World Events

Aaron Donald: How ‘lazy, chunky kid’ became NFL superstar

“A Parking Lot guy is a guy that there doesn’t have to be anybody there watching, it’s about the competition for them,” he told NFL Films back in 2010. “It’s about the challenge they face in their opponent, it’s not about the notoriety they get from playing. It’s just about the competition.”
“At the end of the day, you’re going to compete,” Donald told CNN Sport’s Coy Wire in a recent interview. “The competition isn’t going to change. You still want to do your job, you still want to dominate the guy in front of you.

“Football is football. You’re still going to compete at a high level just because it’s a competition. You don’t want to go out there and not compete at a high level and look bad. So that’s not going to change.”

He does admit that having 80,000 fans cheering on a third-and-long “gets you a little bit more amped up,” but says all the fuel he needs is “just to make plays.”

“The guys around you, you’re feeding off each other’s energy,” he says. “You’re pushing each other. At the end of the day, like I said, it’s competition so you know you have to defeat the guy across from you and find a way to dominate no matter what, that’s enough motivation right there.”

Family sacrifice

The step up to the NFL never seemed to trouble Donald, especially for a player who many considered undersized for his position.

Some teams appeared suspicious of his potential, despite incredible college production at the University of Pittsburgh.

He fell to the LA Rams — then the St. Louis Rams — with the 13th pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, chosen behind a number of great defensive players like Jadeveon Clowney, Khalil Mack and Anthony Barr. He was even chosen after top wide receivers Mike Evans and Odell Beckham Jr.

The Rams’ judgment proved prescient.

Donald is a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Donald has made the Pro Bowl every year he has played in the NFL; he won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year for the past two seasons and in 2018 was also voted the top player in the NFL by players in the league.

Donald was rewarded with a new contract the same year, and is still one of the highest paid defensive players in the NFL, bringing in a reported annual salary of $22.5 million.

A self-confessed “lazy, chunky” kid, he says his father turned his life around and pushed him.

“I remember waking up at … 4:30 a.m. with my dad … and my dad was always telling me ‘hard work pays off,'” says the 29-year old Donald. “When everybody else is sleeping, you are working.

“As a kid you’re like, ‘okay, dad, I hear you!’ but to see from starting in the basement training with my dad …” Donald’s voice trails off and wavers. He wells up as he recounts the story, a few tears streaming down his face.

Donald says his father "showed [him] the way" to become the man and competitor he is today.Donald says his father "showed [him] the way" to become the man and competitor he is today.

“I sent a text message to my dad the other day saying, ‘everything you told me, it really came full circle and paid off for me.’

“From just starting out working out in the basement to being in the National Football League, there aren’t too many kids that … actually dream about something since they were five years old and see it come full circle and be where I’m at today. You know, it’s crazy.

“It just started from working, wanting to be the best, to seeing it come full circle, to not just being in the NFL but being a top guy in this league and still have room for improvement. It’s definitely emotional! You get choked up, you get warm, your eyes start ‘watering,’ but you put the body of work in and it always pays off.

“I truly can’t thank my mom and dad enough for it.”

Back to school

Donald knows that football won’t last forever though, even if he already has Hall of Fame credentials, and he has to prepare for the future.

He revealed earlier this year that he went back to Pitt and completed his degree.

“It was a promise I made to my mom and dad,” he says. “After I got drafted, you know I didn’t finish, I had a couple of credits left, so my dad and my mom said: ‘Football doesn’t last forever, make sure you go back you get me that degree.’

“And I made a promise to them to do that. It took a while, but to graduate from college, my older sister did it, my older brother did it and now I did it. I know that made my mom and dad proud, all three of their kids with college degrees.”

Despite his achievements in the NFL, he considers his academic success one of his best: “Just having that piece of paper, that degree, that’s a huge accomplishment for me.”

Father figure

At a time of great inequality in the United States, Donald, who grew up in Pittsburgh, acknowledges that not all kids around the country will have the same support, structure and drive that his parents provided him.

He founded the AD99 Solutions Foundation to do something about that.
Aaron Donald founded the AD99 Solutions Foundation to change the life trajectory of Pittsburgh's most vulnerable kids.Aaron Donald founded the AD99 Solutions Foundation to change the life trajectory of Pittsburgh's most vulnerable kids.

“I had friends who didn’t always make the best decisions,” he says. “I had friends who were in and out of jail. I had friends who were murdered.

“I understand it’s about the environment, and you try to adapt to your environment. But just trying to keep these kids on the right path, because it’s easy if something isn’t going your way to say you’re done with it, and you go another way because you just don’t have hope.

“We’re going back to giving these kids an opportunity to beat the odds of what you typically see in underprivileged communities. We’re trying to build the community up and change what you see.”

Donald also acknowledges often some kids have only seen an escape through music or sport, and he wants to change those perceptions.

“It isn’t just sports and musicians,” he says. “We can be doctors too coming out of the inner cities. We can be astronauts! We’ve got to have that mindset that we can do it too, and they have got to see it.”


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