INDIANAPOLIS – Hearing Bjoern Werner’s strong German accent and Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah’s understated African accent during their Combine press conferences was revealing. These just happen to be two of the top defensive end prospects in the 2013 NFL Draft class.
Werner actually is projected as one of the best players overall in the draft and the best at his position after putting up 13 sacks last season at Florida State as a junior. The 6-foot-3, 266-pounder steadily improved in each of his three seasons with the Seminoles and compared to Ansah has vast experience in the game.
Werner started playing flag football at the age of 12 with a club team called the Berlin Adler after starting in soccer and fell took an immediate liking to the sport. He can’t envision doing anything else.
“I just fell in love with flag football at the time, but when you turn 15 you automatically advance to tackle football and it was just the most amazing feeling just hitting people,” Werner said. “I just fell in the love with the game. I played a lot of Madden, that’s how I got to know the NFL. It was just crazy. And then my head coach, Joerg Hoffman, said you have a lot of potential. You should try to go to high school and go through the whole American recruiting process with the goal to be here and I get drafted. I never looked back, it was just pursue that dream.”
Ansah took a different route, sticking with his chosen sport of basketball all the way through high school back in his homeland of Accra, Ghana. In fact, at 6-5 and 271 pounds he was an attractive college basketball prospect and when he arrived in Utah in 2008 he tried out for the Cougars’ basketball team.
It wasn’t until 2010, after also giving track a try, when Ansah was convinced to step on the gridiron. He admits he knew absolutely nothing about the game before enrolling at BYU but he’s not the type to shy away from a challenge.
“I was really athletic. I didn’t want to just sit around and go to school,” said Ansah, who started nine of 13 games at defensive end for BYU last year and had 4.5 sacks. “I wanted to do something. Since basketball didn’t work out, I wanted to do football. I like the challenge a lot. I know most of you are here to talk to me, but then again there are a lot of people who have doubts about me and that’s what I love, I just want to prove you wrong.”
When NFL Europe was flourishing overseas, the Berlin Thunder drew the largest crowds and Werner and his teammates went to every game. Football was truly in his blood at that time, especially after he turned 15 and was moved up to tackle football. He played Madden football all the time and created his own Bjoern Werner teams comprised of the best players from other teams.
Listening to Werner describe everything he likes about the game and watching his eyes light up at the podium not only left an impression on the media on hand, but it’s sure to leave a lasting impression with NFL teams in their interviews. If it wasn’t for his accent – he learned to speak English at the age of 16 in just two months – you couldn’t differentiate him from a Brian Urlacher or any other American-born football player.
“Playing soccer and being a big guy and always getting, ‘Take that big guy out of the soccer game because he’s hurting people,’ and then I just got to football and just hitting people was so much better,” Werner said. “It’s such a man’s sport where if you line up against another guy and who’s going to be the stronger guy, it’s just an amazing game. It’s just not like the physicality, even the mental conditioning where can you do it once or can you do it 50 times a game, I like.”
Both Ansah and Werner have the capability to play outside linebacker in addition to defensive end and actually lined up at that spot more than once in college. Werner filled in when Brandon Jenkins went down with an injury in a 3-4 alignment and Ansah actually was an outside linebacker his first two years at BYU.
From the time he participated in his first practice for the Cougars to the end of his college career, Ansah came a long way. He credits his rapid ascent to the approach his coaches took with them from the start and admits that he is still learning some of the basic nuances of the game.
“It was frustrating in the beginning. I wasn’t treated like a starter. I wasn’t treated like Ziggy hasn’t played football at all,” Ansah said. “It was like, they were pushing me like I was playing football for 25 years. It was crazy. But it’s been easier now.”
As far as what these two imports will show the scouts, coaches and general managers on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium, that will be determined tomorrow. Werner and Ansah will be running their 40-yard dashes, 60-yard dashes, 3-cone drills and the rest one day after the quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers.
When the Combine ends these two will get another chance to impress at their respective pro days and then at the end of April they will wait to hear their name called in the draft. For Werner, who he hopes that will be the beginning to opening a pipeline for more players to join him and the likes of Sebastian Vollmer in the NFL.
“Kids like me who want to play over here just need an opportunity and the people around them to give them that opportunity,” he said. “That’s my long-term goal, to maybe open a little recruiting service.”
Perhaps a photo of Werner on the stage at Radio City Music Hall standing next to Commissioner Roger Goodell holding the jersey of whichever NFL team picked him in the first round might be the best marketing poster for his business.