How the 'dungeon' and his father shaped Aaron Donald

Shelly Gigante

By Shelly Gigante
Shelly Gigante specializes in personal finance issues. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications and news websites.
Posted on Sep 3, 2019

Aaron Donald, celebrated defensive end for the Los Angeles Rams, is widely known for his commitment to the game, pushing himself hard on the field and in the gym with a strength training regimen that makes even his teammates marvel. But it wasn’t always that way.

At age 12, as Donald tells it, he spent most of his time eating snacks on the couch. He and his older brother would watch their father, Archie, lift weights in the basement gym, affectionately dubbed the "dungeon.” By modeling discipline, his father demonstrated how to set and achieve goals every day.

“My dad was always a big, muscular guy, and I wanted to have muscles, too, but I didn't have the work ethic to do it,” said Donald, who was just named the National Football League’s best defensive player of the year. “We would always go down there, and we’d just be amazed by my dad out there pushing himself, talking to himself to stay motivated. When I got to be 12, he finally said, ‘We’re going to get you out of this lazy stage and get you working out a little bit.’”

Donald’s personal drive grew as he watched his physique take shape, setting the bar ever higher for academics, workouts, and, of course, football. “It’s really a process to get yourself in shape and work at it, really pushing yourself,” he said. “Anybody can work out, but a lot of people don’t push themselves. Some people get tired or fatigued and they just stop. That’s when you’ve got to push yourself and keep going.”

Donald earned a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh, where he was named the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 and was recognized as an All-American. The rest, as they say, is history.

He was recruited to the Rams in the first round of the 2014 draft and has played in all five Pro Bowl all-star games since joining the league. He is now the highest paid NFL defender of all time.

But his success on the gridiron might never have been had his dad not intervened. Beyond getting him into the gym, Archie inspired his son with motivational mantras like “hard work pays off” and “no pain, no gain,” while teaching him the art of “controlled aggression.”

One memory stands out: After losing a playoff game in high school, Donald said he picked a fight with the other team’s quarterback, something he regrets to this day. “My dad was so mad at me,” Donald said. “He talked to me and said, ‘Why would you do that? You had such a good season and a good game, and you’re just going to throw it all away. The scouts are seeing this and they don’t want a hothead no matter how much talent you’ve got.’”

For Archie, it’s all about the name on the jersey.

“Growing up and as I turned into a man, I realized that we have two things: our work ethic and our last name,” Archie said. “I told Aaron when I brought him to school that he needs to stand on his word and protect this last name.”

Donald took that message to heart. “It’s way bigger than weight rooms and football,” he said. “My dad helped me, molded me to be a man outside of football, to take care of my family, take care of my kids, be that role model to the kids just coming up. So I feel like we’re carrying that Donald name proud.”

In his early years in the NFL, Donald said he was unaware that his exhaustive training schedule and legendary plays were inspiring younger players—players like Solomon Thomas.

Now a defensive end for the San Francisco 49ers, Thomas looked up to Donald throughout his high school and college career. During his junior year at Stanford University, Thomas decided to reach out to the athlete he admired most.

Thomas and Donald

“I was like, ‘Hey man, I really appreciate your game and I want to be like you. Hopefully we can get together sometime,’” Thomas said. “I was surprised when he responded. I got his number and came to train with him. That’s how it all started.”

Today, they train together regularly as mentor and mentee. “This is my role model for sure,” said Thomas, noting Donald uses the same motivational phrases during workouts that Archie taught him.

As a mentor, Donald said he enjoys helping others push themselves to achieve. He also enjoys giving back to his parents, who gave him the wings to fly. The phone call he got to make last year, in which he told his mom and dad that they no longer had to work, was one of the best moments of his life.

“It’s just something that me and my brother talked about all our lives — going to the league one day and repaying our mom and dad,” he said. “You can never repay the things they gave us. They built me up to who I am today and I was blessed to retire them to the point they never have to work again another day in their life.”

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