“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.”
“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.”
Some teams appeared suspicious of his potential, despite incredible college production at the University of Pittsburgh.
The Rams’ judgment proved prescient.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”