Pitt, Penn Hills product Aaron Donald unfazed by NFL’s bright lights
Maybe Greg Gattuso stepped out of line on the night 11 years ago when he went to a Penn Hills game on a scouting mission.
He was there to watch a linebacker and ended up offering a scholarship — through silent channels — to a junior defensive lineman no one was recruiting.
“I had to go explain it to Wanny,” said Gattuso, then an assistant coach at Pitt under Dave Wannstedt.
Not a lot of explaining was necessary.
The defensive lineman was Aaron Donald, who committed to Pitt five months before his senior season and became the most decorated player in college football in 2013. You know the story: He’s a star with the NFC champion Los Angeles Rams and, oh, by the way, the best defensive player in the NFL.
At 28, he became the youngest million-dollar donor in Pitt history and his name is attached to Pitt’s South Side practice facility, officially renamed last week the Aaron Donald Football Performance Center.
Gattuso, who is the coach at Albany, went to Penn Hills that night to watch linebacker Dan Mason. Donald, who was a year younger, caught his attention.
“I couldn’t take my eyes off him,” Gattuso said, “even though Dan (who also ended up at Pitt) was a great player. Aaron was just wrecking the opponent.”
Gattuso already had done his homework on Donald, spending time with mom and dad — “His dad had him lifting early,” he said — and talking to people at Penn Hills.
“I had seen him work out in the weight room. He was an animal in the weight room,” Gattuso said. “Around high school, he had a reputation of being a really nice person and transforming when he went on the football field.”
It didn’t matter to Gattuso that Donald was playing interior defensive line at only 6-foot-2, 260 pounds.
“When I started seeing him play, I was in love with his athletic ability,” he said. “A lot of people in general are worried about height and size. I just thought he was an incredible football player, always disruptive and explosive.”
While recruiting Donald, Pitt had almost no competition. There were 13 high school players in Pennsylvania ranked ahead of him in 2010, according to Rivals.com. Toledo, Akron and Rutgers were the only other schools with serious interest.
“I thought he was a no-brainer. I was shocked that nobody wanted to recruit him,” Gattuso said.
Donald smiled when he was asked if he used that slight as motivation.
“People always ask me that,” Aaron Donald said. “I wouldn’t say that. I just played. In my head, I said I must not be good enough so I had to keep getting better. That’s my mindset. I must not have done enough, so I’m going to get myself better.”
He said he learned his work ethic from his father and brother, Archie Donald Sr. and Jr.
“It came to me and I ran with it, seeing what happens when you are working hard,” he said, “and I just got addicted to it.”
Gattuso has kept video from Donald’s freshman year at Pitt — “Redshirting him was a waste.” — and he shows it to his players at Albany.
“He wasn’t the lean, bodybuilding-looking person he is now,” Gattuso said. “I wanted to show them the progress he made.”
Donald still does weight training with Pitt strength coach Dave Andrews at the facility that now bears the player’s name. Plus, he has been attached to personal trainer DeWayne Brown for 10 years, first meeting him through a friend of Donald’s father’s at Greenway Field in the West End.
There, Brown was training future college players Manasseh Garner, Tyrique Jarrett, Dane Jackson, Therran Coleman and Damar Hamlin of Pitt and WVU’s Will Clarke and Dravon Askew-Henry.
Brown, who played basketball at Carrick and Thiel, said he trains Donald three times a week, only an hour per session. He treats him like a skill player, not a lineman.
“With me, some of the stuff he does on the field, I see it every day,” said Brown, who also trains high school athletes at Baldwin, West Mifflin and Shady Side Academy. “When he is beating a lot of those (offensive) linemen, he rarely gets touched. He’s doing the footwork that I teach him. That’s what separates him.”
He pushes Donald hard in those 60 minutes, but the relationship is reciprocal.
“Aaron has made me a better trainer. I have to keep on finding new techniques to keep him interested. I don’t want him to get bored,” Brown said.
Donald plays football in Los Angeles, but he lives in Pittsburgh in the offseason.
“This is home to me,” he said. “This is the school that I watched on TV as a kid and I dreamed about playing for.”
Performing among celebrities and movie stars in Southern California hasn’t changed him, and he’s not in awe of the Hollywood lifestyle.
“I’m a good-looking guy, too,” he said, laughing.
Yet, he was honestly humbled when Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke said she wanted to put his name on the practice facility. He still calls coach Pat Narduzzi to make sure there’s room for him in the weight room.
“I’m going to continue to work, continue to get myself better and, hopefully, keep doing a lot of great things, if not more,” said the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Those words are no surprise to Brown.
“He has a will to be great,” Brown said. “That’s what he wants to be.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .