Germany native Edebali executing "Plan B" with Saints
NEW ORLEANS >> What German-born Saints linebacker Kasim Edebali jokingly refers to as "Plan B" seems to be working out rather well.
A decade ago, Edebali was a teenage quarterback with the Hamburg Huskies, an American football team in a youth league in northern Germany. He hoped he might become good enough to one day play for the hometown Sea Devils in NFL Europe.
"I went to every game. NFL Europe was the biggest stage you could imagine," Edebali recalled. "You had 20,000 to 30,000 people, and that's a lot for football in Germany.'"
But NFL Europe went out of business in 2007, and Edebali decided he needed to leave home to see how far he could go in the sport he loved.
Not only has the move led to a promising first couple years in the NFL, but has also put him in touch with his American father, who is a former serviceman, and half-siblings he never knew growing up.
"He was determined to take his very best shot and it paid off for him," said John Lyons, who was Edebali's coach when he enrolled in Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire as an international exchange student for his junior and senior years of high school.
Edebali parlayed his American high school experience into a scholarship at Boston College, then signed with New Orleans as an undrafted free agent in 2014.
In a Monday night game in the Superdome on Dec. 21, the versatile Edebali made his first career start, sacking Detroit's Matt Stafford twice.
Edebali has played in every game this season, usually as a strong-side linebacker or end, but also at middle linebacker. He has five sacks to go with six quarterback hits, two passes defended and a fumble recovery.
Saints coaches say that if not for traces of his foreign accent, it would be hard to distinguish him from the typical American player.
"Unless someone told you, you wouldn't know the difference," coach Sean Payton said. "And he is real smart. He picks up on things well, and so you don't even feel like you're dealing with someone that is new to American football."
Edebali was raised in Hamburg by his mother, Nesrin, who is half German and Turkish on her father's side.
Edebali's mother, grandmother and great grandmother were gymnasts, so gymnastics was Edebali's first sport as well. He can still perform cartwheels or handstands on demand.
He played pickup soccer in Germany, but said his country's most popular pastime never seemed like the right sport for him.
"I was a little too big," he said. "When you're 225, 16 years old, nobody wants you to play soccer."
But he was exactly what coaches in Germany's youth American football leagues wanted. He was invited to play tight end with Germany's Under-19 national squad. His teammates on that squad included Berlin native Bjorn Werner, now a linebacker with the Indianapolis Colts.
Able to watch NFL games broadcast in Germany, Edebali said he particularly admired Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis.
"It's funny because I didn't understand what he was saying, but he was always so intense," Edebali recalled.
Edebali had done his research and knew he needed to send out game footage of himself in Germany when he applied to be an exchange student. Lyons, now the defensive coordinator at New Hampshire, saw it and was impressed enough to urge a colleague who handled financial aid packages for Kimball Union to "give him whatever he needs to get him here."
When Edebali arrived, Lyons told him his quarterback days were done, that he'd be playing tight end and defensive end. Edebali's strength, agility and quick first step made him a natural pass rusher, Lyons said, and by the end of one season, his improvement left little doubt he'd be good enough to play college football.
"He was very coachable. He was always working, and if he was doing something wrong, he always got it corrected," Lyons said. "He had a really good upside. He didn't have a lot of bad habits. ... I could see him keep improving. He was so conscientious about training and taking care of himself."
Lyons said Edebali was never in trouble and always did the right things in class and on the field. The memory of what might have been Edebali's worst moment in high school made Lyons chuckle.
"He was so athletic that he was doing cartwheels, flips and landed funny on his hand and broke his thumb," Lyons said, adding that Edebali played through the injury. "He was so embarrassed that he did it goofing around. He was upset."
Edebali had offers to play for Connecticut and Southern Mississippi, but chose Boston College, where he'd participated in a summer football camp.
He suspects his television exposure during his college career led his father's family in southern California to reach out and invite him to visit. He said he has a good relationship with them now and they talk "pretty frequently."
"I never questioned him. I never was mad at him. I'm sure he had his reasons," Edebali said. "I was excited to get to know him, and I think so was he and my whole family. It was definitely cool, like a chapter in your life you don't really know about."
In New Orleans, he's able to remain relatively anonymous in street clothes and glasses. He lives alone in a suburban apartment near Saints headquarters, where he unwinds on his electric piano. He still does his own grocery shopping.
Saints veterans say Edebali has demonstrated the requisite maturity, instincts, eagerness and curiosity to make the most of his natural ability. Edebali quickly gravitated to seasoned veterans such as tight end Ben Watson, trying to learn the keys to their longevity.
Watson said he's talked to Edebali about offseason workout routines, diet, rest, study habits and home life.
"I've seen from him a humility, that 'I have a long way to go,' and that's going to take him a long way," Watson said. "It's exciting for me, as an older player, to see young guys like that."
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