Aaron Donald, with his one-year-old daughter wedged between his biceps, squared up in front of Savoy Restaurant as family members surrounded him to pose for pictures before his big moment.
“Certainly, this is going to be a wonderful experience, and I am just going to make sure I enjoy it,” Donald said before making his way into the lounge area of the Strip District establishment.
He was referring to his ensuing draft party, but could have easily meant his burgeoning professional football career.
In 2010, then-Pitt football coach Dave Wannstedt took a gamble when he offered Penn Hills High School’s Aaron Donald a scholarship and, with it, an opportunity to represent his hometown for the next four years on the field.
Donald admits that, at the time, he was a player several inches too wide and a few inches too short, possessing a laziness — a refusal to play offense and defense — that hindered him.
Little did Wannstedt know that Donald, a three-star defensive lineman who only had counter-offers from Akron, Toledo and Rutgers, according to Rivals.com, would become the most awarded player in Pitt’s history and a unanimous All-American (10 polls) as a senior.
“Hard work pays off,” Donald said at the May 8 draft party .
Archie Donald Jr., Aaron’s father and a former power lifter, forced motivation on his son when Aaron transitioned from middle to high school. Archie Jr. devised a plan. The father would roll out of bed every morning to lift weights with Aaron in their basement before work and school obligations. Together, they laid foundation for a dream shared by the entire family, one that came true on that night in early May.
“When you got a good, solid household you live and grow up in, you tend to do good things,” Aaron said.
Aaron’s parents separated when he was nine, proceeding to work steady hours to support healthy living situations. Archie Jr. works for a company that recycles tires, while Aaron’s mother, Anita Goggins, is a bus driver.
The lounge area inside the restaurant contained only Donald’s closest loved ones, which included his parents, brother, fiancee Jaelynn Blakey and daughter Jaeda. More than 100 friends and extended family members crowded into the remainder of the restaurant to support Donald.
It was all set up to be the draft day experience he wanted.
At around 9:30 p.m., Donald received a phone call from St. Louis head coach Jeff Fisher informing him that his journey to the NFL was about to enter its next stage.
Friends and family turned to the TV screen hung over the bar to witness Roger Goodell give Shon Coleman – a cancer survivor and Auburn offensive lineman – the honor of announcing the selection to the public.
“And with the 13th pick in the NFL Draft the St. Louis Rams select Aa … ”
The moment the first syllable of Aaron’s name was enunciated, the Donald family’s emotions began to imitate how Aaron plays on the football field: loud and passionate. With two fists raised above his head and shaking with triumph, Aaron’s father emerged first from the lounge. He entered the bar area with a hop-step and let out multiple “whoos” before he began taking congratulatory hugs and handshakes.
“I never thought it could happen like this,” the elder Donald said, briefly containing his excitement. “I guess dreams do come true.”
Aaron’s older brother, Archie III, came out of the lounge next with a beaming smile across his face. He was met with immediate hugs and playful “Yeah, NFL!” chants.
“It was mind-boggling that this was happening to my little brother.” Archie III said, cracking an ear-to-ear grin and throwing an ensuing fist pump. “I was so excited.”
A lot of satisfaction came with that one call.
Archie III, who played linebacker at the University of Toledo, signed with the Cleveland Browns as an undrafted free agent and saw some preseason action before injuring his shoulder.
“It felt like I was the one getting the phone call,” Archie III said 20 minutes after the announcement.
If there’s one commonality between Aaron and Archie III, it’s their ball-hawking abilities. Archie played linebacker at Penn Hills before earning a scholarship to play for Toledo, where he eventually led the Rockets in tackling for three consecutive seasons. He went undrafted but was signed by the Cleveland Browns in 2011, leading the Browns in preseason tackling that summer before injuring his shoulder and ultimately ending his career.
The undrafted free agent lived through Aaron, who led the nation in tackles for loss per game at 2.2 tackles.
“This is only the beginning,” he said, directing a message to Aaron. “There is a lot of work to do, and now it’s time to work to be great.”
About three minutes later, Goggins exited the lounge with joyous tears streaming down her face.
“That’s my baby!” she screamed as she raised her white handkerchief high above her head and shook her wrists side-to-side.
Congratulatory hugs came at him so fast that Jaeda had to squirm around them to find comfort.
Earlier, while his phone remained silent, Donald was relaxed watching the teams make their selections.
“Everything was going to fall into place at the end of the day,” he said, praising the Rams’ defensive line. “They are looking for an inside pass rusher, and I am looking to be that guy.”
Donald became the fourth current Rams defensive lineman to be chosen in the first round of a draft and could also play alongside former Missouri lineman Michael Sam, the 2013 SEC Defensive Player of the Year and the first openly-gay NFL player selected when the Rams selected him in the seventh round. To top it off, Frank Cignetti Jr., who was offensive coordinator at Pitt during Aaron’s freshman season, is the current quarterback coach for the Rams.
Donald has travelled to St. Louis only once to meet Fisher and the Rams a few weeks ago.
“When I visited, [the Rams’ coaching staff] told me that they wanted me to be there,” Donald said.
Meanwhile, Jaeda, confused from all of the lights and recorders and likely awake past her bedtime, attempted to mutter into a reporter’s microphone.
“She’s my motivation,” Donald said, glancing down to the oblivious baby clutched between his bicep and chest. “She always picks me up when I am down, so just to have her in my life is a blessing.”
In the second-biggest night of his life — the first being Jaeda’s birth — Aaron seemed poised and humbled as cameras nearly touched his nose.
After a while, Donald left the restaurant, beaming, with his family. His father, after receiving so many congratulations throughout the night, wanted to make sure he gave out one last thank you.
“The University of Pittsburgh deserves the Donald family gratitude for placing my son in the spotlight to do the things that he did,” Archie Jr. said.