It's a typical early summer day alongside Tampa Bay, with the temps in the 90s and the humidity ringing beads of perspiration from every other pore. And Donnie Abraham is happy, maybe not to be sweating but to be on his way to another football practice.
"I didn't realize my passion for teaching and coaching were still going to be around," said Abraham, the 37-year-old former Jets cornerback. "When I was a player, I remember saying, 'I'm never going to be a coach.' Then as soon as I get done playing, I'm teaching and coaching a position. My passion's continuing to grow and grow. I love working with kids and teaching the game of football. Here I am."
But the "kids" Donnie's teaching these days are not like high schoolers he coached for six seasons in central Florida. Abraham's a pro coach these days. In February he joined the staff of head coach Dave Ewart, whom he first met as a freshman at East Tennessee State, on the Arena League's Tampa Bay Storm.
You can see him in his new sideline garb in the centerpiece on our home page (photo courtesy Tampa Bay Storm/Scott Audette).
"We kept in touch from college," Abraham recalled. "He called me up, said he was going to be taking over the Storm and asked if I would coach the defensive backs. I was like, 'Well, give me some time to think about it.' He said, 'OK, two days.' I literally had a night to think about it. I just thought it would be an opportunity for me to gain more experience as a coach."
Shortly after he and John Kaleo were hired, Ewart said, "I've known John and Donnie for a long time and they have high football IQs. Each one brings a unique talent and wealth of experience to draw on. Our team got better today."
Differences ... and Similarities
A few months later, Abraham's has brought his old experience to bear on his new experience. Coaching Arena ball is a lot different than coaching high schools or running the two Zaxby's restaurants that Abraham owns, it's still close enough to the kind of ball he played as a thoughtful, theft-minded (32 career INTs) corner for nine NFL seasons for the Buccaneers (1996-2001) and Jets (2002-04).
"I think it's going pretty well ... it's definitely different," he said. "I didn't go to a lot of Arena games before. From the stands it just seems like a lot of chaos, zooming over here, zooming over there, guys running at the line at full speed. But once you get inside and start learning about it, breaking it down, you realize these guys are really good athletes and you realize that a lot of the outdoor game as far as fundamentals and techniques you have to use in the indoor game."
And of course there are the AFL venues, arenas, after all, half as big as stadiums, all under roofs.
"It's definitely a unique situation playing a football game in an arena," Abraham said. "But it is a fun game, everything's a learning experience, and sometimes it's good to be inside. You look at being out in this heat all the team or being in an NFL stadium, it's good to be inside and cool a little bit. The atmosphere is great."
Abraham's title on Ewart's four-man staff is defensive backs coach, but he was recently identified in a news story as defensive coordinator.
"I call the plays for the secondary. Coach Ewart handles the front five or front four," Donnie explained. "You can look at it any way you want to. Probably 98 percent of the plays are passes, so the defensive backs coach usually has a lot of responsibility. Coordinator? That's what Coach Ewart does. He allows me to call the plays for the secondary, so as long as I'm doing a good job ... "
Racking Up Some Impressive Numbers
It would appear Abraham is doing a nice bit of teaching and coaching at this new level for him. True, the Storm's record is 6-7 with five games to go and they're giving up 53.2 points a game ... but this is Arena ball, after all, and that figure is ninth in the 18-team league.
Some other rankings are much better: The Storm is third in the league in pass defense (245.2 yards per game), second in total defense (269.2), and first in sacks and sack yardage (33-182).
All this leads to a natural question: Is Abraham, the guy who never thought as a player that he'd ever be a coach, on the fast track to an NFL job?
Herm Edwards, Abraham's coach with the Bucs and Jets, wouldn't be surprised.
"Donnie wasn't the biggest guy as far as physicalness, but he was tough and he had very good ball skills," Edwards told newyorkjets.com. "And he was a technician. He could play 'bump' or 'off,' but his skillset, he was very good at pattern reading. He could read patterns and combinations when people were trying to attack him on offense. He can teach all that."
"The thing I can say about all those kids in Tampa — Donnie, Ronde Barber, John Lynch, Brian Kelly — they were going to be fundamentally and technically sound to play the position. I always told players this is what to do, this is how to do it, and you've got to tell them why. If they're going to have long careers and want to get into coaching, they've got to understand the why. Lots of guys understand what to do but they don't want to know the why. Donnie always wanted to know the why."
Abraham knows the why of this season but from there he seeks the direction.
"Right now I'm not sure what my path is. I don't know what God has planned for me," he said. "I just know I'm taking the steps, and whatever happens in the future I'll be ready for. I definitely would like to do some internships in the NFL. I have a young family that I'm really enjoying right now but I also enjoy coaching. Wherever that takes me five or 10 years from now, we'll have to wait and see."
For more from Donnie and Coach Herm on their stay with the Jets, check out this story's companion blog.