Pittsburgh’s Aaron Donald sacks Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova. He’s won most major awards for top defensive player in the nation.
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PITTSBURGH — It’s the first day of Aaron Donald’s awards tour, and there’s already a problem.
Specifically, his tuxedo doesn’t fit.
The arms are too tight and the chest is too big. He’ll need that tuxedo for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy dinner later that night, but, right now, there are other things to worry about.
It’s Monday in Charlotte, a little after noon, and Pittsburgh’s star defensive tackle is having lunch with the award’s sponsors.
This is just the first stop on Aaron Donald’s awards week tour, a whirlwind trip that took him from Charlotte to Houston to Orlando, Fla., over the span of four days. He entered the week as a finalist for four major individual trophies — the Nagurski Trophy (best defensive player), the Lombardi Award (best lineman or linebacker), the Outland Trophy (best offensive or defensive lineman), and the Bednarik Award (best defensive player).
He returned to Pittsburgh with all four trophies in tow. Despite being under-recruited and supposedly undersized, this soft-spoken kid from Penn Hills, Pa., had become the most dominant defensive player in college football this season. On Thursday, Bowling Green will experience first hand what kind of force he can be.
A shaky start
It’s the first day of Aaron Donald’s football career, and there’s already a problem.
Specifically, he doesn’t want to play anymore.
As his mother, Anita Goggins, was getting 5-year-old Aaron dressed for his first practice, he informed her that he no longer wanted to play football like his brother Archie, Jr., four years his senior.
“Aaron, daddy just bought you these new spikes,” Goggins said, to which Aaron replied that she should wipe them off and return them to the store.
When Donald’s father, Archie, Sr., arrived and Goggins told him their son’s decision, the elder Donald said it was fine, but Aaron still had to come out to practice and watch his older brother every day.
By the time the next season rolled around, Aaron was ready to put the pads back on.
It’s a bit ironic that the main criticism of Donald today is his size, because that wasn’t an issue then. In fact, that first season of organized football was the only time oversized Donald played with kids his own age until he reached high school.
He dominated the undersized older children he played against at that point, but as he reached middle school, Donald admitted he hit a bit of a “lazy stage.”
“My dad would tell me to take the garbage out or sweep the floor by the time he comes back and I’d be like, ‘Yes sir,’ ” Donald said. “Then he’d come back and it wouldn’t be done yet. To get me off that lazy stage, he got me working out a lot.”
Starting at 11, Aaron regularly was up at 6 a.m., lifting weights with his dad.
Donald never quit the game of football again.
Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald poses with the Bronko Nagurski Trophy for the college football defensive player of the year.
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An unlikely path
The day in Charlotte doesn’t ease up at all for Donald after lunch. Led by Pitt associate athletic director E.J. Borghetti, Donald’s guide for the week, Donald and his parents go to the third floor of the sprawling Charlotte Westin for an interview with the NFL Network.
With his parents sitting behind the camera, Donald draws some laughs when he mentions that it’s his dad’s birthday, so the Nagurski Trophy might make a nice present for Archie.
Donald goes through all this with fellow Nagurski finalist Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard. Despite different positions, schools, and conferences, the two share one common thread: neither had the five-star pedigree you would expect of potential defensive players of the year.
A brother’s praise
Penn Hills defensive line coach Demond Gibson first caught a glimpse of Aaron Donald in 2006 when Donald was playing on the Indians freshman team.
Archie, Jr., who played linebacker at Penn Hills, had just graduated a year earlier and warned Gibson about Aaron.
“I noticed this kid who had a super-quick first step and was just making plays all over the field. I was like, ‘Who is this kid?’ ” Gibson said.
“[Archie, Jr.] had said, ‘Wait until you get my brother, he’s a really good player.’ But everybody says that. He meant it.”
Over the next four years at Penn Hills, Gibson helped Donald hone the work ethic that now defines him. Donald could get by on size and strength alone in high school, but would need to develop his technique if he wanted to succeed at the next level.
“When we were working on things, I tried to work with him past the level that he was on,” Gibson said.
Gibson said his favorite game was in Donald’s senior year, when he had three sacks and wreaked havoc in the offensive backfield to key a 14-7 upset of heavily favored Upper St. Clair in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs.
“They couldn’t run the football without him being in the backfield,” Gibson said. “He was almost taking handoffs. It was ridiculous.”
Most college recruiters were slow to take notice, but Pitt defensive line coach Greg Gattuso thought he might have something in this undersized defensive tackle from Penn Hills.
“I think I might’ve watched five plays of Aaron on tape,” said Dave Wannstedt, Pitt’s head coach at the time. “I said, ‘You know what, in our scheme of defense, he would be perfect.’”
Wannstedt visited Donald and his parents in March of his junior year to offer a scholarship and, before the end of April, Donald had verbally committed to the Panthers.
“I always told myself, my mom, and my dad that I wanted to play for Pitt or Penn State,” Donald said. “I got an offer from Pitt and I was like, ‘I’m jumping on that. That’s a dream school to me.’”
Dealing with change
The last item on Donald’s agenda before he has to get changed for the awards dinner is a radio interview with a local sports talk station.
The first question, though, isn’t about this season or Donald’s performance, but about former Pitt coach Todd Graham, who abruptly left the school after the 2011 season, and all the coaching changes Donald has had to endure in his Pitt career.
Donald answers diplomatically, praising coach Paul Chryst’s current staff, and gets a pat on the back from Borghetti after the interview.
Gibson played defensive tackle at Pitt from 1996-99 and saw firsthand the turmoil a coaching transition can bring when Johnny Majors retired.
That was a relatively peaceful transition. The ones Donald experienced were not.
“The fact that this kid was able to go through three different coaches and still remain a top dominant player says tremendous things about this kid,” Gibson said.
He played in every game as a freshman, and by the middle of the season was a regular in the defensive rotation.
“Gattuso kept coming to me and saying, ‘Hey let’s play Aaron a little bit, let’s put him in the game, look what he’s doing in practice,’” Wannstedt said. “At that point it was not a secret that he was going to be a great player.”
Donald began to blossom as a sophomore, but was always a bit out of place in Graham’s 3-4 scheme. When Chryst arrived and brought the familiar 4-3 defense with him, Donald found his niche at defensive tackle.
He made All-Big East Conference as a junior, but took off this season, leading Division I-A with 26.5 tackles for a loss, including 10 sacks.
Hard work pays off
The event organizers never did manage to find a proper-fitting tuxedo for Donald, but that hardly mattered just after 10 that night when he walked on stage to collect the Nagurski Trophy on his dad’s birthday.
It only got better from there, as Donald’s parents got to watch him take home three more major awards before the week was out.
Thursday night, standing with his Bednarik Award, the usually reserved Donald appeared to finally let the moment get to him a little bit.
“It’s just surreal,” he said. “To really see all this hard work pay off, I don’t want to tear up, but I’m just truly honored.”
Goggins was not as successful holding back tears as the ESPN cameras panned to her in the audience.
“He’s always been good,” she said. “Now the world can see. They see how good he is.”
Goggins admitted that she, Aaron, and Archie, Sr., have begun preliminary discussions on how to handle Aaron’s next step: the NFL.
Donald is projected as a first or second-round draft pick but, just like coming out of high school, there are concerns about his size. At 6 feet, 285 pounds, he’s a bit undersized for a prototypical defensive tackle.
“There is a place for Aaron in the NFL,” Wannstedt, now special teams coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, said. “It’s going to depend on the scheme and the team.”
As Donald was standing with his Bednarik Trophy, though, that was the furthest thing from his mind. He even said he was anxious to get back to Pittsburgh and start preparing for his final college game in the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl on Thursday at Ford Field in Detroit against Bowling Green.
“He’s an exceptional player, and he’s going to be a big challenge,” BG senior guard Dominic Flewellyn said. “But I look at this as an opportunity to show what we’ve got. We all want to meet the challenge and see what we can do [to stop him].
“He has a great first step. He gets to the offensive linemen pretty quickly, either with a ‘swim’ move or a line stunt. He plays with good leverage and has a good motor. He has everything you need to be a great defensive player.”
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Sam Werner is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.
Blade sports writer John Wagner contributed to this story.