THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – Since joining the Rams as the No. 13 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, DT Aaron Donald has played in 86 regular season games. Not one of them, however, have taken place in Pittsburgh.
That changes with game No. 87.
Sunday's contest against the Steelers marks the first time he'll get the opportunity to play back home.
"It's going to be cool," Donald said. "Going back to Heinz Field where I played college (football) at, and (against) a team I grew up watching and rooting for, to go out there and play and my hometown, too, it's definitely a good feeling."
Pittsburgh born and raised, Donald's reputation began with a dominant preps career approximately 15 minutes east of the city at Penn Hills High School.
A three-year starter, Donald would collect first team All-State Class AAAA honors from the Pennsylvania Sports Writers in each of his final two seasons. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette named him the WPIAL Class AAAA Player of the Year and to its 'Fabulous 22', which annually recognizes the top 22 high school football players in the WPIAL and City League, after he amassed 63 tackles (15 for loss) and 11 sacks as a senior.
His success would continue at the college level.
Choosing to stay home and play for the University of Pittsburgh, Donald became the first Pitt defensive player to achieve first team All-America recognition since defensive end Hugh Green in 1980. He was also just the sixth Pitt player since 1976 to finish as the national leader in a stat category after posting an NCAA-best 2.2 tackles for loss per game in 2013. Also among his 20 honors:
- The Bronko Nagurski Trophy, given annually to the nation's Most Outstanding Defensive Player.
- The Chuck Bednarik Award, given annually to the Defensive Player of the Year.
- The Outland Trophy, given annually to the nation's Best Offensive or Defensive Interior Lineman.
- The Rotary Lombardi Award, given annually to the nation's Most Outstanding Lineman or Linebacker.
Those accolades led to him beginning his professional football career more than 600 miles west of his hometown at first – the Rams drafted him heading into their second to last season in St. Louis. The distance then grew to about 2,500 once the team moved to L.A., but Donald hasn't let it diminish his connection to Pittsburgh.
In the offseason, it's where he lives and works out. Eight months after being rewarded with a six-year contract extension, he gave a historic financial commitment to his alma mater this spring which made him the youngest seven-figure donor in school history. In turn, the football program named the ground floor of its practice facility the Aaron Donald Performance Center.
This year, he also founded the AD99 Solutions Foundation which aims to serve underprivileged Pittsburgh youth by "providing the necessary resources needed in a free, safe environment so they may excel athletically, academically, and socially," according to the foundation's website. Both of his siblings are on the foundation's staff – his sister, Akita, is the foundation's executive director, while his brother, Archie III, is its major donors officer.
“I think anybody that has been around Aaron Donald, there’s nothing that you can say except for just be impressed by the human being," Rams head coach Sean McVay said. "You look at how much he has done for the University of Pittsburgh, giving back to them, really using all the success he’s had in that platform to really do a lot of really good things for that university."
"That's where my family's 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," Donald said, when asked why it was important to him to maintain that bond. "That's home to me."
Donald spent the entirety of the Rams' bye week last week – Wednesday through Sunday – in Pittsburgh visiting his family and kids.
He'll soon be reunited with them again, thanks to the generosity of Pitt: He said the school helped him out with box seats for his family for Sunday's game.
"It's going to be good for me to be back there, with them in the stands, cheering for me," Donald said.
Yes, Sunday will be the first NFL regular season homecoming – bye week excluded – for Donald. Given what he's already accomplished, though, one would imagine family, friends and the rest of his supporters already have an idea of what to expect, both on and off the field.