Pittsburgh native Aaron Donald excited to play at home for first time as a Ram: 'It's going to be different'
Donald grew up cheering for the Steelers before starring at the University of Pittsburgh
Aaron Donald was going through workouts last week at the UMPC Sports Complex, which houses the Steelers and Pitt Panthers, Donald's alma mater. Inside the complex is the Aaron Donald Performance Center, which is part of how the school has used his recent seven-figure donation.
As Donald worked out, the Steelers -- the team his Rams (who enjoyed a Week 9 bye) will square off against this Sunday at Heinz Field -- were conducting their final practices in preparation for their Week 9 game against the Colts, a game the Steelers won to improve to 4-4 on the season. Donald interacted with several Steelers who he will have to face in his first game at Heinz Field since 2013, when he was a member of the Panthers.
"It wasn't like I was taking notes and sitting there watching practice," Donald said this week, via Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "I was in there working myself. It's just normal. That might be a thing to everybody else, but to me it's normal. When I go back to Pitt, that's where I train and it happened to be right there where the Steelers were.
"I have a great relationship with some of the players, and I feel like I have a good relationship with Coach (Mike) Tomlin."
Donald, who insists this weekend is a "business trip," grew up in Pittsburgh. The 28-year-old, who starred at Penn Hills High School before becoming an All-American at Pitt, was a Steelers fan who grew up watching the exploits of Jerome Bettis, Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward, Joey Porter, Troy Polamalu, and James Harrison, among others.
"To be back trying to play the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team I grew up watching and cheering for and playing at a field I played at in college," Donald said, "is definitely going to be cool."
Donald was selected by the Rams with the 13th overall pick in the 2014 draft, two spots before the Steelers selected eventual Pro Bowl linebacker Ryan Shazier. Donald immediately made an impact for the Rams, recording nine sacks as a rookie and earning Pro Bowl honors. In 2015, he started his run of four consecutive All-Pro selections. In 2018, he led the NFL with 20.5 sacks while earning his second consecutive NFL Defensive Player of the Year award.
Donald's success has helped transform the Rams from one of the NFL's doormats to one of the league's best teams. A 6-10 team Donald's rookie season, the Rams -- who moved to Los Angeles in 2016 -- won a division title in 2017 and an NFC championship last season. They held Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense to a mere 13 points in Super Bowl LIII.
Donald's impact on the Rams is similar to the one Joe Greene -- regarded as the greatest Steeler of them all -- had on the Steelers after joining the club in 1969. A franchise that had the stench of failure, Greene helped transform the Steelers from a perennial loser to the league's most successful team since the AFL-NFL merger.
"I just didn't have that kind of physical ability, the speed, the quickness," Greene said of Donald, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "No, no, if I had his talent, I probably would be getting 15 to 20 sacks every year. I probably couldn't get my head in the room, I'd felt so good."
"Ah, man, he was just being nice," Donald said when asked about Greene's praise. "I can't say that yet. I still have a lot more football before I try to put my name with THAT guy."
On Sunday, the love affair between Pittsburgh and one of its favorite sons will have to be on pause. Like Tony Dorsett in the 1970s, Dan Marino in the 1980s and 90s and Larry Fitzgerald over the past 15 years, Donald will always be celebrated in Pittsburgh for his accomplishments and continued dedication to the city. But on Sunday, Donald and his beloved city will have different agendas.
"It's going to be different," Donald said. "I'm the away guy now."
Donald, like Greene, is solely motivated to win a Super Bowl, something that barely eluded him and his teammates last season. To achieve that goal this season, the Rams, 5-3 and in third place in the hyper competitive NFC West division, need a win over the Steelers to keep pace with the 6-2 Seahawks and 8-0 49ers.
"I'm just not satisfied," Donald said of his career to this point. "I don't feel like I've done enough yet. There's always room for improvement. That's my mindset. Try to do more and get back to the Super Bowl and win this time. That's my main goal: to win a world championship."
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