CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Like any good award nominee, Aaron Donald said all day that he was just happy to be a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy at the Charlotte Touchdown Club's awards ceremony.
When asked how it felt to collect the trophy, though, a huge smile broke across his face and one word came out of his mouth.
"Wow," he said before repeating it again, this time a little more drawn out. "Woooow."
Donald was named the 2013 Nagurski Trophy winner Monday night. He is the first Panther to win the award, which has been given annually since 1993 to the best defensive player in college football.
"It's amazing," Donald said. "It's a great feeling just to be able to take this back to Pittsburgh. I'm not just excited, I know the city of Pittsburgh's excited for me."
Donald, a senior defensive tackle from Penn Hills, beat out four other finalists: Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard, Florida State safety Lamarcus Joyner, Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley and Missouri defensive end Michael Sam.
After a brief acceptance speech, Donald made sure to say happy birthday to his father, Archie, who was in attendance with Aaron's mother, Anita Goggins.
As Donald walked up to collect the award, his mother stood, cheered and shouted, "Hail to Pitt!"
When his parents joined him on stage, before he was mobbed by TV cameras and photographers, Donald and his father shared a long embrace.
"I got my dad a nice birthday present today," Donald said. "I'm truly humbled and truly blessed."
Coming into 2013 off a strong junior season, Donald figured to be the anchor of Pitt's defense on the line. Even the most bullish projections, though, likely could not have foreseen his level of production this season.
Donald led Division I-A with 26.5 tackles for loss, including 10 sacks. Last week, he was named the Atlantic Coast Conference defensive player of the year.
He helped Pitt clinch bowl eligibility in the Panthers' 17-16 win Nov. 23 against Syracuse. In the win against the Orange, Donald had nine tackles (eight solo), 3.5 tackles for loss and blocked an extra point that ended up the difference in the game.
"I think one of the most impressive things is he made a lot of plays at key moments," Pitt coach Paul Chryst said after the awards ceremony. "That's what the great ones do. When you need it most, he delivered quite a few times. I think he did a lot even when it didn't register as a [tackle for loss] or a sack."
Donald is the first Pitt defensive player to win a national individual award since defensive end Hugh Green took home the Lombardi, Walter Camp and Maxwell Awards in 1980.
Monday was just the start of a whirlwind week for Donald. Today, he will fly to Houston for the Lombardi Award ceremony (best lineman or linebacker) Wednesday night. Thursday, he'll fly to Orlando, Fla., for the ESPN College Football Awards show, where he is nominated for the Bednarik Award (best defensive player) and Outland Trophy (best offensive or defensive lineman).
Donald also figures to receive at least a handful of votes for the Heisman Trophy, though he did not receive an invitation to New York as a finalist.
That's just fine with him, though. He was happy to be here, but even happier to go home with the Nagurski Trophy in tow.
"I was just speechless," he said. "Words can't describe it. Hard work really does pay off, man."
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG. First Published December 9, 2013 10:01 PM