Rob Keefe feels fortunate to have had a couple of former National Football League players on hand to help him deal with the pregame buildup prior to the Spokane Shock’s preseason matchup against the Arkansas Twisters earlier this month.
Otherwise, the former Shock standout and ultra fan favorite might have succumbed to the familiar and enticing sounds and smells of the locker room, strapped on the pads and started looking for someone in a white jersey to level – which might not sound like a bad move considering all Keefe accomplished in his two seasons as an arenafootball2 defensive back in Spokane.
But these days, his responsibilities have changed. And as a first-year assistant coach for the Shock, Keefe can no longer let himself get caught up in the emotional swell leading into any game.
“That first game was hard for me,” the 28-year-old Keefe admitted, looking back to his coaching debut when the Shock held off the Twisters 35-28 in the Arena in mid-March.
“They brought in the stereo, the music started pounding, guys started putting the pads on – it was all really exciting, again, and I got really amped up.”
That was when Tom Ackerman and Steve Emtman, a couple of former collegiate and NFL standouts who serve as volunteer coaches for the Shock, approached Keefe with some vital advice.
“Both of those guys – obviously two of the best in the NFL – came over to me and said, ‘This is the hardest part. You need to calm down.’ ” Keefe explained. “And they were right. As a player, I always had a routine where I would arrive about the same time as the other guys, go into the locker room, crank up the stereo and start to get pumped up for the game.
“Now, all of sudden, after 10 years, that all stops and I have to have a different routine. As a coach, there’s no longer any point in me jumping around and getting all geeked out before a game. But there I was, listening to every lyric and hearing every beat coming out of that stereo, and I finally had to tell myself to relax, because the players need me to be calm.
“It’s a new focus for me, in a way, and I might have to stay away from the locker room for a while from now on as the players start to settle in.”
Keefe’s routine as a player seemed to served him well. In two seasons with the Shock (2006-07), the 6-foot, 190-pounder, who electrified fans with his recklessly intense play, had a hand in a team-record 168 tackles, picked off 19 passes and broke up 30 others – all of which helped him earn a spot on the All-af2 team both years, and the fitting nickname, “Keefense.”
Following the 2007 season, Keefe earned a spot on the roster of the Arena Football League’s Philadelphia Soul, where he made 36 tackles and assisted on 10 others as a backup DB and special-teams player on a team that won the AFL championship prior to the league suspending its 2009 season because of financial problems.
Because of the AFL’s decision, Keefe was forced to explore other income opportunities. And after balking at a couple of offers to try out for teams in the Canadian Football League and turning down several offers to become a defensive coordinator at the af2 level, he opted to return to Spokane and mentor the Shock’s secondary and special teams under third-year head coach Adam Shackleford.
It was a decision that has worked out well on both a personal and professional level.
Keefe, who also works as a financial planner for Primerica Financial Services, has managed to stay involved with arena football, while no longer having to maintain a long-distance relationship with his girlfriend, Stephanie Rubright, a Spokane resident who is attending graduate school at Gonzaga University and studying to become a physician’s assistant.
“It’s great to be back here,” said Keefe, who grew up in the Washington, D.C., area and attended Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa. “Spokane, more than any place I’ve ever seen, is like the ultimate community. It’s just big enough to where you don’t know everybody, obviously. But it’s small enough to where you take pride in everything you do, because a lot of people probably know you.
“I tell people it’s my home now. I’ve spent more time here than I have anywhere else in the last 10 years. I have a Washington driver’s license and everything.”
Keefe’s decision to return to Spokane – at least until the AFL sorts through its financial morass – has worked, as well, for the Shock, who open the af2 regular-season schedule at home on Friday with a showdown against the West Division rival Stockton Lightning (1-0) that kicks off at 7 p.m. in the Arena.
“We’ve been very happy with what Rob had done,” Shackleford said. “The important thing to remember is that if the AFL were here, he’d still be playing pro football, which gives him instant credibility with our players. He brings a lot of energy to our staff, the guys like him, he’s a hard worker and he loves Spokane, which helps, too.”
Shackleford sees the same intensity in Keefe’s approach as a coach as he did when he was one of his players in 2007.
“The first time we scrimmaged this year, we had a guy tackled in the end zone on a kickoff, and when I looked out, Rob had already sprinted out to midfield,” Shackleford recalled, adding he has no intentions of trying to temper Keefe’s passion. “He always shows an extreme amount of energy, and you don’t ever want to tone that down – in a player, or a coach.
“He’s obviously a man excited about his job, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
But if the AFL is able to sort through its financial woes and come up with a business model that will allow it to resume play in 2010, Keefe will have another decision to make.
From what he’s heard about the AFL’s future plans, role players like him could earn between $25,000- $40,000 a year if the league resumes play next spring, with quarterbacks and franchise players earning as much as six figures. Those are numbers Keefe must factor in when weighing his potential future options, but there are other things to consider, as well.
“I’m about to turn 29,” he said. “And I know playing can only last for so long, while coaching can last forever. I know that I’m a role player if I go back to the AFL; I understand that and I accept it. And I definitely recommend it to every player who hasn’t played in the AFL.”
But for Keefe, who has already experienced the high of winning championships at both the af2 and AFL levels, the decision won’t be as big a slam dunk as some might expect.
“It was hard leaving Philadelphia,” he explained, “because I went out on such a high note. I was fortunate enough to be in Spokane, and then Philadelphia was the same thing – highest attendance in the league and winning the championship in New Orleans.
“So, do I go out on that kind of high note? I know for sure I don’t want to be a journeyman player when I’m 32, so I’m trying to be smart about it.”
He won’t decide whether to return to the AFL until all of the financial details are worked out and he can determine his own worth as a player. Until then, he will approach his future “one day at a time” with the same fervor and lack of fear he has exhibited as a player and coach.
“It’s the only way I know,” Keefe said. “And right now, all of my focus is on helping win another championship for the Spokane Shock and the Spokane community.”