FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Arnold Ebiketie and Derrick Tangelo arrived in State College, Pa., in December 2020 hoping for a chance to change the course of their lives, but first they needed a place to live.
Ebiketie, who was transferring to Penn State from Temple, found one first. He knew Tangelo, who was transferring from Duke, from their days as high school standouts in Maryland, but he didn’t know Tangelo’s phone number, so he sent him a direct message on Instagram.
“Once he told me where he was going to live, I asked him if he had roommates. He said, ‘We need one more person,’” said Tangelo, a defensive tackle. “I said, ‘I’m going to be that extra person,’ so we just flourished from there.”
Ebiketie remembers making the first offer.
“He said he had somewhere on campus, and I said, ‘Nah, come to the house,’” said Ebiketie, an outside linebacker. “It ended up working perfectly.”
It wouldn’t be the last serendipitous moment for the two. They each played so well in their single seasons with the Nittany Lions that they are now teammates with the Falcons, culminating a journey that started for both in Central Africa. Ebiketie was born in Cameroon. Tangelo’s family comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
From there, they moved to the Washington, D.C., area, where they played for Maryland high schools 10 minutes apart and less than 30 miles from FedExField, where the Falcons (5-6) will play the Commanders (6-5) on Sunday.
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Despite playing well enough to be teammates in the Maryland Crab Bowl high school all-star game after their senior seasons, neither was recruited by the Nittany Lions out of high school. Instead, Ebiketie went to Temple and Tangelo went to Duke. They played well enough at those schools to earn offers from Penn State via the transfer portal, and both headed to the Big Ten for their senior seasons in hopes of improving their professional profiles.
“We both had the same mission,” Ebiketie said.
They also shared outgoing personalities, senses of humor and questionable singing voices, which they showcased during Falcons training camp this summer.
I bet you
A) didn’t know that #Falcons rookies @A7chronic and Derrick Tangelo were roommates at @PennStateFball and..
B) THAT THEY CAN SING. @11AliveNews @AtlantaFalcons #DirtyBirds pic.twitter.com/8Wkd8nLoOs
— Maria Martin (@Ria_Martin) August 24, 2022
“He was a funny roommate, always in your room, always trying to make you laugh, always trying to hang out,” Tangelo said. “You always had to yell at him to get out of your room. He was a people person, so he always wanted to be with people.”
The two Falcons, Commanders wide receiver Jahan Dotson, another roommate and Cardinals linebacker Jesse Luketa all lived in adjoining apartments during that season.
“We had a fun house,” Ebiketie said.
They all stay in touch through a group chat, and Sunday, Ebiketie and Dotson will get to reunite face to face when the Falcons take on the Commanders.
“We talk trash to each other all the time, so I’m looking forward to it,” Ebiketie said.
Dotson was the No. 16 pick of the 2022 NFL Draft and had two touchdown catches in his first career game. He scored three more touchdowns through Week 4 but then missed five weeks with a hamstring injury. He has two catches in the past two weeks.
“It’s going to be a very cool opportunity to share the field with those guys,” Dotson said. “It’s going to feel like kind of back at Penn State for a little while.”
Dotson called Ebiketie “an interesting guy,” chuckling.
“He will blow your mind with some of the things he will say,” Dotson said. “He’s super funny, and he looks like he’s 45. Those two guys are two of the funniest people I know.”
Tangelo won’t make it to D.C. for the reunion. He was placed on injured reserve with the Falcons practice squad on Oct. 7 because of a lower-body injury. His contribution this season has come through his early-season work with the scout-team defense and his steadying influence on Ebiketie.
“Tangelo, he’s my brother,” Ebiketie said. “You always want to have familiar faces where you go and somebody you can go to and make jokes, talk about the past with.”
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When Ebiketie was selected by the Falcons with the No. 38 selection of the 2022 draft, Tangelo was with him at his home in Falls Church, Va., not knowing then that he would agree to an undrafted free-agent deal in Atlanta two days later.
“Once everything worked out for me, he hit up my phone,” said Tangelo, whose middle name is Shungu. “He was like, ‘Shunguuuuuuu, we about to do this.’ It’s like a life-goes-full-circle moment. I feel like I started a new journey in my life at Penn State with Arnold, so it’s comforting to know that I am starting this new journey with him as well.”
Ebiketie is third among rookies with 26 quarterback pressures this season, according to TruMedia. He is tied for fifth among rookies in sacks with 2 1/2 and is coming off a career-high six tackles against Chicago. Ebiketie was the Falcons’ defensive player of the week in the victory over the Bears, coach Arthur Smith said.
“He’s playing really well,” Smith said. “There’s some subtle stuff he’s doing when you coordinate certain (pass rush) games that I appreciate about him.”
Although Ebiketie has started just one game, only five rookie defensive linemen or linebackers (Devin Lloyd, Aidan Hutchinson, Travon Walker, Quay Walker and George Karlaftis) have played more than his 405 snaps. Ebiketie is playing behind second-year pro Adetokunbo Ogundeji for now but has played 100 snaps more than Ogundeji through Week 11.
“It’s going well, I think,” Ebiketie said. “I am continuing to learn, and I’m getting better every day. I think I’m going in the right direction. This far in, I have played enough games to get outside that rookie phase. I definitely don’t think I’m a rookie anymore. It’s time to step up.”
He couldn’t think of a better time to do that than Sunday on the same field as Dotson.
“This is what we used to work for when we were at Penn State,” Dotson said. “It is finally paying off, and it’s pretty cool.”
(Top photo of Arnold Ebiketie: Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)