By Erik Kirschbaum
BERLIN, Sept 9 (Reuters) - They grew up as middle-class Germans with the ordinary names Fritz and Daniel. They had by and large sound family backgrounds and attended good schools. They even once played American football and basketball.
But somewhere along the line -- according to a portrait of the two Germans that has emerged in local media reports since their arrest -- Fritz Gelowicz and Daniel Schneider went off the usual track and became Islamist militants.
Their alleged plan to launch massive bomb attacks on U.S. targets in Germany was foiled by police on Tuesday. They were arrested along with a Turkish man raised in Germany, Adem Yilmaz, and police said they had enough material to make bombs with a force equal to 550 kilograms of TNT.
Allegations of their plot have stunned Germany, a country largely spared the violence from Islamist militants that has hit the United States, Britain and Spain.
It has been hard for Germans to fathom why anyone raised in their prosperous country might choose to follow the path of Mohammed Atta, a radical Arab student who lived inconspicuously as a student in Hamburg before leading the 9/11 hijacked plane attacks on the United States in 2001.
"A country is struggling to understand why -- and Germans are asking themselves if they could have possibly known what was happening," wrote Der Tagesspiegel on Sunday.
QUARTERBACK TO RINGLEADER
Gelowicz, who prosecutors have said headed the German cell, had earlier demonstrated his leadership skills as the quarterback of an American football club team called the Neu-Ulm Barracudas, according to Bild am Sonntag newspaper.
Gelowicz, 28, excelled in the U.S. sport that is played in only scattered parts of a country where soccer dominates. He made it into Bavaria’s 1995 all-state team. Born in Munich, Gelowicz moved to Ulm as a child and his parents separated when he was 15.
"About 10 years ago I found out Fritz had let himself be circumcised," his father Manfred was quoted telling Focus magazine on Sunday. "At that time I didn’t think he was Muslim. I thought it was all something he would just grow out of."
Gelowicz is believed to have converted to Islam as a teenager and began calling himself Abdullah Gelowicz.
Gelowicz studied industrial engineering at the technical university in Neu-Ulm but dropped out shortly before finishing in 2004. Newspapers said he had been a good student.
BIRTHDAY IN JAIL
Schneider, who turned 22 in custody on Sunday, was once a standout basketball player in his hometown. He later trained as munitions expert as a recruit in the German army.
"Daniel was a talented young player and scored an average of 25 points a game," Bild am Sonntag quoted a former coach as saying.
He dropped out of high school a year before graduating because he did not want to be taught by women any more, according to the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper. He converted to Islam at the age of 19 in 2003.
After military service, he studied the Koran in Pakistan before returning to his home town of Herrensohr in February 2007, der Tagesspiegel said.
Yilmaz, 28, was born in Turkey. He moved to Germany as a youth with his parents. He grew up in Langen, a town in Hessen, and after finishing school received state unemployment support. He had worked as a ticket inspector on local buses at one point.
"He was completely normal, a nice boy," said Horst Boenig, head of the KSV Langen sports club where Yilmaz worked out.