At first, Simi Valley football players were skeptical that the Rams’ Aaron Donald would be dropping by their school on Wednesday afternoon. Coach Jim Benkert had given them the news the night before.
“They didn’t believe me,” Benkert said.
Close to 100 players sat in the bleachers in the gym as Donald walked through the entrance dressed in a white T-shirt, gray gym shorts and gray workout shoes. Benkert introduced him with a microphone but soon he was answering questions without the microphone, talking about his early life in Pittsburgh when few schools recruited him out of high school; about winning the Super Bowl with the Rams; about what it takes to succeed.
“I don’t mind talking to kids,” Donald said. “I could do that all day.”
Benkert set up the visit, and 6-foot-1, 285-pound center Jess Norton was thrilled.
“It’s pretty inspiring and cool that someone of that stature comes to Simi Valley,” he said.
One of Donald’s most important messages was about working out when no one is paying attention.
“It’s easy to do when your coach or teammates are around,” he said. “Let’s see how you work when nobody is watching.”
Donald signed items before the 15-minute visit, such as jerseys and hats, then took photos.
His priority was on trying to make sure players understand not everyone gets to play college or professional football but playing a game you love will produce relationships and friendships with teammates that might last a lifetime. He said he learned discipline, work ethic and built close bonds through football.
He said the work ethic he has now wasn’t that way starting off. He said in high school, his father would get up at 4:30 a.m. to help him work out.
“Enjoy the moment,” he told the players. “Stay focused on the books.”
As for winning the Super Bowl, Donald said, “There’s no feeling like it.”
Donald said he will continue to reach out to young athletes. “Anything I can do to help the next generation,” he said.