Dec. 7, 2015
By Adam Van Brimmer | BUZZ Magazine (Winter 2015 edition)
Tony Robinson’s first clue that coaching semi-professional football in the Middle East would be significantly more challenging than mentoring high schoolers in the United States came when his players showed up for the first workout.
Several wore their shoulder pads outside their jerseys.
“That was strange, that they didn’t put the shirt over the pads,” Robinson said. “But they are eager to learn the game.”
Robinson, a Yellow Jacket standout defensive lineman from 1997 to 2000 and longtime Atlanta-area high school assistant football coach, is teaching the sport he loves in one of the world’s unlikeliest locales. He’s the first-year head coach of the Abu Dhabi Wildcats, one of six teams in the Emirates American Football League.
The league opened its fourth season in November. The teams are based in three cities in the United Arab Emirates, a small nation on the Persian Gulf bordered by Saudi Arabia and Oman. Abu Dhabi, the island capital of the UAE, boasts two teams, including Robinson’s Wildcats. Three more teams are located in Dubai, the coastal vacation destination and global business center, and another in Al Ain, an inland city built around an oasis.
The EAFL draws player talent from more than 30 countries, with a heavy concentration of ex-patriated North Americans and Europeans. Many Emirates play as well. Rugby and team handball, another contact sport, have long been played in the Middle East, so the physicality of football is not foreign to them.
Even if the equipment is. And the rules, strategies…
“We are setting the expectations every day,” Robinson said. “We are out to make sure they have an authentic experience, but it’s hard because it’s not native to their culture.”
Robinson has tackled some hard adjustments himself since moving to Abu Dhabi with his wife and two sons this summer.
The UAE first captured the Robinsons imagination in 2014. Tony built a successful logistics career following his graduation from Georgia Tech and received an employment offer that would require him to relocate to the Emirates. The job wasn’t right and he declined, but in researching the locale, he and his wife, an elementary school teacher, decided to pursue other opportunities in the region.
Earlier this year, Robinson’s wife landed a position teaching English in Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa City public school. The salary was significant, enough to support the family until Tony found a logistics job, and the Robinsons moved.
Tony must wait until his residency visa becomes official to start working. He’s filling his time with his coaching duties.
“I’m not getting paid, but I’m working just as hard as if I was,” Robinson said good-naturedly. “This is pretty fun, working with players on all levels and backgrounds, and as long as I don’t get pressed into putting on the pads and playing, I’m good.”
Robinson does not see the EAFL as a way to resurrect — or relive — his playing days. He hasn’t played competitively since training camp of what was to be his rookie season in the National Football League. Signed as an undrafted free agent by the Kansas City Chiefs, he tore a hamstring prior to the start of the 2001 season and gave up football.
He’s adamant he won’t suit up like his fellow former-college-start-turned-EAFL-coach Andre Sommersell. Sommersell is the player-coach for the Dubai Stallions and was “Mr. Irrelevant” — the last pick overall — in the 2004 NFL Draft following an accomplished college career at Colorado State. He’s lived in Dubai since 2009, working for a business development company, and is in his fourth season coaching in the league.
Even without strapping on a helmet, Robinson is treated like a football legend by his players. Several looked up his Georgia Tech stats on the Internet — 89 tackles and three sacks in 43 career games — and were duly impressed.
“They seek me out for my knowledge,” Robinson said. “One of the things they have come to respect is my ability to watch film and pick up on tendencies to help them get better or exploit an opponent. That’s a skill we take for granted at home. That really built up their trust in me.”
His players’ day jobs and the desert heat limit the amount of work Robinson’s team puts in on the practice field. The Wildcats have two mandatory practices a week, although several players put in extra work on the off days.
Robinson also helps coach the league’s youth clinics, in which Robinson and others teach kids as young as eight years old the positions, footwork, techniques, and rules of the game.
“We had a 15-year-old boy who it was his first time playing, and it was an eye-opening experience for him,” Robinson said. “All it takes is to be open-minded.”
Robinson’s focus on discipline and fundamentals is invaluable for a growing sport, said the EAFL’s founder, former Canadian Football League player Dustin Cherniawski.
Robinson’s approach is “perfectly in line with the ethos of the EAFL,” Cherniawski said.
Robinson envisions spending a minimum of two years in the UAE. His oldest son is age 11 and a budding basketball talent. The family plans to return to the United States prior to him starting high school.
“The basketball culture is not good here,” Robinson said.
As for football, Robinson hopes to leave that sport’s culture in the UAE better than he found it. And win some games, too. The Wildcats played for the EAFL title the first two seasons but missed the championship game last year.
“Not in my wildest dreams did I think I would be the head coach for a pro team in the Emirates,” Robinson said. “A Desert Bowl championship ring would be a good conversation starter back home.”