Loud Where it Counts
By RICH CIRMINIELLO
Aaron Donald has a knack for blending in, both on and off campus. He’s not the biggest student-athlete in Western Pennsylvania, and he’s certainly not the rowdiest one. On those rare occasions that he raises a ruckus, it’s usually the result of an infectious, care-free laugh that fills a room and reminds observers that he’s still just a big teddy bear of a kid. But as soon as the pads go on and opponents fill the other sideline, Donald’s game resonates as if spoken through an enormous megaphone.
“Aaron is the baby of the family,” offered Donald’s mother Anita Goggins. “He was always a quiet child, but he became a totally different person once he put his pads on. For Aaron, football in the early going became his unique form of self-expression.”
Prior to the start of the 2013 season, the Big East knew all about Donald’s prowess as a penetrator. In fact, the league was thrilled to see both he and the rest of his Panthers relocate to the ACC. The balance of the country? Even ardent fans couldn’t have picked No. 97 out of a lineup. Boy, did that dynamic change last fall. Donald authored the kind of season that was impossible to overlook. The All-American wreaked weekly havoc on opposing blockers by amassing a nation’s-best 28.5 tackles for loss, 11 sacks and four forced fumbles. For his dominance at the point of attack, Donald has been named the 19th recipient of the Chuck Bednarik Award.
In many ways, Donald is a microcosm of Pittsburgh, the blue-collar city he’s called home his entire life. He’s a lunch pail kind of guy, with the work ethic and the steely resolve of an athlete who’ll never be denied from achieving his goals. Donald is all business, even away from the field, poring over film with a dedication and an attention to detail usually reserved for the coaching staff. He takes great pride in learning his opponent’s weaknesses, which has been evident from the moment he arrived at Pitt from Penn Hills High School.
“I was raised with discipline, raised to be humble and hard-working,” said Donald. “I put a lot of time in the film room in order to become a better student of the game. I never want to stop grinding, and I just want to get faster and stronger each year. All of that hard work, especially in the offseason, has really paid off for me. It’s just a blessing for me to be where I am today.”
The humble kid had, well, humble beginnings. Sure, he dominated wherever he played, but when it came time to field college offers in 2009, he wasn’t garnering the attention of the region’s higher-profile recruits. In the eyes of many college coaches, you see, the 6-1 Donald lacked what many consider to be prototypical size for a defensive tackle. Pitt and Rutgers offered a scholarship, as did Akron and Toledo of the MAC. Everyone else’s loss would soon become the Panthers’ gain.
Donald was like most young players in their first season, long on desire, yet short on reps and opportunities. He did earn a letter in 2010 as a true freshman, even flashing a sneak peek into the future with three stops for loss, two sacks off the bench and plenty of respect from the veterans. It was in Year 2, as a sophomore, that Donald truly hit the tarmac, embracing a starting role and earning Second Team All-Big East by making 47 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and 11 sacks. By the halfway point of his college experience, he’d already laid a foundation on which one of the most decorated careers in Pitt history would soon stand.
Since Donald wasn’t prone to resting on his laurels or admiring his press clippings, he grinded harder than ever after his breakout sophomore season. The double teams became more common in the Big East, yet the results remained the same. As a junior, Donald continued to be too quick, too instinctive and too relentless for overmatched offensive linemen. The numbers kept piling up, tightly wrapped in a familiar theme of disruption behind the line of scrimmage. But it was all just a precursor for what would go down as the best season by a Pitt defender since Hugh Green was terrorizing backfields in 1980.
Donald’s final chapter as a Panther began a lot like his first three. Yeah, he was on every imaginable watch list, but widespread respect and notoriety still proved to be elusive. Heck , there were even whispers and suggestions that the gaudy production, which was so common in the Big East, would be difficult to reproduce in a much tougher ACC. Donald’s approach? Same as it had always been. Work even harder, and let the results speak for themselves.
“I just love to compete,” stated Donald. “I turn into a completely different person once I get on the field. I am so focused and so locked in when play starts that I honestly don’t remember half of what I do during games. You have to play a little mean in order to be successful in football.”
Donald set out on a mission to make 2013 the best season of his life. Mission accomplished. From start to finish, he played at an entirely different level, even by his lofty standard. Donald was a force of nature from the opening drive on Labor Day night to the final gun of the bowl game. He was college football’s version of Cincinnati Bengal All-Pro Geno Atkins, a one-gap penetrator who transforms his size into an advantage of leverage. Donald explodes off the snap, uses his hands well and varies his moves and techniques to confound his man. Plus, his motor never quits, and his passion for the game is unmatched.
“Aaron is just about unblockable,” admitted Pitt C Artie Rowell, who faced Donald in practice throughout the fall. “He has such a quick first step that it almost looks as if he’s constantly offside. He gets into your body in a hurry, and then he has the hands and the strength to really set himself apart. AD isn’t much of a talker, but he sure is a worker.”
Some still subscribe to the misguided notion that Donald’s senior season came clear out of leftfield. It didn’t. He’s been blowing up opposing offensive lines ever since cracking the starting lineup in 2011. It just seems as if he’s been a well-kept secret, even slightly under the radar, because he plays the game without any self-promotion or unnecessary antics that draw attention away from his teammates. Donald is the first guy in the film room. First on the practice field. First into the backfield. And the first Pitt Panther to ever win the Bednarik Award.
Rich Cirminiello is the Director of College Awards for the Maxwell Football Club, and someone who revels in the opportunity to tell each award winner’s unique story.
Winner: Chuck Bednarik Award
2013 University of Pittsburgh