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Bosnian refugee earns football ride

Nermin Delic has done the recruiting dance, yet the tale of how the Northwest Whitfield (Ga.) High senior pledged to play at Maryland is a downright bland jig that pales in the family scrapbook.

The defensive end/tight end seems normal enough. His coach, Mike Falleur, said, "He's like anyone else. When he doesn't know you, he's probably quiet. He loves to talk sports. Loves the Lakers, loves Pau Gasol. He does what he's supposed to do."

That's downright vanilla next to the primary Delic story line.

No recruiting story can hold a candle to the ones about Dad dodging bullets, shrapnel and politics in Bosnia, or a family odyssey that has included communism, genocide, a green beret, a victorious but ruined nation, and a failed first attempt to relocate in America.

Delic's trip to College Park, Md., next fall will be like a trip to the grocery compared to the journey Edin and Hana Delic led their family on beginning Dec. 9, 1997.

The story comes with an accent, not so thick as to be misunderstood, but tinged enough to help a listener visualize the region from which it came, twisted with the angst of a big move more common a century earlier.

Edin Delic fought in the special forces unit for Bosnia as it resisted the former Yugoslavia's provincial attempt to pull it into communism's fold -- an admittedly simple explanation of a complicated war that some considered civil and others felt was regional.

By '97, the war had been won for well over a year; Bosnia was free.

But the cities were gone, infrastructure cratered.

Serbia, Croatia, Herzegovina and other regions in what had once been Yugoslavia were struggling to carve out new and unique identities, so there was little for an impoverished family to seek ownership of -- only loose soil in which to try to drop roots.

"I don't know how much you know about Bosnia, but you can imagine one thing about how a country can look like," Edin Delic said. "Everything [was] destroyed. I didn't see my kids growing up in that kind of environment. It was an independence war, but ended up region war. People just start classifying themselves. This was not an environment for my kids to grow up [in]. Not their fault. I didn't see much future for my kids."

So the family worked through a U.S. refugee agency that placed them in the state of Washington.

"I was only 6, and my sister [Alma] was 4," said Nermin, who also plays basketball at Northwest Whitfield (Tunnel Hill, Ga.). "The war was over, but it wasn't improving, and my dad just thought it would be a better life here."

It wasn't. Less than a year later, the Delics were still teetering.

"Once I got landed, and realized where I'm at … I'd seen everything before, but pretty much my kids didn't know," said Edin, who had spent five years in the army. "Bad crime, prostitution, drugs."

Edin Delic is talking about the south side of Seattle.

"We decided to move back," he said. "We felt safer back home than here."

Instead came family persuasion of a new sort.

Hana Delic had family members who had been in the U.S. for several years, moving around. They beseeched the Delics to visit Dalton, where they'd settled.

Much bigger than a village, much smaller than a city, Dalton is a modest town in north Georgia less than an hour from Tennessee and nestled in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, with one of the nation's busiest highways, I-75, slicing its western flank.

The Delics loaded up a rental truck, drove cross-country, and gave it a shot.

It was the decision of a lifetime.

Mom and Dad both work for Shaw Industries, a huge flooring company that calls itself the largest carpet manufacturer in the world.

And Nermin has a chance to attend college on scholarship.

That, too, is an interesting story.

The 6-foot-5, 245-pounder began playing football when he was 10 or so, and moved right up the ranks. "He's always been a big kid," Northwest Whitfield coach Falleur said. "I think when he came he was probably 6-2, and he could always run, athletic."

Nermin said Vanderbilt was among the first schools to contact him, when he was a sophomore. More and more schools inquired. Then, something odd happened.

After a solid junior season, he decided to go lean for basketball season, trimming down to around 211 pounds. It worked. He averaged around 15 points and 10 rebounds.

But Delic sure didn't look like a defensive end when he started traveling to football camps this past summer. "It most likely did affect my recruiting," he said. "It kept the major schools from offering me. I've put back on the weight, better weight, and I ran a 4.78 [40-yard dash] about a month ago."

Falleur said, "I think what hurt him with some big schools is that a lot of people projected him at defensive end, and they figured if that didn't work he could move to tackle. But then when he showed up like that, it was kind of hard to project him up at 285 one day."

Delic said he's comfortable with the way recruiting has worked out, and he considered offers from Kentucky, East Carolina, Marshall, Memphis among others.

He wants to major in sports medicine at Maryland, and one day be a physical therapist. Relatives in Bosnia "know I hit people -- they know of my opportunities," he said with a chuckle.

The Delics have not been back to Bosnia, although there has been talk about trying to visit soon. It has come up before, in fact.

"We saved money twice. First time, we still living in apartment. But spend $10,000 back and forth for [to Bosnia] for two or three weeks at most and come back broke again?" Edin said. "We decided to use that as a down payment on a house. Second time, we decided to build pool."

If that comment strikes you as Americanization, get a load of this new family politic:

"Football reminds me of European rugby," Edin said. "It's not as tough as rugby; it's a little bit more civilized. I wanted Nermin to do some sports. I didn't know nothing about football. I couldn't figure out. Then, I started taking him to practices, talking to parents and coaches, and he started figuring it out.

"Once you learn the rules, it's a pretty good game. Now, I'm hooked up. I used to play soccer, but now I don't even watch. Saturdays and Sundays during football, I'm not available for much of anything. I am so proud of Nermin."

Matt Winkeljohn left the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after spending 21 years there. He can be reached at mattwinkeljohn@yahoo.com.