptism. He has really faced a lot of persecution for joining the Church. He has a testimony though and will be a fantastic leader in the future. He was able to bring his mother to the baptism which was great, because she has heard some funny rumors about the Church and we were able to answer questions for her and help her feel more comfortable…. Ezekiel asked me to perform the baptism, and I was honored to do so… He is 6’6″, so he is much bigger than me. It was hard to get him under the water. I thought we had him the first time but his knee just came out. The second time he kind of flung himself back and I wasn’t ready for how fast he fell. He almost pulled me under. I managed to hang on, but we both lost our balance and stumbled trying to stand up. He was immersed though and baptized by proper Priesthood authority. He was very happy but said that his back was sore from bending back so far for the baptism. We both had a good laugh about that. After changing clothes, we went back to the service. Ezekiel bore a powerful testimony about the Church to his mother. He is a special kid. After the service, we showed Ezekiel’s mom around the new stake center. She told us that she was very impressed and that the bad things that she has been hearing about the Church were not true. I hope and pray that one day she will also be baptized. It was a special service.”
After Ziggy’s baptism, our friendship continued to grow. We continued teaching him about the Church, and he soaked up everything like a sponge. He was a great convert, and we were so proud of him.
Within just a few months though, it came time for me to return home to the United States. This was a hard thing for me. I had grown to love Ghana so much and it was my home. My parents, along with my siblings, came to pick me up and to tour around Ghana with me during my last week in the mission field.
On my last night in the country that had become my home, we held a fireside with my family and the members of the Adenta ward including Ezekiel. It was hard to say goodbye to someone I’d truly grown to love. I was confident though that he would do great things. We determined to stay in touch, and I left not knowing when I would see my friend again.
I returned home to Idaho and began to get ready to go back to school in Utah at BYU. I missed Ghana very much and kept in touch with many of my converts there, including Ziggy. He seemed to be doing well and was really growing in the gospel. I was incredibly happy about that. The summer months passed and I had now been home for around 3 months.
Just before fall semester started at BYU, I received an incredible surprise. Ziggy told me that he would in Provo, Utah the following week. At first I thought he was pulling my leg. Why on earth would he be in Provo? He insisted that he was serious and told me that he had been accepted into BYU and would be starting school the fall semester. I was elated. The family that had owned the school where we had met for Church were also members and close friends with Ziggy, and had helped him apply and get all the necessary paper work done to come to the States. It was a wonderful surprise.
When Ziggy got to Utah the next week, my family and the family he stayed with all went out to breakfast. For me, it was the kind of reunion that Alma talks about having with the Sons of Mosiah in the Book of Mormon. It’s hard to describe the love missionaries have for their converts and I was excited to see Ziggy again and for him to have an opportunity that most Ghanaians never get; to go to school in the United States. Most of all, I was grateful that he was still living the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Since Ziggy didn’t know anyone in Provo, I asked him if he wanted to be my roommate. We moved into an apartment building just off campus in Provo. It was a pretty unique experience that most returned missionaries don’t get. It was fun to get to know Ziggy even more in a non-church setting. We had fun doing normal college things, especially during our video game battles playing FIFA soccer.
Because Ziggy loved sports, I was excited for him to experience going to BYU athletic events. I am a huge BYU football fan and wanted Ziggy to experience a game. In the fall of 2008, Ziggy accompanied some friends and me to LaVell Edwards Stadium to watch the Cougars play. It was the first time he had ever seen a live football game. It’s funny to think about now, with everything that has transpired, but at first Ziggy was lukewarm on the game. Like a child, I had to explain to him the rules, the way to keep score, the difference between offense and defense, and every other part of the game. He didn’t like how physical the game was and thought it lacked the beauty and flow of the game that soccer provided. I remember thinking that if Ziggy ever wanted to play football, he would make a good wide receiver because of his size, speed, and hands. He told me and several others that he was too “delicate” to ever play football.
As time went on, Ziggy started to thrive at BYU. He is incredibly smart and very personable. He had help from a lot of family members, friends, and students and quickly became very popular on campus. Many are familiar with this part of the story, but in Ziggy’s second year of school he decided to try out for the BYU basketball team. Ziggy has incredible natural athletic talent but lacked the refinement of playing organized sports in the U.S. He made it through several cuts but ultimately fell short of making the team. A year later, he tried again and was again cut. Determined to play sports for BYU, he tried out for the track team and made it as a sprinter. It was pretty incredible for someone of his size. However, because he was so big, he would often bang into other runners in adjacent lanes. Upon seeing this, his track coaches thought he might belong on the football field.
The first time he met with Bronco Mendenhall, the coach was skeptical. Here was this big kid from Africa who had never played football before. Nevertheless, he allowed Ziggy to participate in summer workouts, thinking that he would quickly give up due to the hard work and physical nature of the game. But Ziggy kept showing up. Teammates quickly grew to love Ziggy and begged Coach Mendenhall to let Ziggy participate in fall camp. Coach Mendenhall agreed. Ziggy had made the team!
The first two years of Ziggy’s experience on the football team flew by without much fanfare. He was simply a big, fast guy with little football experience. He slowly worked his way up to special teams and participated on kickoffs and field goals, occasionally getting to play with the second or third string on defense when the game was out of reach. The coaches were impressed with the effort he put forth and could see he was gifted. He just needed more experience though, to be trusted on the field.
Going into his senior year, many others and I kept telling Ziggy, “You have incredible athletic gifts. If you work as hard as you ever have and are aggressive, you’ll get on the field and maybe have a shot at the NFL.”
Ziggy was determined to make it. He worked incredibly hard, and the hard work started paying off. He bulked up and got faster and more physical. Coaches started taking notice and gave him more opportunities to play. Ziggy took advantage and performed well. He got smarter on the field too. Coaches no longer had to simplify plays for him; he could execute the most complicated of schemes.
Then, just a couple games into the season, the player ahead of Ziggy on the depth chart went down with an injury. Ziggy was named the starter!
Most know how the story went from there. Ziggy blossomed and became a star. He was a physical freak that dominated opponents with his speed and instincts. He seemed to be learning and improving by leaps and bounds each week. At the beginning of the year, he wasn’t on anyone’s radar. But as the year went on, national media started to take notice of number 47 in blue. I remember watching the games from the stands and being amazed that the tall, skinny kid that I had baptized in Ghana and had taken to his first football game just 2 years before, was now one of the most dominant players in college football and a top NFL prospect.
Suddenly, everyone was fascinated with Ziggy. He was featured in Sports Illustrated and newspapers everywhere. Even I was featured on SportsCenter talking about Ziggy as the media couldn’t get enough of him. Whenever we would get together, I would ask him how he felt and how he was handling his rise to fame. He was always so humble and brushed it off like it was no big deal.
One time he came with me to my wife’s second grade class to play with the kids. They were so excited to have a football star in their presence, but to Ziggy, it was just another way to give back. He was great with the kids. Another time, a co-worker of mine had a daughter that was a huge BYU fan. She asked if I could arrange a meeting with Ziggy. I knew that he had a big game coming up that week and likely wouldn’t have time. However, he told me it was no big deal and to meet him in front of the locker room before the game. He arrived early and made her feel like a million bucks. He told her she was a beautiful little girl and was glad she was his friend. She beamed. As Ziggy’s missionary I couldn’t have been prouder. He was using his newfound fame to make a difference in people’s lives. He was doing what the Savior would do.
On April 25 of this year, Ziggy’s life changed forever when he was selected number 5 overall in the NFL draft by the Detroit Lions. He tied Jim McMahon as BYU’s highest ever draft selection. My wife and I yelled, screamed, and cheered for joy as we watched his name get announced and him walk onto the stage at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. It was unbelievable.
I never could have imagined when I met Ziggy in Ghana that I would baptize a future NFL football player. The odds were definitely pretty long. I have learned a lot of lessons though about how the Lord can make great things out of things that seem small. He took a missionary from Idaho and made him an effective servant of the Lord. And he took a tall skinny kid from Africa and gave him success so that he could be an inspiration and example to millions.
I have no doubt that Ziggy will succeed in the NFL; he is so smart and so talented. But to be honest, I couldn’t care less about the fame and fortune that will come to him. I love and admire Ziggy because of the person that he is. He truly cares about individuals and wants to be an example. He knows that millions of people now look to him as an example, and he doesn’t want to let them down. He is in a position to bless the lives of many other people, and he is prepared and ready to do that. I am so grateful that I have been able to play a small part in his story. It has been a huge blessing in my life. I can’t wait to see the next chapter of the story unfold and watch the hand of the Lord in Ziggy’s life manifest itself yet again!