Football / Sports

Work ethic pushes Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald to top of NFL draft boards

PITTSBURGH -- Aaron Donald's 1-year-old daughter, Jaeda, started walking in early April, so her legs understandably are still wobbly. As she shuffles toward the living room sofa, she reaches for the end table to steady herself.

The Outland Trophy, won each season by college football's best interior lineman, features a sculpted football player lunging forward with both arms extended. The award honors the perfect anchor. For Jaeda one afternoon last week, it is exactly that.

That trophy is just one of the adornments that give Donald's one-bedroom apartment some pop, that really set it apart from your typical college housing.

On top of the refrigerator, two trophies glare under the fluorescent light -- his ACC Defensive Player of the Year trophy and the Most Outstanding Overall Player award he earned for his performance in Senior Bowl practices in January.

On top of a window air conditioner sits the Chuck Bednarik Award, which Donald won in December for being the best defensive player in college football. The Lombardi Award, which recognizes the nation's best offensive or defensive lineman, rests on the end table opposite the Outland.

So, yeah, Aaron Donald needs a trophy case. Fortunately, he'll have a new, permanent home soon.

Donald's laundry list of postseason awards supports the widely held belief he is the best defensive tackle in this year's NFL draft, despite a 6-foot-1, 285-pound frame that's a couple of inches shorter than the positional prototype. The University of Pittsburgh All-American is one defender the Bears are targeting with the 14th overall selection. Whether he'll be available by the time they pick Thursday night is now the greatest uncertainty.

Donald's rise to the top of draft boards resulted from an intense inner drive that fueled his evolution from a self-described lazy, chubby preteen to the most decorated player in college football last season.

He's the product of a supportive family, most notably his doting mother and a father whom he idolized as a boy. The work ethic and values they fostered permeate Donald's life, from the times he slept in the Panthers' film room last season to how he cares for his daughter.

In his kitchen, with fiancee Jaelynn Blakey nearby, Donald holds Jaeda out in front of him with both hands. He can bench-press 470 pounds, so these repetitions seem effortless. He lifts her toward the ceiling and brings her back down. Between reps, he smothers her with kisses as she giggles. No workout ever felt so satisfying.

"Once you start seeing so much change in your life and what's coming from hard work, it's like you know the cheat code," Donald said. "You keep working, you keep pushing yourself. You can do some special stuff."

Pushed to succeed

Not only do Archie Donald Jr. and Anita Goggins remember their youngest son's favorite food growing up, but each does a fine impersonation of how he used to order it. Aaron, who turns 23 this month, was a soft-spoken, shy boy, but he knew what he liked.

Double cheeseburger -- just cheese.

Aaron busts out laughing when his mom deepens her voice for authenticity's sake. These are happy memories that measure his progress. Aaron Donald, the boy, was different from the man who earned all that hardware.

"Eat. Play outside. Relax. Don't have to do chores," he said. "I just didn't really want to do anything."

The turning point occurred when Aaron was 11. He and his two siblings -- Akita, now 28, and Archie III, 26 -- always had household chores. Aaron was responsible for emptying the trash and sweeping the steps.

One day, his dad returned from work to find half-swept steps and Aaron out riding his bike. Archie, now 48, yelled for Aaron to come inside.

Aaron winced as he approached, expecting a disciplinary thump upside the head. At that moment, Archie realized he needed a better solution.

"He's starting to be afraid of me," Archie recalled thinking. "I don't want him to run from me in life. I want him to run to me."

Archie remembered how weight lifting changed his life. That would be Aaron's path.

Archie was a pudgy, lazy kid himself. He grew up in Pittsburgh, he and his brother raised by a single mother. He began lifting weights as a high school freshman and developed a passion for it because he was good at it and because of the results it produced, both physical and emotional.

"When you look in the mirror and like what you see, that means you love yourself and you're going to excel as far as you can go," Archie said.

Archie's increases in strength and self-confidence didn't precede his introduction to Anita by long. They became high school sweethearts.

Anita, as the youngest of six children, always valued the camaraderie, love and support of her family members. And Archie, having grown up without his father's presence, was determined to have a positive impact on his children's lives.

Those forces pulled the parents together even after they divorced when Aaron was 9. Anita still considers Archie her best friend.

"It was kind of ugly at first, but then after that it was like, 'OK, we've still got three kids to raise,' " she said. "We got it right today. We always put the kids first, and look what we've produced."

They remained a cohesive family despite the divorce. The kids were provided for. Anita, 47, is in her 17th year driving a public bus up and down Pittsburgh's hills. She's a natural caretaker, so it's no surprise when elderly female riders greet her with hugs and kisses.

Archie now works on a truck for a company that recycles tires. When he was younger, power lifting was one of his hobbies. On the wall of Aaron's apartment, there's a decades-old picture of Archie in a red tank top, his muscular arms like cannons.

Archie always had in the basement a set of free weights and a Total Gym, the body-weight training machine you might remember from the Chuck Norris infomercials. Aaron and Archie III used to sit on the basement steps and watch their dad work out, awestruck by his chiseled physique and broad shoulders.

"I always thought my dad was the man," Aaron said. "Just to see how strong he was and see how he looked, I wanted to be cut up too. I wanted to have muscles. I wanted to be strong, and I always wanted to make my dad and my mom proud of me."

That process began with 6 a.m. father-and-son lifting sessions in the basement. Aaron fed off the results just as Archie did when he was a boy. Aaron eventually reversed the roles -- he would wake up his dad before sunrise to lift. Laziness transformed to motivation, nonchalance to self-discipline.

"It's seeing the change in your body, seeing the things you're doing on the football field being stronger than everybody," Donald said. "To see how it has paid off for me from when I was 11 until now, it's just amazing."

Student of the game

Pittsburgh's football headquarters, a facility the Panthers share with the Steelers, overlooks the Monongahela River from the southern bank east of downtown. That's where you could find Aaron Donald after games last season.

His sanctuary was the defensive tackles' meeting room. It's through the right front door and up the stairs, down the hallway on the right, beyond the wall listing Pitt's all-time All-Americans. Donald brushes his hand against the wall each time he walks past.

That room is where film study became his obsession.

Inoke Breckterfield, Pitt's defensive tackles coach, witnessed it up close. He arrived to work Sept. 3, the morning after Pitt lost its season opener to eventual national champion Florida State 41-13 in a home game that ended about 11:30 p.m. He saw notes scribbled on the dry erase board, questions Donald had in his search for feedback.

"He was in there until 2 o'clock in the morning watching film," Breckterfield said. "And every game after that, every time, he wouldn't go home. He'd sit there and wait for the film to be uploaded, and away he went."

Donald refined the routine as a senior. He would turn off the lights, leave the door cracked, settle into the big leather chair in front of the projection screen, grab the remote control and watch each play two or three times by himself before reviewing them again with coaches and teammates the day after the game.

"I've got to see everything I did good, did wrong before anybody else sees it," he said. "Otherwise I won't be able to sleep. I'm tossing and turning just thinking about it."

Sometimes Donald wouldn't bother to drive the 10 minutes across the river and up the hill back to his apartment. He would arrange the meeting room chairs to form a bed and sleep for a few hours.

"Then he'd wake up and watch some more film before practice even started," Panthers receiver Ed Tinker, one of Donald's closest friends, said with a laugh.

Donald particularly enjoys the scouting element of film study. He and Breckterfield focused last season on set and stance recognition to uncover ways offensive linemen would telegraph their intentions.

If a guard leaned to one side, for example, it indicated he was planning to pull-block. If the lineman was forward in his stance, Donald might expect a cut block. His goal for each snap was to process as many clues as possible and reduce the number of plays the offense might be running out of that set.

Doing so enabled him to exploit his renowned first-step quickness. He led the country last season with 281/2 tackles for a loss, many of them rooted in his homework during the week.

"I'd hate to play linebacker behind him because you don't get a chance to make any tackles," said Daniel Jeremiah, a former Ravens and Eagles scout who's now an NFL Network analyst. "He lives in the backfield as a pass rusher. He's explosive with his hands, and he's also able to kind of bend and wrap and a really dynamic interior pass rusher. He's going to be very valued on draft day."

Ready for next step

It goes back to what Donald's father has preached to him for years, a saying Aaron repeats often as he considers his past and future: "Hard work pays off."

On Archie's birthday in December, Aaron won the Bronko Nagurski Award, given to the country's best defensive player by the Football Writers Association of America. The ceremony in Charlotte, N.C., was the first stop on what turned out to be an awards tour.

Archie came home from work one day that month to find the trophy in his dining room, a birthday present from his son.

"You talk about proud?" Archie said. "I ain't even ever been that proud of myself."

Aaron yearns to build on that. And as he seeks new motivations at the outset of his professional career, he doesn't need to look far. She's playing in her inflatable pink house. She's carrying a regulation-size football to him and crawling into his lap.

The big question now is where he will wear out the video player. Tampa? New York? Dallas? Chicago?

He doesn't pay attention to mock drafts, many of which project him to the Bears. And that's OK. Archie has promised to build him that trophy case wherever he ends up.

(c)2014 Chicago Tribune

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