Sure, it's father vs. son for USF-Illinois but it's also just business

Donnie Abraham (safeties coach at Illinois) and son Devin (safety at USF) face off against each other this week. (Courtesy of Tunisia Abraham)
Donnie Abraham (safeties coach at Illinois) and son Devin (safety at USF) face off against each other this week. (Courtesy of Tunisia Abraham)
Published Sept. 15, 2017

TAMPA — On a sultry Monday morning at the University of Tampa's Pepin-Rood Stadium, Donnie Abraham had no choice but to switch from distracted rookie to dialed-in one, and pronto.

His first day of NFL employment — July 22, 1996 — was upon him. A Buccaneers third-round pick out of East Tennessee State, Abraham was embarking on the first practice of Tony Dungy's first training camp as Tampa Bay's coach. In this bygone NFL generation, first impressions took precedence even over firstborns.

Abraham, a cornerback, had to go on the field and deliver. A day later in Atlanta, his wife Tunisia delivered as well.

Donnie didn't lay eyes on Devin Isaiah Abraham until a few days later.

"Back then, you couldn't leave (camp)," Abraham said. "It's not like it is nowadays, if somebody has a baby they can just up and leave. So I missed his birth because I was trying to provide for my family."

Devin reciprocated, missing his dad's first few games until the weather cooled and Tunisia felt comfortable bringing her infant to Houlihan's Stadium.

He has remain engaged in the game since.

"(Devin) literally lived and breathed football his whole life," Tunisia said.

The Abraham generations converge — more like collide — Friday night at Raymond James Stadium. Donnie, whose coaching career has taken him from Pinellas County to the Power Five, is safeties coach at Illinois. Devin, a safety with two interceptions already this season, will make his 28th career start for USF.

Such an encounter is nothing new. In 2013, when Donnie was head coach at Clearwater High and Devin was putting together an all-state senior season (six interceptions, eight blocked kicks) at East Lake, they faced each other (Devin won).

And rest assured, Tunisia is way past being torn over her allegiances.

"I am USF," Tunisia, a former East Tennessee State sprinter, said with a laugh. "Daddy's already had his time, so mommy's already about the baby now."

So dispense with any Bowden Bowl analogies. At its core, this is merely another night at the office for two football veterans — a dad and son — seemingly born for the game.

"You just have to go out there and execute and win the ball game," Devin said. "Then you can brag it in his face."

Like his younger two siblings (18-year-old Alivia and 16-year-old Micah), Devin was encouraged by his parents to find his own favorite sport, or sports. Devin didn't even begin playing football until fifth or sixth grade, and had gravitated to baseball by middle school.

But he broke his leg sliding into second base, requiring a cast that went up past his knee.

"That was the end of that," Devin recalled. "I said I was done with baseball."

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Perhaps it was destiny. Long before he became a football player, Devin seemed a football savant.

"Ever since he was little, he was one of the kids that didn't want to go into daycare. He wanted to be out at the game, he wanted to be sitting in the stands," said Donnie, whose nine-year NFL career included a Pro Bowl season for the Bucs in 2000.

"You know how most kids run around at a game, playing? You had to get him popcorn, and he'd sit there and watch the game at a young age. And I'm talking about an age where you'd be like, 'Well, how does he understand what's going on?' "

From there, Donnie struck the delicate balance of instilling his knowledge of the game without imposing it on Devin. He coached Devin only two of his four years in high school (at Gibbs in 2010 and East Lake in 2012), but regularly attended his son's USF games until this season.

Afterward, he'd ask questions without interrogating.

"(Devin) probably would never want to be coached by me, but Donnie's pretty easy," Tunisia said.

"I have pictures along the way of when Devin comes off the field at a USF game, and him and Donnie are talking, because Donnie will have a question about, 'What was this assignment? What were you thinking and what were you doing that you missed this?' or something like that. But he never fusses at him."

That type of nurturing has produced one of the sharpest football minds on the Bulls defense. Devin has two interceptions in as many games, and his unit ranks 20th nationally in pass efficiency defense (91.38).

"I think he's one of the more heady players I've had a chance to be involved with as a coach," Bulls first-year defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary said.

"Everybody always says, 'His father was a great NFL player, so the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.' But I've also been around some players whose fathers were NFL players, and that apple was far away from the tree. So that's a testament to him."

Friday, the Abrahams will gather on the Raymond James Stadium field for a quick family photo, then it's back to business. Donnie will go to work, helping oversee a defense sure to run variants of the Tampa-Two scheme he mastered as a Buccaneer. Tunisia? She'll be with her baby.

Some things haven't changed in 21 years.

"We've been in this situation before," Donnie said.

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.