For Rams’ Don­ald, Pitts­burgh still home

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - NFL - By Will Graves

PITTS­BURGH — The trap­pings of suc­cess have not changed Aaron Don­ald. Not the mil­lions he’s made. Not the hon­ors he’s won. Not the end­less South­ern Cal­i­for­nia sun­shine or the po­ten­tially in­tox­i­cat­ing celebrity that comes with mak­ing it big in Los An­ge­les.

Through it all — from his evo­lu­tion from largely anony­mous and de­cid­edly un­der­sized col­lege re­cruit to ar­guably the best foot­ball player on the planet — Don­ald’s kept things sim­ple. Work hard. Stay hum­ble. Re­mem­ber where you came from. All part of a mind­set that’s kept the Rams’ star teth­ered to Pitts­burgh even as his in­nate drive and un­mis­tak­able tal­ent has pro­pelled him to heights he could hardly have imag­ined while grow­ing up in the east­ern suburbs.

“That’s home,” Don­ald said. “That’s where I’m at dur­ing the off­sea­son. That’s where my fam­ily is at. That’s where I was born and raised at. That’s where I was molded at, and that’s what made me who I am, be­ing there. So it’s home.”

The un­der­stated 28-year-old doesn’t have an ex­pla­na­tion as to why he hasn’t been lured west per­ma­nently. He’s not sure he needs one. Asked if his sub­dued per­son­al­ity is a re­flec­tion of the blue-col­lar ethos that’s long de­fined the city where he grew up, Don­ald shrugged.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I guess you could say that, but that’s just more my fam­ily. My par­ents raised me that way.”

A way that will be on full dis­play on Sun­day when the Rams (5-3) walk on to Heinz Field to face the Steelers (4-4) in what will be equal parts busi­ness trip and home­com­ing. The Rams need a win to keep the Sea­hawks and 49ers within earshot in the supremely com­pet­i­tive NFC West. The Steelers are at­tempt­ing to right their sea­son after a 1-4 start. Don­ald’s pres­ence will have a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on both.

Yet there will be a mo­ment — likely the first time Don­ald’s fa­mil­iar No. 99 makes his first play — when his name will re­ver­ber­ate over the pub­lic ad­dress sys­tem and the stakes will slip away. In that mo­ment, the three-star prospect from Penn Hills con­sid­ered too small at 6-foot-1 and 284 pounds to ever make it to the NFL will have come full cir­cle.

“It’s go­ing to be cool,” Don­ald said. “You know, I’m back to Heinz Field, where I played col­lege at, and my team I grew up watch­ing and root­ing for, to go out there and play in my home­town, it’s def­i­nitely go­ing to be a good feel­ing.”

A feel­ing that will al­most cer­tainly be re­turned in kind, a way of ac­knowl­edg­ing Don­ald’s deep com­mit­ment to his home­town. He’s es­tab­lished the “AD 99 Solutions Foun­da­tion ” ear­lier this year, whose goal is to “change the tra­jec­tory of Pitts­burgh’s un­der­priv­i­leged youth by pro­vid­ing the nec­es­sary re­sources needed in a free, safe en­vi­ron­ment so they may ex­cel ath­let­i­cally, aca­dem­i­cally, and so­cially.” The foun­da­tion of­fers life skills train­ing, aca­demic sup­port and men­tor­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties.

“Try­ing to do our thing, us­ing our plat­form to help oth­ers is a big thing,” Don­ald said.

Last spring he awarded Pitt, where he won ev­ery ma­jor award for col­lege de­fen­sive line­man dur­ing his se­nior sea­son in 2013, a seven-fig­ure do­na­tion last spring to help ren­o­vate a por­tion of the prac­tice fa­cil­ity the pro­gram shares with the Steelers.

It’s not un­usual for the name­sake of what is now called the Aaron Don­ald Foot­ball Per­for­mance Cen­ter to pop in dur­ing the off­sea­son — or even dur­ing a Rams’ off week, as he did ear­lier this month — to fit in a work­out. It’s also not un­usual for cur­rent mem­bers of the Pan­thers to join in, well at least when their jaws get off the floor.

“When I first saw him, I was like star-struck,” said Pitt sopho­more de­fen­sive tackle Jaylen Twyman, who asked to wear the same No. 97 that Don­ald sported for four years from 2010-13. The two con­nected through

Pan­ther de­fen­sive back Paris Ford, and soon enough Twyman found him­self train­ing with Don­ald.

Well, “with” might be stretch­ing it. Twyman learned what Don­ald’s team­mates have known for years. You don’t train with Don­ald so much as you des­per­ately and fu­tilely try to keep up.

“It’s a lit­tle dan­ger­ous,” Twyman said. “I’m a Tesla, he’s like that Lam­borgh­ini.”

The Pan­thers aren’t the only one who takes no­tice when Don­ald walks into the build­ing. The Steelers no­tice too, point­ing out Don­ald’s ded­i­ca­tion to new­com­ers to of­fer proof of what is pos­si­ble.

“He can be used as an ex­am­ple of when we talk to our young play­ers,” Steelers of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Randy Ficht­ner said. “‘That’s what you do ... how you train ... how you work.’ He ex­em­pli­fies all that.”

It’s that quick­ness that al­lows Don­ald to split dou­ble teams and wreak havoc on op­pos­ing game plans. De­fen­sive tack­les aren’t sup­posed to rack up 201⁄2 sacks as Don­ald did in 2018. They’re not sup­posed to be able to move so freely up and down the line of scrim­mage. They’re not sup­posed to cast aside 300-pound of­fen­sive line­men either.

“That gives a lot of un­der­sized guys a lot of hope,” said Steelers out­side line­backer Ola Adeniyi, who at 6-1 and 248 pounds spent the week try­ing to mimic Don­ald on the scout team. “Be­cause we get told, ‘He can’t do it. He’s too small.’ But (Don­ald) is some­body that you look like and he’s do­ing that at a beast of a level. That gives you con­fi­dence to do your best and hope­fully it works out for you.”

TIM IRE­LAND/AP

Rams star de­fen­sive line­man Aaron Don­ald was born and raised in Pitts­burgh and played his col­lege ball at Pitt.

JEFF SWENSEN/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

Don­ald gives back to his home­town of Pitts­burgh with his “AD 99 Solutions Foun­da­tion.” It pro­vides re­sources to the city’s un­der­priv­i­leged youth.

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