In 2015, shortly after Dave Andrews became the University of Pittsburgh strength and conditioning coach, St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, a Pitt alum, asked him if he would work with him during the NFL offseason. “Obviously, we’ve got the best player in the world, and he comes back to train in the room,” Andrews said. “Why wouldn’t I serve him?”
Andrews played tight end on Ohio State’s 2002 national title team, and he has trained about 80 NFL players, plus a handful of NBA players. He is not easily stunned by athletic outliers. He has been surrounded by them in his adult life.
As part of their routine, Andrews would offer Donald manual resistance as opposed to Donald using a machine or weights. Andrews had seen other athletes bench press or squat as much as Donald. He has never seen anything like Donald’s muscles responding to a force exerted on them. In those drills, Andrews was stunned.
“He’s 285 pounds of dynamite,” Andrews said. “He’s absolutely not human. The electric switch is different with that guy.”
Monday night in Los Angeles, Donald’s Rams will face the Kansas City Chiefs in a showdown that both exemplifies the NFL’s offense-mad present and hints at the sport’s scoring-crazed future. Patrick Mahomes’s right arm is part magic, part howitzer. Tyreek Hill is so fast he makes you wonder if the TV is broken. Todd Gurley can punish tacklers, sprint past them or leap over them. Coaches Andy Reid and Sean McVay have expanded and redefined professional football playbooks.
Amid that sparkling firepower, the most overriding force on the field will occupy a paradoxical space: He will be playing defense. In the NFL, nobody is better at what they do than Donald. He is a dominant defender in a league driven by offense, a 6-footer in the territory of giants, a questioned prospect who became an all-timer. In the NFL, Donald is the ultimate outlier.
Donald is the reigning NFL defensive player of the year, and only injury or the best six games of Khalil Mack’s career will prevent him from repeating. He leads the NFL with 12.5 sacks. He has pressured quarterbacks 67 times, 12 more than any other player. Pro Football Focus rates Donald as the NFL’s best pass rusher and third-best run stopper, regardless of position.
Numbers, really, cannot do Donald justice. In a league of athletic marvels trained and calibrated for maximum performance, Donald stands apart. His shoulders resemble a relief map of Colorado. Blocking him is like trying to halt a bowling ball affixed with chain saws. At the NFL combine, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.68 seconds — slow but not unheard of for a wide receiver, implausible for a tackle. He is quick enough to knife through double teams, powerful enough to make the idea of one lineman stopping him comical and strong enough to fling quarterbacks to the ground the way most people chuck a candy wrapper in the trash can.
“Have you ever seen Rocky IV?” asked Mike Waufle, the Rams' defensive line coach for Donald’s first three seasons. “When the Russian was training, they had that computerized device that he punched. The force that was there, the strength times speed of his punch, it registered really, really high. That’s Aaron Donald’s body, okay? He has power beyond your wildest dreams.”
The offseason made clear the value of a player such as Donald. As offense evolves, passes are thrown faster, and the time quarterbacks spend vulnerable in the pocket shrinks. Even the best outside pass rushers often can’t reach quarterbacks in time to sack or even disrupt them. The antidote to the future of offenses looks like Donald, an interior lineman who can maraud into backfields in less than two seconds, taking the most direct line to the quarterback.
Good luck finding a duplicate. Donald held out during training camp for a new contract, and eventually the Rams succumbed. They madebriefly, because Mack signed for more with Chicago the next day — the highest-paid defensive player in football with a six-year, $135 million contract. He had promised his parents his football career would allow them to retire. “Calling them and telling them they ain’t got to work another day in their life,” Donald said at a news conference after signing, “that felt good.”
Donald makes sense as a prototype now, but that was not always the case. The reason he plays for the Rams is because his stature fooled almost half the NFL — including the Rams.
In his final college season, Donald totaled 28.5 tackles for loss, claimed the Bronko Nagurski Award as the country’s best defensive player and left those close to him in awe. “I was so grateful our paths crossed,” said Paul Chryst, Donald’s coach at Pitt for two seasons. “He’s one of those guys, truly, every day you walked away appreciative and enjoying your time with him.”
Still, Donald was not considered an elite prospect. He is listed at an even 6-feet tall, and he played his senior season at Pitt at about 280 pounds — puny for an NFL interior defensive lineman. Teams who played 3-4 base defense and sought a space-clogging nose tackle believed they had no use for Donald.
Initially, Waufle may have possessed the same notion. A former Marine who started coaching in 1979, Waufle had coached NFL defensive linemen since 1998. He developed an abiding belief in the importance of size. As he started evaluating prospects before the 2014 draft, Waufle studied Donald and saw an exception.
“In my years in the NFL and even college football prior to that, he was the best player I’d ever seen on film in college football in that position,” Waufle said. “If we get a chance to get this guy, I felt like he was better than [Jadeveon] Clowney. That’s the way I went about representing. The scouts and those guys felt like he was too small and didn’t give him the highest grade.”
Teams shared that outlook, Donald knew. He attended the Senior Bowl to prove himself, and NFL executives realized the folly of overlooking him.
“He definitely came into that week on the low side, as maybe a second-round consideration,” then-Senior Bowl director Phil Savage said. “By the time he left Mobile, he was clearly top half of the first round, if not top 10. In hindsight, it was somewhat of a no-brainer he should have been top 10. He stood out individually with his athleticism, his quickness, his burst, his explosion. He dominated the one-on-ones. He was essentially unblockable. He was the buzz from beginning to end.”
Inside Rams headquarters, Waufle continued his campaign for Donald. The Rams held the second and 13th picks in the first round. Even though the Rams already had a loaded defensive line, Waufle was serious about wanting to use the No. 2 overall pick on Donald. During one meeting, Waufle climbed a table to place Donald’s name on the draft board above Clowney, the clear-cut consensus No. 1 player out of South Carolina.
When Donald made a pre-draft visit to St. Louis, Waufle gave him a tour of the facility. Waufle knew the team’s brain trust — Coach Jeff Fisher, General Manager Les Snead and team president Kevin Demoff — were meeting in the draft room. They happened to be watching video of Johnny Manziel, a top quarterback prospect that year. “I had big [guts] doing this,” Waufle recalled. He kicked open the door and proclaimed, “I want you all to meet Aaron Donald!” Waufle, who is 6-foot-4, put his arm around Donald and scrunched down so they were the same height. The men in the room burst out laughing.
By draft day, Waufle knew the Rams weren’t going to use the No. 2 pick on Donald. They chose offensive lineman Greg Robinson, who ended up as a bust. Waufle had no responsibilities, so he worked on projects in his office with the draft on a television. He paid half attention to the draft until the ninth pick, when he glanced at a rundown of picks and realized, to his shock, nobody had picked Donald.
Waufle started to get nervous. The Detroit Lions were picking 10th, and he knew their defensive line coach, his friend Jim Washburn, had been politicking hard for Donald inside their building. When the Lions took tight end Eric Ebron, Waufle exhaled.
The New York Giants went 12th, one pick before St. Louis. Waufle felt certain he’d lose Donald. He had worked for the Giants in 2007, when they beat the undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl on the strength of a line, which he coached, featuring Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck.
“I was scared to death,” Waufle said. “They loved defensive linemen.”
When the Giants picked wideout Odell Beckham Jr., Waufle beamed. He snuck into the Rams' draft room. Fisher saw him and told him, “You got your guy.”
“I was all cranked up,” Waufle said. “I couldn’t believe we got him.”
The Rams' elation has not dissipated since. Before the defensive line meeting of Donald’s first training camp, Waufle swiveled in his chair, turned to Donald and told him something he had never told a player in his 25-year career. “I’m gonna say a lot of things about technique,” Waufle said. “I’m gonna say a lot of things about how we play. I don’t want you to listen to one word that I say. You just play.”
Donald was named defensive rookie of the year. He has made the Pro Bowl every year of his career, and in the past three he has been first-team All Pro.
Those close to Donald believe he will remain on that path. As his agent and Rams executives negotiated late this summer, Donald trained in Pittsburgh, showing up to work with Andrews as the future of his football career and millions of dollars hung in the balance.
“You would not be able to tell anything’s on his mind,” Andrews said. “You wouldn’t be able to tell if made two dollars, three dollars, $1 million, $100 million. There’s absolutely no trace. I truly don’t think you’re going to see a different guy regardless of how much money he makes, who he’s around, win or lose.”
Waufle remembered Donald showing up daily at 6 a.m. One year, a Rams coach spotted him leaving the facility late at night on Christmas. “He works at the game harder than anybody I ever coached,” Waufle said.
Donald still trains with DeWayne Brown, the speed and agility coach he worked with when he played for Penn Hills High. Donald declined an interview request for this story through a team spokesman because, “he just doesn’t want to talk about himself.” Every time he uses the Pittsburgh weight room, he first calls Andrews for permission.
“It’s hard to explain,” Andrews said. “It’s the ‘please.’ It’s the ‘thank you.’ It’s the receptiveness when you go ahead and coach him. Again, I didn’t have a prior relationship with him. I was not his college strength coach. From that standpoint, he’s the salt of the earth.”
Donald can be a normal person, humble and polite, just like anyone else. On a football field, there is nobody like him.
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