Aaron Donald and Tyler Boyd only shared the Pitt locker room for a single season during their respective careers in Pittsburgh, but roots are one and the same. Donald grew up in Penn Hills, and Boyd grew up in Clairton. Pittsburgh is home, and both stayed home at Pitt before making it to the NFL.
While Donald may be a Los Angeles Ram, and Boyd may be a Cincinnati Bengal, the city of Pittsburgh is still rooting for its hometown heroes.
“I think it’s huge for the (Pittsburgh),” Donald said on Monday during his Super Bowl media Zoom call. “I know the city has shown a lot of support just from two guys around the area that’s playing in the Super Bowl. I know we’ve got a lot of support.”
Penn Hills and Clairton don’t meet in football, playing in different classifications in the WPIAL, but both experienced massive success while playing in the WPIAL — especially Boyd at the individual and team levels. And Donald saw it all.
“Watching Boyd in high school, he was a talent that was like no other,” Donald said. “He was definitely a special ballplayer, but when he got to college, as a true freshman, he did a lot of things in camp that stuck out. But you never know until you play the game.”
So, while Boyd marveled at Donald’s physical dominance against Duke in Week 3 of the 2013 season, Donald noticed in Boyd’s very first game against Florida State that season that he was playing with another difference-maker.
“The first I saw what he was able to do was our first game when we played Florida State, and he had a day,” Donald said. “He was making some unbelievable catches, got a reverse and broke a long run. So, I kinda knew from there he was gonna be a special type of talent.”
Boyd only caught two balls for 26 yards, but he added 54 yards on three carries and 71 yards on three kick returns. It didn’t result in a win for Pitt against No. 10 Florida State, but it did set the tone for a record-breaking career.
Donald is proud of Boyd, having enjoyed seeing his growth over the years, but they’re on different teams again, and there can only be one team that walks away from Super Bowl LVI as world champions. And there’s just one thing that Donald feels like he hasn’t accomplished yet.
“The ultimate goal is to be playing in this game,” Donald said. “That’s what you work for, this is what I’ve been itching to get back to and have an opportunity to try and win one.”
While Donald already boasts one of the most storied individual careers in NFL history, the winner of three Defensive Player of the Year awards before the age of 30, he’s fallen short in the Super Bowl once before. And while he’s not exactly an older player yet, he’s already felt the keen sting of uncertainty in the NFL.
“You get to (the Super Bowl) and then you lose, it’s like, ‘We’ll be back next year.’ You just think it’s going to get back to there easy and it’s not that easy. It’s a long season, a lot of ups and downs, and it’s hard to get to this point.”
So, while Donald has worked and worked at getting back to the pinnacle of NFL football, he truly appreciates the Rams’ run to the top that much more because no one ever really knows just how long you have left.
Even those elite athletes that make it to the NFL don’t know if they’ll ever reach the Super Bowl, let alone bring the title home. NFL legends like Dan Marino, Barry Sanders and Pitt’s own Larry Fitzgerald were never able to win a Super Bowl, with Marino and Fitzgerald falling short in the big game.
As a kid growing up in Pittsburgh, Donald himself only ever dreamed about being an NFL player. It might be hard to believe, but he never even imagined playing in the Super Bowl. So, while he’s living his dream now as an NFL player, his Super Bowl chance exceeds even his wildest dreams.
“Honestly, as a kid growing up, I always thought I dreamed big, but I can’t even imagine a time I thought about playing in a Super Bowl,” Donald said. “I remember just watching it as a kid a lot. As a kid, I started playing football when I was five or six years old, and my goal was always to make it to the NFL.”
Donald obviously made the NFL, he’s made the Super Bowl before and now the Bengals stand in the way of his Super Bowl glory. And while there will be a lot of talk leading into the game, like any Super Bowl, Donald said the Rams are locked into the task at hand. He said he’s confident in his Rams’ teammates, but he’s well aware that any words from the Rams could amp up the Bengals’ resolve.
The Bengals’ offensive line is notably poor, allowing the third-most sacks in the NFL in 2021, and while the obvious thought would be that the Rams’ loaded pass rush should create new pressures on the Bengals’ line, Donald said the Rams are just carrying the every-week mindset into the Super Bowl.
“Well, that’s every week,” Donald said. “Every week as a defensive line, that’s your mindset. I feel like, you do that, you get your team a better opportunity to make big plays and get off the field. It’s not just this week, obviously, it’s the biggest game of our careers, so we wanna go out there and do just that. But that’s every week we’ve got that mindset.”
The Rams defensive line vs. the Bengals offensive line could make the difference in the end, and Donald’s presence — along with edge rusher Von Miller — will go a long way in deciding that matchup.
The Super Bowl is set for Sunday, Feb. 13 at 6:30 p.m. at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles. While it’s two No. 4 seeds meeting, the game is being played at the Rams’ home stadium. NBC will air this year’s game, with Cris Collinsworth and Al Michaels in the booth.