Kevin Gorman: Pittsburgh should be rooting for Aaron Donald, even when he plays the Steelers
Aaron Donald wants to call his Heinz Field homecoming a business trip, nothing more than another game where his mission is to disrupt and dominate for the Los Angeles Rams.
That he was raised in the city’s Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar neighborhood, starred at Penn Hills and was an All-American at Pitt makes Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers more special, and he knows as much.
But Donald is the NFL’s most unassuming attraction for a reason, one that should make Pittsburgh proud. The two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year remains renowned for his blue-collar work ethic and spirit of generosity, a superstar who swears he hasn’t been changed by fame and fortune.
That makes Donald the rarest of opponents: one you can root for, even when he’s playing against the Steelers.
Donald still makes Pittsburgh his offseason home, still trains with the same speed coach since high school and the same strength coach since college. So Donald is a regular at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on the South Side, home of Pitt’s Aaron Donald Football Performance Center, which bears his name thanks to his seven-figure donation to his alma mater.
“A million dollars? It should be everywhere,” Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey joked. “It should be on the street whenever he pulls in. It should be Aaron Donald Road, rightfully so.”
Aaron Donald Drive might be more appropriate.
Donald’s relentless drive was talked about this week with as much appreciation as awe. The Steelers see the 6-foot, 285-pounder as a formidable foe, an undersized but unstoppable force at defensive tackle. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin used the word “unbelievable” four times in describing Donald’s athleticism, strength, talent and work ethic.
Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said he “fell in love” with Donald when they shared a flight on a trip to Kansas City for a banquet, and he is impressed by Donald’s commitment to training for his craft even after being named to five Pro Bowls and All-Pro four times in his first five seasons.
Donald is a constant presence at the facility when he’s back, weight training with Pitt’s Dave Andrews and speed training with DeWayne Brown of 2/10ths Speed and Agility every other day during the offseason and on bye weeks.
“I can’t count how many times he can be used as an example, even when you’re talking to one of our young players: That’s what you do. That’s how you train. That’s how you work. He exemplifies all that,” said Fichtner, who believes it rubbed off on Steelers running back James Conner. “It’s contagious. He sets a great example for everyone.”
It’s an example not everyone wants to follow. Donald does footwork drills with running backs and defensive backs, running the ladder and jumping over obstacles in exhaustive 45-minute stations that leave other NFL players watching in disbelief.
As Donald puts it, “I train different.”
“He’s 6-foot, 285, with a six-pack, and he moves like a linebacker or a running back,” said Steelers running back Darrin Hall, who trained with Donald while playing at Pitt.
Donald uses his size to his advantage, gaining leverage on taller lineman and using his explosive burst, quickness and power to overwhelm them to the tune of 64½ sacks in 86 games, including an NFL-best 20½ sacks last season.
“I just play the game,” Donald said. “Like I always say: No matter your size, if you can play, you can play. Me being at this level and doing what I’m doing, it just shows coaches and teams, height and all that doesn’t mean much if you can play the game. You can still be productive, still dominate games and still play at a high level.”
That’s what drives Donald, especially after the Rams lost to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII. Now, after growing up cheering for the Steelers and watching them win their fifth and sixth Lombardi trophies, Donald wants one.
“I’m just not satisfied,” Donald said. “I feel like I ain’t done enough, like there’s always room for improvement. That’s my main goal, to win a world championship.”
What we should appreciate about Aaron Donald is how hard he is willing to work for it and how much he hasn’t forgotten his roots. He’s Pittsburgh born and raised and, even better, proud to be from Pittsburgh.
That makes Donald easy to root for, even against the Steelers.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .