Before Aaron Donald was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, he spent his Saturdays terrorizing college quarterbacks at Heinz Field.
In the NFL, Donald has a reputation of being a hard worker and relentless competitor playing for the Los Angeles Rams. According to Chris Lasala, Pitt’s associate athletic director for football administration, the defensive lineman has always been that way.
“One of his mottos is ‘hard work pays off,’ and that’s just what he did,” Lasala said. “He just worked. He didn’t run his mouth … he didn’t announce to everybody he was coming in early or staying late, he just did it.”
His work certainly paid off at Pitt, where he won the 2013 ACC Defensive Player of the Year award in his senior season. That year he also took home the Vince Lombardi award for Lineman of the Year, the Chuck Bednarik award for NCAA Defensive Player of the Year and was a consensus All-American.
Donald went on a week-long awards circuit in December 2013. The trip lasted four days, and he arrived back at Pitt late in the night. He was given the next day off, but when the coaches arrived for practice, Donald was dressed in full pads, ready to go.
“I remember watching it just kind of laughing,” Lasala said. “That’s Aaron Donald. You try to give him a day off, and he’s not gonna take it, and it’s because he knows he’s gotta keep working.”
Donald has been outstanding in the pros as well since being drafted in 2014. He has been selected for the Pro Bowl all four years he’s been in the league, and he earned first team All-Pro the past three seasons. He was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the year in 2014. This year, the Associated Press named Donald the NFL Defensive Player of the Year for the first time in his career.
E.J. Borghetti, the executive associate athletic director for Pitt Athletics, remembers Donald as a consummate professional, even in college.
“The great thing about Aaron was — and remains — Aaron’s a worker,” Borghetti said. “Aaron certainly always dutifully met his obligations and commitments as it pertains to the media. But Aaron is a worker.”
Donald has been a general in the trenches for the Rams over the last four seasons, helping lead the team to its first playoff appearance since 2004 and its first winning record since 2003.
On the field, it was evident to the Pitt football staff from the beginning that he was going to succeed. Borghetti recalled a conversation he had with one of Pitt’s offensive lineman during Donald’s first season.
“Jason Pinkston, who himself went on to become an NFL offensive lineman, I can remember him remarking, ‘We’re going to have a hard time keeping him off the field. He’s going to be ready to play,’” Borghetti said.
Off the field, that competitive nature spilled over into friendly games of ping-pong in the team locker room.
“He would just compete to the end of the world in a ping-pong game and [I remember] watching him just dominate whoever he played,” Lasala said. “Or if he couldn’t dominate him, just will himself to beat him.”
Donald has always been a quiet competitor. In fact, he is a quiet guy in general, Lasala said, who was involved in Donald’s recruiting process. Lasala first met Donald when he was a junior in high school, and described him as “very similar to what he is now. Very quiet, focused, doesn’t say a lot.”
Originally from Penn Hills, about a 20-minute drive from Pittsburgh, Donald showed talent and natural ability in high school as well.
His former defensive line coach at Penn Hills High School, Demond Gibson, played for Pitt from 1996 to 1999. He remembers an impressive playoff game from Donald’s senior season that he said was the “culmination of all the work that we had put in.”
“[It was] probably the most dominant performance I’ve ever seen a high school player have. We were underdogs in that game, we were supposed to lose,” Gibson said. “Aaron pretty much single-handedly won that game.”
Gibson said Donald hasn’t changed from the person he was in high school.
“The biggest thing for Aaron is that he has been able to remain Aaron. He hasn’t taken on this facade of someone else and this alter ego, he’s still the same person,” Gibson said. “And that’s the best part about him. I think that’s why he has so much success, because of the humility and the person he remains.”
Donald always jumps at the opportunity to return to Pitt, even with his professional life taking him to Los Angeles.
He regularly comes back to work out at the Panthers facility in South Side, Borghetti said. Head coach Pat Narduzzi keeps a locker for Donald, “with Aaron’s name on it and everything.”
“His emphasis is, ‘this is where it all started, this is my home,’” Borghetti said. “And when he’s talking about home he’s not just talking about being from Penn Hills, he’s talking about Pitt. Pitt is his home.”