FLOWERY BRANCH – John Abraham was in the seventh grade when he hobbled into the house one day with a sprained ankle. He told his mother he had turned it in the backyard playing football. That almost ended his athletic career right there.
“She hated sports,” Abraham said Tuesday, laughing. “She didn’t want me to play sports any more. She only came to watch me play football once in high school. She didn’t even realize how good I was until recruiters started coming around.”
Soon, Maggie Abraham found out what everybody else already knew. Her son became an all-SEC defensive end at South Carolina, a first-round draft pick of the New York Jets, a four-time Pro Bowler and one of only 25 NFL players to record 100 sacks.
This season, at the age of 32 and in his 11th season, Abraham has enjoyed arguably the finest year of his career, leading the Falcons with 13 sacks. He batted down four passes and intercepted another (a career first). He’s also turned into a locker room leader, a new role for a player considered quiet or even selfish in New York.
“You know what everybody says about you,” he said when asked of his previous reputation. “Before, I didn’t really feel it was part of my job to be vocal and a leader. But now I feel it is. I’m an older guy. You appreciate things more.”
Abraham is back in the playoffs for only the third time in 11 years. The only thing that could have made this season more enjoyable would be if Maggie Abraham was in the stands watching. Unfortunately, her health won’t permit that.
Abraham’s mother is back in Timmonsville, S.C., battling lymphoma. It’s difficult for her to travel, although she was in town for Christmas. That was the last time Abraham saw her, but they speak on the phone daily.
“Her last chemo treatment was in August and she hasn’t relapsed or anything,” Abraham said. “Right now, we’re just praying, and everything’s going good. I told her she’s got to start eating better, doing different things. But she’s in her 60s. She’s eating the same things she always has. I can’t change her.”
One reason Abraham wanted to come to the Falcons in 2006 (via trade) was to get back to the South and be closer to Maggie, who raised him as a single mother. Maggie became a football fan only because of her son, but her illness has prevented her from attending a game since late last season. Abraham carved, “I (heart) Mom” into his hair” for a nationally televised game against Baltimore in November on the chance she would be watching. He also sends her a DVD of every game.
“She always says, ‘You did good,’” Abraham said. “I’d say, ‘Mom, we lost,’ but she still says, ‘That’s OK, you did good.’”
Abraham has enjoyed his five seasons with the Falcons. He said, “Even the bad times here have been better than the good times there,” alluding to his days with the Jets. Things did not end well there. Salary squabbles were among the problems. “Regardless of what our record was [here], I never felt undermined or disrespected,” he said.
He played for three head coaches in his first three seasons here — Jim Mora, Bobby Petrino, Mike Smith — but only Smith got it right. He has learned how to best utilize Abraham, limiting his snaps to keep him fresh in the fourth quarter and through the season. Abraham also has been helped by Jonathan Babineaux and Kroy Biermann getting push up front.
Now he’s is seeking his first real postseason success. He has played in only three playoff games — two in 2002 with the Jets and one in 2008 (the Falcons loss at Arizona).
“I’ve never been to an AFC or NFC championship game, and I’m getting older,” he said. “So to me this is more important than anything right now. I just want to see this team go deep into the playoffs.”
His next opportunity will come Saturday night against Green Bay. Then he’ll phone his mother to talk about it.
By Jeff Schultz
Falcons Playoff Central: