The legend of Aaron Donald began to take root on a blustery November night in Pittsburgh just over 12 years ago.
The baby-faced Penn Hills High School defensive tackle offered a glimpse of the monster he’d one day become, singlehandedly dismantling first-round playoff opponent Upper St. Clair like a 6-foot, 270-pound wrecking ball.
“What are you guys doing? Can you block him?” Upper St. Clair offensive lineman Gordon Mathews recalls his quarterback barking during a second-half huddle. Mathews sheepishly glanced at Donald and thought, “No, we can’t.”
Upper St. Clair tried helping Mathews by sending double teams. Donald muscled through them. Upper St. Clair tried varying the snap count. Donald still exploded out of his stance faster than anyone else. Eventually, Upper St. Clair accepted that Donald was unblockable and gave up on attempting pocket passes or running up the middle.
After a 14-7 loss that ended his high school football career, Mathews took the outcome hard. “You’re a senior,” he said. “It’s the last time you get to play with the teammates that you grew up with. So you feel like you disappointed everybody.”
With the benefit of hindsight, Mathews feels differently. That’s because the undersized defensive tackle across the line of scrimmage from him turned out to be better than his three-star rating and four scholarship offers suggested.
There is no one happier than Mathews that Donald has blossomed into perhaps the NFL’s most dominant defensive player, no one except perhaps the other battered bodies that the Los Angeles Rams star has left in his wake. The offensive linemen who Donald demolished in high school and college all feel better about themselves now that they’ve seen Donald plow through NFL veterans like bowling pins or push them around like blocking sleds.
“The fact that the best offensive linemen in the NFL can’t block him either obviously lessens the blow,” Mathews said. “If 300-pound NFL linemen can’t stop him, what chance did 220-pound me have in high school?”
On Sunday, when Donald’s Rams face the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI, Mathews will be cheering for his former tormentor — and he won’t be alone. Other victims of Donald’s greatest hits have since become Donald fans, from an ex-Georgia Tech lineman who now runs marathons to an ex-Syracuse lineman who now wrestles in the WWE.
These are the stories of what it’s like to try to block Donald from five men who barely survived it:
Vindication after 4 years of torment at Pittsburgh
A former college teammate of Aaron Donald has a startling confession to make.
Ryan Schlieper felt a twinge of disappointment in 2013 when his own team’s best player decided that the NFL draft could wait and that he would return for his senior season. The former Pittsburgh offensive lineman might have sacrificed some team success the following year to avoid having to practice for another season against college football’s most fearsome defensive player.
“It would have really hurt our team if Aaron would’ve declared early, but a little part of me hoped he would,” Schlieper told Yahoo Sports. “Aaron was so good by then that if he declared, it would have made life for us offensive linemen so much easier.”
From 2010 to 2013, Schlieper was Donald’s personal blocking sled. They went up against each other in practice every day at Pittsburgh, Donald showcasing the quickness, power and relentlessness that remain his hallmarks and Schlieper just trying to make it through each drill with his body and dignity intact.
Schlieper has had four knee surgeries, and he attributes each of them to the physical toll of trying to block Donald. Game days were a “walk in the park” for Schlieper compared to battling Donald on the practice field.
While Donald is the quickest and strongest defensive tackle that Schlieper ever faced, it was his football IQ that frustrated Schlieper most. Donald would be able to tell what play was coming just by listening to the quarterback’s play call and observing the posture of the linemen in front of him.
“If you put a lot of pressure down on your hands, your fingers get white,” Schlieper explained. “He can read how much weight you’re putting on your hands and know if it’s a run play or a pass play, if a guard is pulling, if he should be expecting a double team, all this stuff.
“It would be the most infuriating thing when we’re running power left and he’d say, ‘I can tell Schlieper is pulling.’ Then the linebackers would shift, they’d be more downhill and it would ruin everything. It was basically game over.”
Only twice does Schlieper remember winning a 1-on-1 drill against Donald. The second time, Donald didn’t even let Schlieper enjoy the rare win. He stopped the drill, and said, “Let’s do that again.”
Chuckling at the memory, Schlieper said, “The next time, he just bulldozed me to the ground like how dare you try to beat me. That’s him. He’s a competitor.”
What bothered Schlieper most during his four years at Pittsburgh was that some of the coaches didn’t seem to appreciate the difficulty of facing Donald. He remembers Donald getting by him with a swim move and having coaches yell at him, “How are you getting beat by this guy?” Or, worse yet, “Schlieper, are you just going to wet yourself every time 97 shows up in front of you?”
Now, Schlieper describes himself as “the biggest Aaron Donald cheerleader” because he feels vindicated by his former teammate’s NFL success.
“I would love to call some of my old coaches,” he says, “and be like, ‘Hey, remember how I couldn’t block Aaron Donald? Neither can anyone else.'”
Grappling for a second shot at Aaron Donald
A colossal man who touts himself as “your future favorite WWE superstar” wants to challenge Donald to face him at Wrestlemania someday.
That’s because the only time Omari Palmer went up against Donald on the football field, it didn’t go so well.
In 2013, when Palmer was a redshirt freshman offensive lineman at Syracuse, Pittsburgh visited the Carrier Dome. It was an important late-season game with both teams stuck on five victories and looking to become bowl eligible.
When Syracuse began the game with a four-play, 67-yard touchdown march, the Orange’s field-goal unit jogged onto the field to attempt an extra point. Palmer found himself staring across the line of scrimmage at Donald, who by then was on his way to becoming college football’s national defensive player of the year and a first-round NFL draft pick.
At first, Palmer wasn’t worried.
“You can’t put someone on a pedestal,” Palmer told Yahoo Sports, “because it mentally psychs you out.”
Then Donald reacted to the snap quicker than Palmer, stood him upright and plowed through him. Palmer went sprawling backward and landed flat on his back, enabling Donald to spring through and block Ryan Norton’s extra-point attempt.
“He blew me up,” Palmer said. “I wasn’t the greatest player, but I never got body-bagged like that before.”
The play might not have lived in infamy were it not for the game’s final score. Pittsburgh edged Syracuse, 17-16. That blocked extra point was the difference.
At his team’s next film session, Palmer estimates Syracuse’s coaches showed his blocking gaffe “20-something times.” He was “upset” and “embarrassed” but he tried to let those emotions fuel his practice performance the following week.
Palmer went on to be a three-year starter at Syracuse, though a broken leg cost him the final nine games of his senior season and damaged his hopes of playing in the NFL. He was working an overnight security job and training to make a last-gasp bid for an NFL tryout when a stranger he met at his local LA Fitness helped him land a WWE tryout.
Only four years later, Palmer is wrestling under the name “Odyssey Jones” and has emerged as a charismatic presence on “WWE NXT.” Among his dream opponents, he says, is the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year who planted him on his back eight-plus years ago.
“Who knows?” Palmer says with a laugh. “Hopefully down the road I can get him on my terms, get him in the ring and get him in a spot where I excel.”
Trying to stay off Aaron Donald’s highlight reel
Anytime he turns on a prime-time NFL game and the Rams are playing, New York Giants center Matt Skura braces himself for what he’s about to see.
“Alright, just wait,” he’ll tell his wife. “The Duke play is coming up.”
The Duke play, of course, is one of the defining highlights of Donald’s career and the gaffe that Skura cannot escape. It happened in 2013 during the first quarter of a college game between Pittsburgh and Duke. The Blue Devils had called a running play to the left that required their right guard to pull. Skura, the center, was supposed to block back on Donald and get some help from the right tackle.
“As soon as I snap the ball and go back, I see that the tackle hasn’t come back to help on Aaron,” Skura told Yahoo Sports. “I’m like, ‘Oh no!’ I think I barely laid a hand on him.”
What Donald did next is what makes the highlight YouTube-worthy almost nine years later. He knifed into the backfield and tackled both Duke quarterback Brandon Connette and running back Josh Snead while they were attempting a handoff.
“He just made an insane play,” Skura said. “It’s kind of like being on the wrong end of a poster dunk.”
Skura has since faced Donald a few times in the NFL without adding to the defensive tackle’s career highlight reel. The key to not getting embarrassed when trying to block Donald, Skura says, is to resist the temptation to be the aggressor.
“If you try to fire off and hit him,” Skura says, “he’s so fast and so instinctive that he’ll either swim-move you or rip-move you and make it look like you completely tripped and fell. Really you have to be under control, mirror him in a way and don’t let him get that initial penetration up field. That’s where he gets those huge plays.”
Like waylaying a quarterback and a running back in one tackle.
‘A different cat’
Early in his team’s 2013 matchup with Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech offensive lineman Trey Braun drew an unenviable assignment.
Directly across the line of scrimmage from Braun stood Donald with the Yellow Jackets facing an obvious passing situation.
“I took a pass set and squared up on him,” Braun told Yahoo Sports. “I remember thinking, ‘Now I can get my hands on him and at least give the quarterback a couple seconds.’ Just as I started to think that, he wasn’t there anymore.”
The startling ease with which Donald blew past Braun on his way to a sack was emblematic of how the rest of that game went. Donald forced two fumbles and recorded 11 solo tackles, six of them for a loss, frustrating Georgia Tech’s run-heavy flexbone offense and keeping a 21-10 Pittsburgh loss closer than it otherwise might have been.
Georgia Tech feared entering the game that Donald’s quickness posed unique problems for its offensive system. It was harder for the Yellow Jackets to double-team Donald because their system required linemen to set up farther apart from one another. While the wide splits are supposed to create better angles for making down blocks, Donald often exploded out of his stance too quickly, evaded those blocks and chased down the ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage.
Braun compared Georgia Tech’s failed attempts to block Donald to a batter swinging late on a 104 mph fastball.
“He was in our backfield before we knew what happened,” Braun said. “I think we took up like 40 percent of his highlight reel that year.”
The most accomplished player on Georgia Tech’s offensive line was first-team all-ACC guard Shaq Mason, now a longtime starter with the New England Patriots. More often than not, Donald avoided Mason and lined up opposite Braun, who was making just the third start of his college career that day.
Of all the times Donald knifed into the backfield, Braun said the sack where Donald left him grasping at air was the most humbling.
“I knew it was bad because our head coach didn’t get mad at me,” Braun said. “He got mad at the running back for not providing support. It was almost like he already knew Aaron Donald was going to beat me.”
After the game, as some of Braun’s friends and family tried to console him, he explained that Donald was “a different cat.” Braun has since enjoyed being proven right.
“I am always, always rooting for Aaron Donald,” he said. “Every time he does something amazing in the NFL, it makes that game a little less embarrassing for me.”
An Aaron Donald therapy group?
Mathews couldn’t help but be skeptical last week when a reporter emailed to ask if he’d share his memories of facing Donald in high school.
“Is this actually real?” the Upper St. Clair counselor and assistant football coach wrote back. “Or are my high school buddies messing with me?”
In Mathews’ defense, he had good reason to worry that he might be the victim of a prank. Once, his buddies pasted a cutout of his face onto a photo of Aaron Donald’s son so that it looked like the Los Angeles Rams star was holding Mathews in his lap like a baby. Another time, some of Mathews’ fellow coaches discovered his old high school football helmet while cleaning the Upper St. Clair equipment room. They wrote “Aaron Donald’s bitch” on a piece of duct tape, stuck it on the front of the helmet and goaded Mathews into posing for pictures while wearing it.
Once Mathews had verified that the interview request was real, he was happy to chat. He was also eager to hear the stories shared by some of the other offensive linemen that over the years Donald had terrorized.
“We should start an Aaron Donald therapy group,” he joked.
Twelve years after Donald tallied three sacks at his expense and untold numbers of quarterback pressures and tackles for loss, Mathews has come to appreciate that it’s pretty cool he had a chance to face an all-time great. He has followed Donald’s remarkable ascent closely and says, “I’d even say I’m a Rams fan now because of him.”
What would Mathews tell his high school self all these years later?
“Stop beating yourself,” he said. “You weren’t going to be able to stop Aaron Donald.”
Hardly anyone has.