Vikings defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson showed up for a recent meeting with other players at the TCO Performance Center in Eagan. Suddenly, it was as if an episode of “This is Your Life” had broken out.
Minnesota defensive coordinator Ed Donatell put Tomlinson’s name on the board. Then he talked about his life and family.
“He pretty much told my whole story, from like Little League to high school to college and the NFL,’’ Tomlinson said. “Everything. Just how I did in wrestling with (three) state championships (won in high school in Alabama). He went into detail with everything.”
Tomlinson is hardly the only Vikings player to have gotten that sort of treatment from the team’s new defensive coordinator. In fact, former Green Bay safety LeRoy Butler, who was inducted Saturday into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and played for the Packers for the first two seasons of Donatell’s 2000-03 stint as defensive coordinator, said he did the same thing back then.
Donatell, 65, was hired by the Vikings in February by first-year head coach Kevin O’Connell. Since spring drills began in April, he’s been working his way down the roster in providing the life stories of Minnesota defensive players during meetings.
“I was brought into this league by Pete Carroll, and he was all about connection, caring for people and his teams always played hard,’’ Donatell said about beginning his 32-season run as an NFL assistant when hired as New York Jets defensive backs coach in 1990 by Carroll, then a defensive coordinator and now Seattle’s head coach. “And when I’m in leadership positions, I wanted to enhance that. And it’s really hard to coach somebody until you know them, and they really know that you care. So that’s all we’re doing.”
Vikings cornerback Nate Hairston said Donatell’s personal touch helps. Hairston experienced it playing for Denver the past two seasons under Donatell, who was the Broncos’ defensive coordinator from 2019-21.
“Great dude,’’ Hairston said. “He connects to the players. He builds camaraderie. When you know who’s out there playing next to you by his kids, his family, from what he likes to do, it makes you want to play harder for that guy. So it’s a great thing that we do learn about our teammates.’’
Of course, there’s also plenty of football discussed in these meetings. And there’s not many coaches in the NFL with more experience than Donatell.
Donatell, an Akron, Ohio, native who played defensive back at Glenville (W. Va.) State, began his coaching career in 1979 at Kent State. That was six years before O’Connell was born in 1985.
After additional college stops at Washington, Pacific, Idaho and Cal State Fullerton, Donatell landed with the Jets for five seasons. After that, his NFL stops have included stints as Denver’s secondary coach from 1995-99, Green Bay’s defensive coordinator, Atlanta’s defensive coordinator from 2004-06, a Jets special assistant in 2007, Denver’s secondary coach again from 2009-10, San Francisco’s secondary coach from 2011-14, Chicago’s secondary coach from 2015-18 and then on to the Broncos again. He did return to college to serve as Washington’s defensive coordinator in 2008.
“Ed’s a heck of a coach,’’ said Vic Fangio, who was the Broncos’ head coach the past three seasons before being fired. “He’s going to do what’s best for the players that he has there in Minnesota, and he’s very confident in the system that we’ve always run. … I think he’s excited about the possibilities that they have in Minnesota and thinks they could be a good team.”
Fangio, who is taking this season off after 32 years as an NFL assistant and his three as a head coach, has had a huge influence on Donatell’s career. During his first two stops as an NFL defensive coordinator with Green Bay and Atlanta, Donatell played a 4-3 defense before he learned Fangio’s 3-4 scheme, which Minnesota is now playing.
Donatell spent 11 straight seasons with Fangio, who was the 49ers’ defensive coordinator from 2011-14,and the Bears’ defensive coordinator from 2015-18. Under Fangio’s system, Donatell learned intricacies of disguising defensive looks until just before the play clock has run down.
“(Fangio) means a lot to me,’’ Donatell said. “It’s a great relationship. We navigated a lot of football at different places and put in schemes. … You always got to keep evolving. I’m indebted to him.”
In Denver the previous three years, Fangio called the plays, but he said Donatell played an integral role. The Broncos were third in the NFL in 2021 in scoring defense, although a shaky offense resulted to just a 7-10 record and the team cleaned house with the coaching staff.
“The (Fangio defensive) system has evolved and morphed over the years, and Ed’s been there every step of the way with me these last 11 seasons,’’ said Fangio, long regarded as one of the NFL’s top defensive minds. “He played a big part in game planning, particularly related to the secondary and coverages we would play.”
Donatell’s specialty long has been the secondary, and he played a key role in the Broncos winning Super Bowls after the 1997 and 1998 seasons. That defensive backfield included safety Steve Atwater, who would go on to be named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2020.
“He always treated us like men,’’ said Atwater, who played for the Broncos from 1989-98 and is now their manager of fan development. “He never had to yell and scream. He’s not really a screamer anyway. He’s just a very good teacher. Very detail oriented.”
The head coach of those Denver championship teams was Mike Shanahan and defensive coordinator was Greg Robinson. Shanahan gives Donatell plenty of credit for his role on a team that defeated Green Bay 31-24 in Super Bowl XXXII and Atlanta 34-19 in Super Bowl XXXIII.
“I knew it was just a matter of time before he was going to go to different places to be a coordinator with the background that he had,’’ said Shanahan, who is retired and lives in the Denver area, where he closely followed Donatell the last three seasons with the Broncos. “He has the ability to take a look at your personnel and decide what fits your personnel the best. And he cares about his players on and off the football field, so everywhere he’s been he’s had the utmost respect.”
With the Packers, Donatall inherited a unit that had slipped to No. 20 in the NFL in scoring defense during a disappointing 8-8 season in 1999. He had them ranked as high as No. 5 in the league during a 12-4 season in 2001.
“I’d always prided myself on being the smartest player to play,’’ said Butler, who played for Green Bay from 1990-2001. “I wanted to know everything there was to know about offenses and defenses. I was already smart but Ed Donatell made me a brilliant player.
“I learned a lot from him. I thought I knew everything but he would just challenge me mentally. What separated him was he knows everything about what a quarterback likes to do. He knows what the other offensive coordinators like to do, and so he would study their weaknesses as well as their strengths and gave us the paperwork to study.”
After four seasons with the Packers under head coach Mike Sherman, Donatell moved on to spend three years as the defensive coordinator in Atlanta under Jim L. Mora.
The Falcons had issues on defense, finishing No. 14 in scoring defense in 2004 and No. 22 in both 2005 and 2006, and Mora and his staff were fired. But Donatell during his time in Atlanta did grow even closer to Atwater, who had retired and was then a realtor in the area.
“We really became good friends,’’ Atwater said. “When (the Donatell family) moved, I was actually the realtor for them and sold them their home, and we were in the same neighborhood (in suburban Duluth). And then I coached his son, Stevie, in Little League football. We really had a blast.”
Steve Donatell, now 28, is one of three children of Donatell and his wife Shari. He is now a Vikings defensive quality control assistant, marking the first time he has served on the same staff as his father.
After his seven seasons as a defensive coordinator with the Packers and Falcons, Donatell mostly went back to being an NFL secondary coach for the next dozen years. He did finally return to being an NFL defensive coordinator with Denver.
Since Donatell didn’t call the plays for the Broncos, he hasn’t called an NFL game since 2006. O’Connell, though, was convinced after being hired by the Vikings that Donatell would be an ideal fit. O’Connell, 37, is a head coach for the first time, and wanted a seasoned veteran to handle the defense.
“He’s a teacher, he’s an educator,’’ O’Connell said. “He’s going to provide (players) with the things they need individually to have success and collectively have success as a group.’’
O’Connell had never worked on the same staff as Donatell. However, he learned about him through Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley, who was the Los Angeles’ Rams defensive coordinator in 2020 when O’Connell was the offensive coordinator. Staley worked with Donatell when Staley was outside linebackers coach with Chicago from 2017-18 and with Denver in 2019.
“Ed’s name was always high on that list, even before we’d spent a lot of time together,’’ O’Connell said. “Because of a guy like Brandon and everybody you talk to, everybody who has coached with him, everybody who has played with him,. He’s the same guy every day. He’s our glue guy. That’s what I call him. He holds it all together when I may be losing my mind.”
Donatell has reached the age of retirement for most workers, but there’s no indication he’ll be stepping away anytime soon. He said upon reporting for training camp that it “never gets old” for him, and he wants to coach at least until he’s 70.
“I’m on a five-year plan,’’ Donatell said. “I evaluate it every time. After every year, I say, ‘Hey, I’ve got five more.’ … But really, I can’t ever remember having this much fun (with) the staff that Kevin put together (and) the players in this locker room. … It’s just a great locker room.”
Hairston, who signed with the Vikngs as a free agent in March, said teammates had asked him about Donatell. He said he told them all the same thing.
“Ed is a coach who always listens to his players,’’ Hairston said. “If guys don’t like something or if they do like something, he’ll try to adjust it to make it comfortable because we’re the ones out there executing. If you got an idea and bring it to him, and if it makes sense, he’ll do his best to get it out there on the field.”
Hairston said Donatell often asks players how they and their families are doing, and pointed out how in Denver he would regularly during meetings give his rundowns on a player’s life. When told that Donatell is still doing that in Minnesota, Butler laughed.
“He was doing that back then,’’ Butler said. “He’s one of the few guys that really cared about me outside of the building. He’d ask, ‘How’s your family doing? What kind of books are you reading?’ I was like, ‘Wait, normal coaches don’t do that.’’’
Donatall showed earlier this summer that he still was thinking about Butler. Even though the two hadn’t talked in a number of years, Donatell reached out to congratulate Butler on being named to the hall of fame. The two talked on the phone for 40 minutes, and Butler said it was like old times.