Donnie Abraham is handling himself pretty well these days for being a former defensive back.
Whereas defensive backs are often known for their ability to make plays while running full speed in stride, Abraham is now goes about his daily business as an assistant coach with the Tampa Bay Storm and owner-operator of a restaurant in much of the same manner.
After a nine-year professional career in the National Football League with both the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Jets, Abraham retired as a player, but never quite left the game of football. Or better yet, the game never really left him.
“To be honest, I realized I couldn’t play anymore,” Abraham said. “Once I got that in my head, I always found myself wanting to go in between the lines and always wanting to go back out there, but it occurred to me that my playing days were over and that I would now have to contribute from outside the box, on the sideline.”
Abraham is currently serving in his second year as defensive assistant coach with the Storm, where he works with the team’s defensive backs, instructing them on proper positioning, footwork and technique during practice, and calling plays for the secondary during games. While he is both schooled and experienced on those topics specifically, the transition from being a former NFL standout to life as a coach and manager in the business world has presented a fair amount of challenges.
As with any passion, regardless of what it is, it is often difficult to break out of a personal comfort zone that has been defined through the repetition of habit. Such was the case for Abraham, who shortly after retiring from the game, was tasked with the arduous assignment of having to separate his desire to play on the field with the realization of instead having to observe the game off of it.
“It was all a learning experience for me, and in fact I’m still learning,” Abraham said. “At first it was important for me to come to terms with myself and what my new role was going to be, and once I did that, I came to be a better coach and was able to utilize my knowledge and experience I gained from the playing in the NFL in a more useful way through what I say and how I teach.”
Helping along the way, of course, is Storm head coach Dave Ewart, whom Abraham first met while a player at East Tennessee State, where Ewart began his coaching career. It was this familiarity with each other that mutually benefited both men, leading to open communication and a strong rapport among themselves and other members of the coaching staff.
Also currently working in Abraham’s favor is his previous head coaching experience at Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg, FL, where he guided the Gladiators to the school’s first district title in 2009 and even caused them to host a playoff game for the first time in school history. While just beginning a promising start as a head coach, however, Abraham stepped down to explore other coaching opportunities with the Storm and advance his career.
“It was a good opportunity for me,” Abraham added. “Coach Ewart and I had always kept in touch and he was probably the biggest reason for me to come to the Storm, so to have him here and having worked with people before, especially in a previous coaching role, helped me adjust to be more comfortable with where I’m at right now.”
Now with two years under his belt, Abraham admitted the adjustment is getting easier, but is still by no means easy.
“There’s still pressure to go out and perform,” he added. “It’s a different kind of pressure, but it’s still there. As a player there is pressure to go out and make plays and compete at the highest level, and now as a coach, I still feel pressure to prepare our defense for a game and to develop these players to the best of my ability to help them reach the next level.”
The philosophy not only applies to football, but believe it or not, also to the several Zaxby’s chicken restaurants Abraham owns and operates in South Carolina and Florida.
That’s because regardless of what you do or where you do it, Abraham says, “the goal in managing people is to always try and get the best out of your employees,” so it’s important to figure out what works and what doesn’t, as well as manage time schedules efficiently and to have a plan in place.
“The two are very similar,” Abraham said. “You have to value some belief that you have to stick with, and being able to manage both players on the football field or a restaurant and its employees has definitely helped me learn a lot about communicating and forming important relationships.”
Abraham added that at the moment, he isn’t quite sure where he sees either endeavor going in the future, but would like to continue each for the time being, as he also balances spending time with his wife and three children.
“I’m thinking at this point right now, I’m just going to enjoy coaching, and I know I have the two restaurant locations, but my focus is on helping out where I can, learning as much as I can, playing it by ear and just seeing how it all plays out.”
Perhaps it’s a matter of conditioning that comes as a result of spending nearly his entire life on the football field, but for the moment, it sounds as if Abraham is just taking it all in stride.