The incredible origin stories of young Aaron Donald

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IN THE WEEKS leading up to the 2014 draft, Mike Waufle came to a very sad conclusion: There was no way the Rams would be able to get Aaron Donald.

Even with two first-rounders, the Rams needed a tackle with the No. 2 pick, and Waufle thought that it would be impossible for Donald to drop down to them at their next pick, No. 13.

But a defensive line coach can dream, can’t he? So Waufle lobbied to bring in Donald to meet with the Rams staff anyway.

On the day of the visit, Waufle met Donald in the lobby and walked him up into the team’s main room, where the entire coaching staff was gathered. Waufle stands 6-foot-4 and was worried about how much he towered above Donald, who is, famously now, listed as 6-foot-1.

So when they entered the room, Waufle hung back behind Donald, slinking down as much as he could without it being obvious. It created the illusion that Waufle and Donald were about the same height.

Jeff Fisher and Co. were in the middle of a deep dive on Johnny Manziel. The screen had Johnny Football highlights. The dry-erase board had Johnny Football stats and measurables. And even though everybody hit pause and greeted him, Donald felt like the gaze of the staff wasn’t truly upon him. It was still on Johnny Football.

“I want to introduce you to Aaron Donald,” Waufle said. “You all know how I feel about him.”

Donald chatted with the coaches for a few minutes, then left. Waufle asked Donald what he thought, and Donald shrugged his shoulders. “All I could see was Johnny Manziel’s picture,” he said.

They parted ways that day with a handshake. They both seemed to understand the situation, though: The Rams and Aaron Donald were a good fit but highly unlikely to happen.

Over the coming weeks, Waufle tried to get content with the idea of how the draft would probably unfold. Jadeveon Clowney would go first to the Texans, then the Rams would take Auburn tackle Greg Robinson. “Just get me a couple of seventh-rounders to work with, then,” he told Fisher.

In the final act of a deflated Aaron Donald stan, Waufle went to the Rams’ draft board one day and picked up the magnetic strip with Donald’s name on it. He told the staff that Donald was going to end up being the best player in the draft … and then he suddenly leapt as high as he could and stuck Donald’s name against the wall, above every other player on the board.

You know what happened next. Donald did somehow slide to No. 13, and the Rams excitedly took him. Eight years later, he is the dominant defensive player of this generation and rapidly is entering the chat for the best defensive player of all time.

But Donald also represents one of the most baffling origin stories in modern football history. How was he not the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft? How did he slide all the way to the Rams at No. 13? Before that, how was Pitt the only real scholarship offer Donald received from a Power 5 school?

The 19 stories of young Aaron Donald you’re about to read will mostly add to the confusion. The truth is, among those who knew Donald or watched him play football as a kid, they all shake their heads, shrug their shoulders … and then tell a superhuman moment or two from the little kid who’d become the most disruptive defensive football player in the modern NFL.

The rest of the world took some convincing.


WHEN HE WAS 1, Aaron and his older brother, Archie Jr., would follow their dad down into the basement in the morning. For the next hour, they were supposed to watch from the stairs as Archie Sr. lifted weights in their Pennsylvania home.

Aaron was still in diapers, and he’d wander over and try to pick up a weight. Dad always pointed over toward the bottom of the stairs, and the stout little guy would waddle back over, sit down and wait.

When Archie Sr. got done, he’d let the boys come over and throw around a dumbbell or two. He noticed Archie Jr., 4 at the time, seemed interested in working out himself, mimicking his dad’s workouts.

Aaron? Not so much. “He was a lazy kid, to be honest,” Archie Sr. says. “I wasn’t sure if he’d ever really be into working out in a serious way.”

Thirty years later, good luck finding a more devoted workout fiend than Aaron Donald.


AARON WAS A QUIET KID. Like, so quiet his parents worried that they never had any idea what he was thinking. When they started dragging him to watch Archie play football as a 6-year-old, they couldn’t tell if Aaron liked it. He’d watch the games and root for his brother, but it never seemed like something he wanted for himself.

But then one day Archie Sr. heard paper-tearing noises coming from the living room.

When he went in, he found Aaron, 3 or 4 at the time, on the floor with a notebook, carefully ripping up tiny pieces of paper. Each piece was the same size, and Aaron then crumpled them into balls and spread them out. There were 22 of them, 11 on each side, and Archie Sr. smiled as he watched his little buddy begin to recreate every play he could remember from his brother’s game.

Maybe Aaron would like to play football himself someday, his dad thought.


AS FAR BACK AS his car seat days, Aaron loved nothing more in the world than going for a ride with his parents and stopping at his favorite restaurant: Wendy’s. He’d crush plain double cheeseburgers — “Cheese, and only cheese,” he’d tell his mom and dad.

In fact, years later as an elementary schooler, coaches told him they wanted him to stop playing fullback and concentrate on defensive tackle.

He was bummed about it, but his dad told him, “You ate yourself out of fullback, Aaron. Too many Wendy’s double cheeseburgers.”


NOTHING BOTHERED LITTLE AARON DONALD more than when taller kids reached down and grabbed his facemask. It happened a lot more than you’d think, and it lit the fire that still burns in him about his height. (See: Aaron Donald swinging not one, but two, helmets during the Bengals-Rams preseason brawl from last week.)

Donald had weighed too much as a 7-year-old, so he moved out of the 6- to 8-year-old division and played on Archie’s 9- to 11-year-old team. That’s about the time when he first began to encounter kids with six inches or more on him — and hear concern that he was too short to ever be great.

But he was still the same Aaron Donald you see now. Even as a first-grader going against fourth-graders and fifth-graders, he could explode off the ball, get under a kid’s pads and put him on his back en route to the ball carrier. That frustrated older kids, who would then rain down shots on his shoulder pads, helmet and, on occasion, his face mask.

That quiet kid his parents always wondered about? They knew exactly what he had on his mind during football games. “When he got on the field, he was a mean little guy,” his dad says. “He learned to express himself on the field.”

He pauses for a moment, then laughs a little. “He was so god damn mean,” Archie Sr. says.


IN MIDDLE SCHOOL, Aaron’s dad came to practice sometimes. He’d either stand near the sidelines or hang out with other parents in the parking lot up on a hill above the field.

One day he was down on the field when Aaron batted a pass up in the air, caught it and started rumbling the other way for a potential pick-six. He had one guy to beat: a receiver who got back and anchored down to brace for impact.

His dad’s eyes widened in horror about the crash that was about to happen. The kid was like a statue as Aaron approached and lowered his helmet into his stomach. Aaron completely trucked the poor kid, who was left flopping around on the ground.

Aaron’s dad was watching the kid, hoping he was OK, when he heard what sounded like a stampede behind him. When he turned his head, he saw every parent barreling down the hill to make sure it wasn’t their kid who’d been steamrollered by Aaron.

Aaron had run the interception back for a score and come back to make sure his teammate was OK. The kid eventually got up and wobbled off the field for the rest of the practice. He was ultimately fine, just some bruised ribs.

On the way home, Aaron said he hadn’t been trying to hurt the kid. “I know, Aaron … but that was the hardest hit I have ever seen,” his dad said.


WHEN ARCHIE JR. committed to play football at Toledo, Archie Sr. suggested that he begin extra workouts with a trainer. Dad had created an early-morning weightlifting routine for both his boys.

“The workout tales are legendary,” says Ron Graham, Aaron’s old Penn Hills High School coach. “And let me tell you, they’re not tales. They’re real.”

Aaron had grown to love weightlifting with his dad and brother. It was a way the three of them could create goals and grind away at them, together. It was their thing.

But Dad thought maybe a trainer could help Archie at the next level. So he hired local trainer DeWayne Brown to introduce agility and speed training.

On the first day, Brown took them out to a lumpy nearby field. He ran them hard to see what fitness levels he was dealing with, but he also liked to test will and determination on day one, too.

Archie Jr. worked his butt off. He did everything Brown asked, and he did it well. Aaron … not so much. He was 15 or 16 at the time and kept mentioning to Brown and his dad that he had shin splints and wanted to stop running. Brown tried pushing, but the youngest Donald kept limping around in an unconvincing fashion.

Brown watched Archie Sr. poke Aaron a little bit. Archie wasn’t really much of a yeller, but he knew how to gently nudge Aaron in a way that challenged him.

Pretty soon, Aaron wasn’t just doing the drills, he was doing them faster than any nearly 250-pound 16-year-old should. Over the next few years, Brown kept adding more difficult footwork and short-burst drills to Aaron’s plate, and he kept mastering them. Suddenly Brown was the one with figurative shin splints trying to backpedal and figure out new ways to make Aaron’s life the right amount of difficult.

He went from workouts tailored to defensive ends to linebackers and these days, he runs Aaron through the same workouts he uses for his running back clients, Miles Sanders, Najee Harris and others.

Fifteen years later, playing in Los Angeles, near some of the best trainers in the world, Aaron still comes back to Pittsburgh to work out with Brown. “Aaron gave me validation,” Brown says. “As an individual trainer, he showed that my stuff works.”


IN 2006, WHEN ARCHIE JR. was a senior and Aaron was in ninth grade, Penn Hills players and coaches went to their home field for a Thursday night walkthrough. On one particular night, the middle school team was playing a home game as the varsity team meandered past the field and toward the locker room.

Some of the coaches would try to sneak a peek at the field to see what kind of talent might be coming their way down the road. Defensive coach Demond Gibson planted his feet in one end zone and was watching when Archie Donald, his star linebacker, tapped him on the shoulder.

“That kid is going to be really good for you next year,” he said, pointing at a defensive tackle.

“Who is it?” Gibson asked.

“My little brother,” Archie said, and he walked away.

Gibson lingered for a few more minutes, watching as the short, stout kid Archie pointed to took over the game. “It was like old school Tecmo Bowl,” Gibson says. “He was just running through everybody out there. I realized I was about to get a real one.”


IN THE FIRST PRACTICE of his high school career, Aaron immediately looked like a potential starter.

But he had only one move. It was a good move. It was a move no Penn Hills teammate could stop. But it was his only move. (What was the move? “I can’t give it away, because he still uses it to this day,” Gibson says.) After an early practice, Gibson pulled Aaron aside and heaped praise on him and his move.

And then he told him he couldn’t use it anymore.

Aaron was baffled. “But nobody can stop it, Coach?” Aaron said.

Gibson told him that the coaching staff believed having one fantastic move would help him become a really good high school player but would make him a one-dimensional player in college and beyond. “Eventually everybody will be able to stop you,” Gibson told him.

He could sense Aaron’s skepticism. So Gibson went to Aaron’s dad one day on the practice field and said, “We have something extremely rare in Aaron. But I need to coach him hard. Will you support me in that?”

Archie Sr. thought about it for a second, then waved over Aaron. “Whatever this coach tells you to do, you do it. I don’t want to hear any complaints.”

As promised, Gibson made Aaron strip out his favorite move and they started from scratch on new techniques. “We broke his game down to zero,” Gibson says.

They developed a series of moves, and Gibson asked Aaron to look over between plays to see which one he wanted him to use. For most of his high school career, Gibson and Aaron worked as a two-brained, single-bodied organism. Gibson sent in the signals, Aaron nodded his head, and then they both celebrated the sacks.


AS A TENTH-GRADER, Aaron was a breakout player for Penn Hills, and local media began to buzz about how Archie Donald’s little brother was already disrupting backfields.

But he was such an under-the-radar, modest kid that his coach, Graham, found himself getting stopped in the hallways by Aaron’s teachers. “Is that the same Aaron Donald from my class?” they’d ask.

“He’s too quiet to be doing that kind of stuff on the football field.”


PITT COACH DAVE WANNSTEDT sent his assistant head coach, Greg Gattuso, to a Penn Hills game in 2009. Wannstedt wanted an in-depth scouting report on an exciting Penn Hills prospect — senior linebacker Dan Mason.

Mason played well that night, confirming why Pitt had made him an offer. Mason ended up going to Pitt and starting at linebacker before a knee injury ended his career.

But Gattuso’s attention kept drifting toward a different kid: Aaron Donald. He knew the name — Pitt coaches always paid close attention to good players in the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League — but Panthers coaches hadn’t gone after him hard yet. “I could not take my eyes off Aaron Donald,” Gattuso says. “I hadn’t seen anybody do in a game what I saw out there.”

Toward the end of the game, Aaron jogged off the field and Gattuso couldn’t contain himself on the sideline. “You have an offer from Pitt!” he screamed as a horde of confused players — including Aaron — jogged off the field.

To this day, he’s not sure if Aaron actually heard him. But Gattuso knew he needed to make a quick call to Wannstedt, who liked Aaron but wanted scholarship offers to be a staff-wide decision-making process.

“How’d Dan Mason look?” Wannstedt asked.

“He was great,” Gattuso said. “But, uh, I might have offered Aaron Donald.”

“What do you mean you offered Aaron Donald?” Wannstedt said.

“Coach … he wrecked everything,” Gattuso said.

Wannstedt seemed to shrug his shoulders. Maybe they’d get lucky and end up with a second Penn Hills standout. “We offered him that night,” Gattuso says now. “And again, and again, and again.”

A year later, with Toledo as the only other school pursuing him, Aaron chose Pitt.


IN ONE OF HIS LAST scrimmages as a high school player, Donald and Penn Hills faced off with nearby rival Mt. Lebanon. Things were chippy all afternoon, and even though quarterbacks weren’t to be tackled, the Mt. Lebanon defense had been pretty physical with Penn Hills’ quarterbacks all day.

Penn Hills’ offensive players were barking at their coaches about how much their opponents had been getting away with as Donald and Co. went out on the field to play defense. On the first play, the Mt. Lebanon quarterback had barely gotten the snap when Donald broke through the line. It looked like the QB might hand the ball to his running back, so Donald spread out his arms and grabbed both players by their jerseys.

When he realized the quarterback still had the ball, Donald gripped tighter around the jersey and tried to corral the kid with one hand. In a burst of physicality, Donald’s body weight yanked the quarterback up and into the air, and Donald’s momentum caused the quarterback to swing through the air. “He was literally in the air like a helicopter blade,” Gibson says.

Both sidelines were shocked at the visual of Aaron Donald, one hand latched to a running back, the other spinning the quarterback around like a toddler. It was such a confusing, violent image that the Mt. Lebanon sideline stormed onto the field even as Donald lowered the quarterback to the ground on his feet. Donald never even put any weight on the kid.

Gibson estimates that about 60 Mt. Lebanon players pounced on Donald, and it took all 60 to get him down. Gibson got there five seconds later, and Donald was dogpiled but fighting off his back. Gibson and other coaches yanked players off the pile as fast as possible, but Donald was underneath a mountain of Mt. Lebanoners for a few minutes before they finally dragged him off the field.

Donald was breathing fire, so Gibson had to walk Donald to the locker room himself. The scrimmage was pretty much over, but Donald wanted to get back out there. Donald wouldn’t listen — until Gibson laid out how important he was to the team, that he needed to set aside the raw anger and think about how a late-scrimmage cheap shot or another brawl wasn’t worth ruining the whole season, for him or the team.

Donald eventually calmed down and started taking his pads off. “I need you to be cool,” Gibson said.

Donald nodded that he understood … but just in case, Gibson called in a bodyguard — Gibson’s brother, a hulking military vet — to sit with him. Gibson told Donald it was in case any Mt. Lebanon people came looking for him.

But Gibson told his brother, “He’s going to want to come back out. Don’t let him.”


EVEN AS HIS HIGH SCHOOL career wound down, Donald still was making eye contact with Gibson on almost every play.

But before one of his last games, Donald asked him, “What do you want to do tonight?”

Gibson put his hand on his shoulder. “We’re not going to do anything. It’s up to you.”

He told him that he was on his own out there, that Donald was ready to choose from a vast arsenal of moves himself. Donald seemed surprised at first, a little leery of playing without the training wheels.

What happened next was an early window into how Donald has become one of the most intuitive players in NFL history. Even as coaches describe Donald’s power, or his impossible-to-teach understanding of body leverage, many say the most underrated part of his game is the way he loves and knows football.

That day, Donald didn’t look over at all, making every decision himself. “That was the best game I have ever seen from a football player,” Gibson says. “When they snapped the ball, he was in their backfield. They couldn’t move the ball all day, and it was because of one guy: Aaron Donald. That’s when I knew he was going to be something very special.”

After the game, the two shared a big hug. Donald gives a mean hug. He let go of his vice grip … then pulled Gibson back in. “Coach, it all came together today,” he said.


AT PITT, EARLY WEIGHTLIFTING sessions often separated the freshmen who might play from the freshmen who would be scout-teamers for the first year.

When Donald got ready for his first bench press session as a frosh, veteran players either chuckled or raised their eyebrows as the short new recruit kept stacking weight. As he laid down on the bench, starting QB Tino Sunseri mentally ticked off the weight on the bar. “Ninety, plus 90, plus 90, plus 90, plus 20, plus the bar … 425?”

He couldn’t believe it. Then Donald started heaving the weight up and down, unassisted. Donald had arrived. “My jaw dropped,” Sunseri says. “Everybody’s did.”


SUNSERI AND DONALD HIT it off right away. One thing that made it easier? Sunseri got to wear a bright red jersey every day in practice as Donald tortured the first-team offensive line. The most Donald could ever get in on Sunseri was a bearhug before plays were blown dead.

But even Donald’s bearhugs were pretty rough. Sunseri and Donald had begun to rib each other during practice — Donald isn’t a brash talker, but he likes to let players know he is coming for them and will eventually get to them, in nice but firm terms. He likes when teammates fire back at him, too.

Well, he usually does. After one practice early in Donald’s freshman year, Pitt players walked off the field and toward the locker room, with Sunseri a few feet ahead of Donald. They were bantering back and forth the way they routinely did, when Sunseri said to Donald, “You know I could kick your ass.”

Donald was on top of him almost before Sunseri could finish.

“No, you couldn’t,” he said in Sunseri’s ear, picking him up in an unbreakable bear hug that confirmed that no, Sunseri probably couldn’t. Donald held on just long enough that Sunseri, now the quarterbacks coach at James Madison, never made the joke again.

“I thought my chest was going to explode,” Sunseri says.


RUNNING BACKS AT PITT did not have the benefit of wearing red protective jerseys. But they were always impressed at how Donald never purposely went for decleatings, even though he could have.

“We’re all on the same team, with the same goals,” Donald would say. “I don’t want to hurt anybody on my team.”

But just because he didn’t decleat doesn’t mean he was declawed. He’d pop backs hard but also hold on to them so they didn’t go to the ground. James Conner remembers one practice when Donald busted through the line and had a clear shot at Conner as he took a handoff. He braced for impact to his chest … then felt Donald grab him, circle behind and leap onto his back, like a 300-pound backpack.

He didn’t take Conner to the ground, though. “He just liked to let you know he could do whatever he wanted with you,” says the Arizona Cardinals star.


IN DONALD’S FIRST YEAR AT PITT, teammates began to find it amusing to hear starting linemen grumbling about Donald. The linemen all liked him. They couldn’t wait till other schools’ linemen had to deal with him instead. They just couldn’t handle the torture every week of trying to work on a game plan, and then some really short freshman blew up everything over and over again.

He would often get to the quarterback, wrap him up and then release as coaches whistled the play dead. Then Donald would walk past the linemen he just beat and say, “Sack” or “Got your ass” directly into their ear holes. It drove linemen bonkers because it was such a calm way to rub their noses in getting thumped.

And the worst part for the linemen? Many of them began to panic about what was ahead. As former Pitt QB and color commentator Pat Bostick recalls, he’d walk through Pitt’s numbered locker room, past the 50s and 60s for the offensive linemen, and hear guards and tackles who were six inches taller and 50 pounds heavier than the 18-year-old sitting down with the 90s in the corner, and hear some panicked version of, “He’s the toughest guy to block, and he doesn’t even have clue what he is doing yet!”


IN AUGUST 2011, Donald had just met yet another new coaching staff. His Pitt career has to rank among the most chaotic coaching eras any great college player has had in recent years.

He somehow ended up with six head coaches from 2010 to ’13: Dave Wannstedt (12 games), Phil Bennett (1 game), Michael Haywood (0 games), Todd Graham (12 games), Keith Patterson (1 game) and Paul Chryst (26 games).

That meant he was constantly shaking hands with new coaches who didn’t know him very well. In 2011, that was Patterson, who’d been hired as Pitt’s new defensive coordinator but would take over as interim head coach late in the season.

Patterson was just getting a feel for the personality and football skill of the promising Panthers sophomore when a skyscraper offensive lineman got into it with Donald during an inside run defense drill. The lineman did the Aaron Donald Cardinal Sin: He grabbed Donald’s facemask and held on to it.

“Aaron never said a word,” Patterson says now. “He just went, ‘Bam!’ and uppercutted the helmet right off the guy.”

This was the moment when a responsible new defensive coaching staff obviously kicks Donald out of practice to set a tone that punching opposing linemen in frustration is unacceptable. Obviously.

But what really happened? Patterson whistled to run the drill again, then leaned over to the other defensive coaches and couldn’t contain a laugh.

“Man, don’t piss that guy off,” Patterson muttered under his breath to the other coaches, and they all laughed again about the silent firecracker defensive tackle they’d just inherited.


AT ONE OF JAMES CONNER’S first practices at Pitt, he was watching Donald closely. Conner was a true freshman who was going to play both defensive end and running back, and he wanted to try to soak up as much as he could from the Panthers’ senior star.

That day, Conner saw Donald run off the practice field after a play and take his helmet off as another defensive tackle subbed in for him. As Conner watched, Donald leaned over a little and … barfed all over the ground.

Then he put his helmet on, ran back in and told the sub to go back to the sideline. He didn’t even miss one snap. In practice. In August.

“I’ll always remember that image,” Conner says. “He could have easily said he had a stomachache and sat out for a few plays. I saw that that was what it takes — to push yourself past exhaustion.”


PITT TEAMMATES HAVE MANY, many favorite Aaron Donald plays, but one comes up more than any other.

Toward the end of the first quarter against Duke in 2013, the Blue Devils were in the red zone. On second and 10, Donald blazed past a Duke guard and into the backfield, where quarterback Brandon Connette and running back Josh Snead were smushed together in the middle of a read option. Donald had to try to decipher who would come out of there with the ball, Connette or Snead?

In the moment, he made the decision to … tackle them both. Snead technically had the ball and got dinged for a 4-yard loss. But the pile under Donald on that play had two bodies.

“It wasn’t this massive strike of a hit,” says Bostick, who called the game. “It was just the speed that which he got to the ball carrier and sheer strength to wrestle them both to the ground with ease. It was unbelievable.”

On a videoconference, Bostick shakes his head, like he’s watching it live again. “God made a perfect defensive tackle,” he says.


THE LAST GAME of the 2013 season was Donald’s final one for Pitt, and the end of what was a wild freshman year for Conner. He’d played well as a rush end alongside Donald, subbing in on passing downs. And he also was the breakout running back star of the program.

Against Bowling Green in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, Conner was incredible, running for more yards (229) than any Pitt player ever in a bowl game. He also had been lining up at defensive end until he was told not to go in on defense — by Aaron Donald.

“No,” Donald said, putting his hand on Conner’s chest. “Stay here on the sideline. We need you for offense.”

It was one of the most important moments of Conner’s life. He knew that deep down in his soul, he was a running back, and now an iconic part of the Pitt football program agreed. Pitt coaches eventually told him — and Donald — that they needed Conner in to rush the passer in what was an eventual 30-27 Pitt win.

But in many ways, that sideline conversation with Donald affirmed Conner. “I felt like I got his respect,” Conner says. “It meant everything to me, and I wanted to build on that going forward.”

On the stage afterward, Donald was named defensive MVP and Conner took home offensive MVP honors. It was clear that the program was now in Conner’s hands. Donald leaned over to the freshman and said, “Build on this. Never get satisfied. Hard work pays off.”


HEADING INTO THE 2014 SENIOR BOWL, Donald was projecting as a late first-round round pick. He’d finished his senior year with 28.5 tackles for loss and 11 sacks in 13 games, incredible numbers for a defensive tackle. He had risen slowly but surely up the NFL consciousness, so all eyes turned toward the measurables stage of the Senior Bowl.

A murmur came over the crowd when Donald’s height and weight were announced: 288 pounds and a hair under 6-foot-1. The other eight DTs averaged about 6-foot-3, 319 pounds.

When the tackles all stood beside one another, Donald looked like a point guard hanging out with the power forwards.

But then they started running drills. “It was complete domination on every play of every session every day,” says then-Saints defensive line coach Bill Johnson.

Eventually, Johnson watched as a coach came over and did something Johnson hadn’t seen before at a Senior Bowl. Donald was so disruptive that he was ruining every drill. So the coaches had to tell him to sit out. You know, so other people had a chance.

Johnson left that day knowing Donald’s showing there — coupled with a 4.68 40-yard dash at the combine — meant the Saints would have no chance to get Donald when they picked at No. 20.

Don’t feel too bad for Johnson, though: He hit the lottery a few years later, when the Rams hired him to coach the defensive line for two seasons, 2017-18. That’s when Donald won two of his three NFL defensive player of the year awards, tied for most in NFL history with J.J. Watt and Lawrence Taylor.

“I’ve coached for 42 seasons,” says Johnson, including last year with the USFL’s Birmingham Stallions. “He’s the best I’ve ever been around, and it’s not even a question. He’s Tiger Woods.”


ON THE FIRST NIGHT of the 2014 NFL draft, things broke as the Rams had anticipated. Jadeveon Clowney went No. 1 to the Texans, then the team took Greg Robinson at No. 2. The Rams had about 100 minutes until their second pick of the first round, at No. 13.

Waufle and most of the position coaches watched the draft from their offices but periodically peeked their heads into the big conference room where GM Les Snead and coach Jeff Fisher were anchoring the team’s draft.

Like every position coach, Waufle was hoping to put in one last good word for the player he liked for the next pick. Waufle was a broken record about Donald, so he didn’t need to say it again. “Besides, there was no way he was dropping to us anyway,” Waufle said.

As the night wore on, though, a few teams made surprising reaches. The Browns unexpectedly took Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert at No. 8 (Scouts Inc. had him No. 20 overall). Then, with the next pick, the Vikings grabbed UCLA outside linebacker Anthony Barr, whom Scouts Inc. ranked 25th overall.

In his office, Waufle sat up and looked at the three teams ahead of the Rams. He thought the Lions were probably leaning toward tight end Eric Ebron (they were), and the Titans likely would grab a tackle, either Taylor Lewan or Zack Martin (they took Lewan).

That left only the Giants ahead of the Rams. Waufle’s heart sank. No way would Tom Coughlin pass on an uber-disruptive defensive tackle, he thought.

And with the 12th pick in the 2014 draft, the Giants selected … LSU wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.

Waufle jumped up from his chair and snuck into the back of the conference room. He stayed quiet as he heard people bantering about what the Rams should do. But the truth is, Waufle had done his job. As the clock ticked down, heads began to nod, and the Rams called in the pick. Fisher told somebody to grab Waufle, but the veteran coach barked out in his raspy voice, “I’m already here.”

Fisher made eye contact with Waufle. Both smiled, turned their heads toward their draft board and looked up above every other name on the board, toward the guy they were about to take.

There, two feet higher than Clowney and Johnny Football and everybody else, still sat the magnetic name of Aaron Donald.



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