STREAMING NOW: Watch Now

Aaron Donald: How 'lazy, chunky kid' became NFL superstar

Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald tells CNN Sport's Coy Wire about his pride in forging a career against the odds in the NFL and how his parents helped turn a "lazy, chunky kid" into an NFL star.

Posted: Oct 4, 2020 6:40 PM
Updated: Oct 4, 2020 6:40 PM

Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, many stadiums in the NFL are empty or at limited capacity this year, and players have been unable to rely on the crowd to give them the same energy and support they have received in previous seasons.

Now more than ever, teams need players to be what Hall of Fame NFL coach Bill Parcells calls "Parking Lot Players."

"A Parking Lot guy is a guy that there doesn't have to be anybody there watching, it's about the competition for them," he told NFL Films back in 2010. "It's about the challenge they face in their opponent, it's not about the notoriety they get from playing. It's just about the competition."

LA Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald may just be the perfect example of that kind of person.

READ: Obama pops up as virtual spectator at NBA Finals

"At the end of the day, you're going to compete," Donald told CNN Sport's Coy Wire in a recent interview. "The competition isn't going to change. You still want to do your job, you still want to dominate the guy in front of you.

"Football is football. You're still going to compete at a high level just because it's a competition. You don't want to go out there and not compete at a high level and look bad. So that's not going to change."

He does admit that having 80,000 fans cheering on a third-and-long "gets you a little bit more amped up," but says all the fuel he needs is "just to make plays."

"The guys around you, you're feeding off each other's energy," he says. "You're pushing each other. At the end of the day, like I said, it's competition so you know you have to defeat the guy across from you and find a way to dominate no matter what, that's enough motivation right there."

Family sacrifice

The step up to the NFL never seemed to trouble Donald, especially for a player who many considered undersized for his position.

Some teams appeared suspicious of his potential, despite incredible college production at the University of Pittsburgh.

He fell to the LA Rams -- then the St. Louis Rams -- with the 13th pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, chosen behind a number of great defensive players like Jadeveon Clowney, Khalil Mack and Anthony Barr. He was even chosen after top wide receivers Mike Evans and Odell Beckham Jr.

The Rams' judgment proved prescient.

READ: LeBron James finding new ways to define greatness

Donald has made the Pro Bowl every year he has played in the NFL; he won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year for the past two seasons and in 2018 was also voted the top player in the NFL by players in the league.

Donald was rewarded with a new contract the same year, and is still one of the highest paid defensive players in the NFL, bringing in a reported annual salary of $22.5 million.

A self-confessed "lazy, chunky" kid, he says his father turned his life around and pushed him.

"I remember waking up at ... 4:30 a.m. with my dad ... and my dad was always telling me 'hard work pays off,'" says the 29-year old Donald. "When everybody else is sleeping, you are working.

"As a kid you're like, 'okay, dad, I hear you!' but to see from starting in the basement training with my dad ..." Donald's voice trails off and wavers. He wells up as he recounts the story, a few tears streaming down his face.

"I sent a text message to my dad the other day saying, 'everything you told me, it really came full circle and paid off for me.'

"From just starting out working out in the basement to being in the National Football League, there aren't too many kids that ... actually dream about something since they were five years old and see it come full circle and be where I'm at today. You know, it's crazy.

"It just started from working, wanting to be the best, to seeing it come full circle, to not just being in the NFL but being a top guy in this league and still have room for improvement. It's definitely emotional! You get choked up, you get warm, your eyes start 'watering,' but you put the body of work in and it always pays off.

"I truly can't thank my mom and dad enough for it."

Back to school

Donald knows that football won't last forever though, even if he already has Hall of Fame credentials, and he has to prepare for the future.

He revealed earlier this year that he went back to Pitt and completed his degree.

"It was a promise I made to my mom and dad," he says. "After I got drafted, you know I didn't finish, I had a couple of credits left, so my dad and my mom said: 'Football doesn't last forever, make sure you go back you get me that degree.'

"And I made a promise to them to do that. It took a while, but to graduate from college, my older sister did it, my older brother did it and now I did it. I know that made my mom and dad proud, all three of their kids with college degrees."

Despite his achievements in the NFL, he considers his academic success one of his best: "Just having that piece of paper, that degree, that's a huge accomplishment for me."

Father figure

At a time of great inequality in the United States, Donald, who grew up in Pittsburgh, acknowledges that not all kids around the country will have the same support, structure and drive that his parents provided him.

He founded the AD99 Solutions Foundation to do something about that.

READ: Star has no regrets over T-shirts printed with seven bullet holes protest

"I had friends who didn't always make the best decisions," he says. "I had friends who were in and out of jail. I had friends who were murdered.

"I understand it's about the environment, and you try to adapt to your environment. But just trying to keep these kids on the right path, because it's easy if something isn't going your way to say you're done with it, and you go another way because you just don't have hope.

"We're going back to giving these kids an opportunity to beat the odds of what you typically see in underprivileged communities. We're trying to build the community up and change what you see."

Donald also acknowledges often some kids have only seen an escape through music or sport, and he wants to change those perceptions.

"It isn't just sports and musicians," he says. "We can be doctors too coming out of the inner cities. We can be astronauts! We've got to have that mindset that we can do it too, and they have got to see it."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 291222

Reported Deaths: 6577
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto19470226
Hinds18555383
Harrison16385273
Rankin12498260
Jackson12401216
Lee9635160
Madison9353193
Jones7836144
Forrest7055135
Lauderdale6735225
Lowndes5989137
Lamar579379
Lafayette5688113
Washington5124128
Bolivar4567120
Oktibbeha438091
Panola424092
Warren4091113
Pearl River4070127
Pontotoc406066
Marshall397992
Monroe3971125
Union391372
Neshoba3746166
Lincoln343799
Hancock337773
Leflore3346118
Sunflower315785
Tate299172
Pike297792
Scott291367
Alcorn289760
Itawamba288471
Yazoo282662
Tippah275265
Copiah273357
Coahoma272265
Simpson269278
Prentiss267158
Leake250870
Wayne250140
Marion249478
Covington246277
Grenada244576
Adams232374
George229545
Newton222551
Winston220174
Tishomingo210965
Jasper210343
Attala205669
Chickasaw200250
Holmes181470
Clay177348
Stone170729
Tallahatchie169039
Clarke167671
Calhoun155327
Smith151131
Yalobusha141936
Greene126333
Walthall123040
Noxubee122429
Montgomery120537
Perry120133
Lawrence118420
Carroll117123
Amite110632
Webster108629
Jefferson Davis99831
Tunica97923
Claiborne97329
Benton92524
Humphreys91226
Kemper89222
Quitman76614
Franklin75319
Choctaw69316
Wilkinson62226
Jefferson60827
Sharkey48817
Issaquena1676
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 488973

Reported Deaths: 9660
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson703321342
Mobile35725716
Madison32088437
Tuscaloosa23913404
Montgomery22369481
Shelby21714209
Baldwin19554263
Lee14827147
Morgan13529243
Etowah13091309
Calhoun13063281
Marshall11197202
Houston10019255
Limestone9303130
Elmore9283179
Cullman8856176
St. Clair8747214
Lauderdale8541209
DeKalb8419173
Talladega7424161
Walker6466240
Jackson6450101
Autauga614384
Blount6058125
Colbert5973118
Coffee522299
Dale4606106
Russell400530
Franklin396575
Covington3918105
Chilton380096
Escambia375970
Tallapoosa3533138
Clarke342348
Dallas3385139
Chambers3382102
Pike292471
Lawrence280685
Marion277492
Winston244563
Marengo243454
Bibb243259
Geneva238168
Pickens223453
Barbour208450
Hale208064
Fayette198755
Butler194865
Henry181741
Cherokee175737
Monroe165538
Randolph161240
Washington155832
Crenshaw143052
Clay142554
Macon140344
Cleburne136139
Lamar130632
Lowndes130148
Wilcox120525
Bullock116033
Conecuh106423
Perry104927
Sumter98231
Greene86732
Coosa86323
Choctaw54723
Out of AL00
Unassigned00
Tupelo
Partly Cloudy
70° wxIcon
Hi: 76° Lo: 41°
Feels Like: 70°
Columbus
Clear
71° wxIcon
Hi: 75° Lo: 39°
Feels Like: 71°
Oxford
Cloudy
68° wxIcon
Hi: 70° Lo: 44°
Feels Like: 68°
Starkville
Partly Cloudy
72° wxIcon
Hi: 75° Lo: 41°
Feels Like: 72°
WTVA Radar
WTVA Temperatures
WTVA Severe Weather