Pitt's Aaron Donald taken by Rams in first round of NFL Draft

With four words, St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher changed Aaron Donald's life.

"Congratulations, you're a Ram," Fisher told Donald via telephone as Donald and his family sat in the lower level of Savoy Restaurant in the Strip District.

The Rams made Donald Pitt's highest NFL Draft pick in 10 years Thursday night, taking the defensive tackle 13th overall.

Pitt's Aaron Donald goes to St. Louis Rams in NFL draft

The University of Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald, a defensive tackle, was selected with the 13th pick in the NFL Draft by the St. Louis Rams. He received the news while celebrating with family and friends. (Video by John Heller; 5/8/2014)

"A weight lifted off my shoulders," Donald said. "I tried to be tough, tried to hold the tears. I couldn't believe it. I'm an NFL football player."

Donald watched the selection at Savoy with family, including his 1-year-old daughter Jaeda.

He'll join a St. Louis defense that was third in the NFL in total sacks last season, led by defensive end Robert Quinn's 19.

There were some questions about how Donald's slightly smaller stature could fit into an NFL defense leading up to the draft, but he should work perfectly for the Rams' 4-3 defense.

"I know they've got one of the best defenses in the league," Donald said. "I know they've got pass-rushers and I know they're looking for another inside pass-rusher and I can be that guy. I'm just happy I've got other guys that are going to make plays, too."

As the picks trickled by, a number of teams Donald had visited -- including the Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- did not select him. Even as the draft went on, Donald said he wasn't worried about where he would end up.

"I knew everything was going to fall into place the way it was supposed to be. I'm just excited that I'm chosen," he said. "I've got the opportunity to play for a great team with great coaches."

The Rams were also one of the teams Donald visited in the weeks leading up to the draft, and coaches told him there was a good chance he could be one of their first-round selections. Of course, in the NFL draft, nothing is guaranteed. Donald was the Rams' second first-round selection Thursday night, as St. Louis selected Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson with the second overall pick.

"They told me I'd be there, but you never expect it until they call you," Donald said.

A Penn Hills High School graduate, Donald became the most decorated player in Pitt football history this season, taking home four major national individual awards: The Nagurski Trophy (best defensive player), the Lombardi Award (best lineman or linebacker), the Outland Trophy (best offensive or defensive lineman) and the Bednarik Award (best defensive player).

He wreaked havoc on opposing offenses throughout the 2013 season, leading Division I-A with 28.5 tackles for loss, including 11 sacks. Multiple opposing coaches referred to Donald as "a one-man wrecking crew."

Donald solidified his elite prospect status in the months leading up to the draft, with impressive showings at the Senior Bowl and the NFL Scouting Combine. His 4.68 40-yard dash time was fifth among all defensive linemen.

A week before the draft, NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock called Donald one of his "eight to 10" favorite players in the draft, but was concerned that finding the right fit could lead to Donald slipping down in the first round.

Just four years ago, Donald was a three-star college prospect coming out of Penn Hills with only four Division I-A scholarship offers. He stayed through three coaching changes at Pitt to become the Panthers' highest draft pick since wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald went third overall in 2004.

Donald also snapped a two-year dry spell for the Panthers in the NFL draft. Before that, Pitt had a player taken in every draft from 2000-11. He is also the Panthers' first first-round pick since receiver Jonathan Baldwin in 2011.

"[This is] something I've been dreaming about since I was 5," Donald said.

"But I've got a lot more work to do."

MORE on the NFL Draft in the Steelers blog

Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com and Twitter @SWernerPG. First Published May 8, 2014 9:42 PM

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