Penn Hills cherishes Aaron Donald as he prepares for Super Bowl debut
When Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald takes the field Sunday for the Super Bowl, millions will be watching — including those from Western Pennsylvania who knew him long before his time in the NFL.
Those who watched the Penn Hills graduate before his professional football days expect Donald to go against the New England Patriots’ offensive line and do exactly what he does best: dominate.
“You could see that he was dominant in the high school level as a young guy, and he only got stronger and better as he developed,” said Ron Graham, head football coach during Donald’s junior and senior years and current Penn Hills assistant coach.
Graham credits Donald’s success and strong work ethic to his parents and to his brother, Penn Hills graduate and University of Toledo football standout Archie Donald Jr.
“He worked out in the mornings with his father lifting weights,” Graham said. “Then he would do our conditioning, and then he would go to training afterward. You could see he had the work ethic. He’s a nice, humble guy, but on the field he was a real quality gladiator. You could see the drive and the part of him that was no quit. ”
Penn Hills Superintendent Nancy Hines called Donald personable and said his off-the-field humbleness “rivals his reputation as an exceptional athlete.”
She recalled seeing him in attendance at the Class 5A WPIAL championship football game at Norwin Knights Stadium in November.
“He appeared more than happy to greet his many admirers and to take pictures with the constant flow of young students who approached him during the game,” Hines said. “What a fabulous role model he continues to be for our youth.”
Penn Hills defeated West Allegheny 28-18 that day to claim its fifth WPIAL title.
“The kids were excited and ecstatic that he was there,” Graham said. “He stayed the whole time, came to the locker room. Really gracious and humble guy.”
Donald graduated fromPenn Hills in 2010 and then played at the University of Pittsburgh, becoming an All-American and one of the school’s greatest defensive players in recent history. The Rams selected him in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft.
Graham likened him to another Penn Hills and Pitt standout — Bill Fralic.
Fralic was a member of the inaugural class of the WPIAL Hall of Fame in 2007. He also was a member of the inaugural Pitt Athletics Hall of Fame class that was enshrined in September. His foundation has donated thousands to the Penn Hills School District. He died Dec. 14 at age 56.
“In his time, he was the best,” Graham said about Fralic. “He was a superstar and also a guy of high character. Bill Fralic was really helpful to the guys under him. He would step into the program and (was) pretty instrumental in mentoring some of those guys.
“Only time will tell if (Donald) continues to be that. He’ll be just as stellar a guy with impact on the game and community.”
Donald, 27, is the youngest of three children.
He may be a football star to most people, but he will always be Anita Goggins’ baby boy.
“Of course, the baby gets babied,” said Goggins of West Mifflin. “Aaron hasn’t changed. He’s still the same person he’s always been with all the fame, all the awards. Aaron is still Aaron. He’s a hometown kid. Everywhere I go, everybody’s rooting for the Rams. I’m extremely proud and excited.”
Goggins said she always knew Donald would go on to accomplish great things. It’s tough for a lineman to do better than being named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and NFL Defensive Player of the Year, which Donald won in 2017.
“I always knew Aaron was great,” Goggins said. “Aaron was good at what he did. It’s surreal right now. He was always into football. He’s part of a football household. I believe that we will win this.”
It will be the Rams’ first trip to the Super Bowl since 2001, when they lost 20-17 to the Patriots for quarterback Tom Brady’s first of five championships. On Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Brady returns to the Super Bowl for the ninth time in his career.
For the Penn Hills community, just having Donald represent their town in the big game is a win.
“Penn Hills School District is beyond proud of Aaron’s many accomplishments, on and off the football field,” Hines said. “We wish (him) and his teammates great success this weekend and an injury-free game.”
Michael DiVittorio is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Michael at 412-871-2367, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @MikeJdiVittorio.
Michael DiVittorio is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Michael at 412-871-2367, email@example.com or via Twitter .