ATLANTA — He was there to see a promising linebacker named Dan Mason. That’s what brought University of Pittsburgh defensive-line coach Greg Gattuso to a Penn Hills High School game in 2008.
Mason was a senior and an excellent player, recruited by Gattuso to play at Pitt. As the game progressed, Gattuso found his attention diverted to an undersized junior defensive lineman.
“I knew of Aaron, but I didn’t know much of Aaron,’’ Gattuso told The Post.
Soon enough, Gattuso would know all he needed to know about Aaron Donald. Soon enough, anyone who is not already in awe of Aaron Donald will learn what all the fuss is about, as the acknowledged best defensive player in the NFL will take aim at Tom Brady on Sunday when the Rams face the Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.
Donald is a superstar, quiet, ruthless and yes, still undersized. Just as he was 11 years ago on that high school field in Pittsburgh.
“During the game I couldn’t take my eyes off of Aaron, he just was slaughtering everyone on the other team,’’ said Gattuso, currently the head coach at the University at Albany. “He just dominated the game.
“You know how he just runs by and swims people and nails somebody in the backfield? He did it about five or six times early in the game. He was a wrecking ball. I’m watching it a little differently than the average fan, I’m watching him just decimate offensive linemen every play.’’
Needless to say, Gattuso did not try to lure to Pitt any of the offensive linemen playing that day for Kiski Area High School.
“They were too busy flying backwards,’’ Gattuso cracked. “Believe me, I didn’t notice anybody on their side.’’
Donald was not in great demand. He had interest from Akron, Toledo and Rutgers. And then, suddenly, Pitt.
Gattuso, while watching the game, strayed from usual coaching protocol. On the sideline, he was so impressed he shouted, “You have an offer from Pitt, Aaron!’’ as Donald raced by him.
“He kinda laughed as he ran by me,’’ Gattuso said. “Kinda had to explain it to the head coach afterward.’’
Pitt’s head coach, Dave Wannstedt, was an easy sell once he viewed tape of Donald in action.
“I remember that game,’’ Donald said Tuesday, smiling. “I saw [Gattuso] over there and I was like, ‘I got to shine this game, this is an opportunity.’ Just blessed and happy everything worked out.
“A lot of college were saying I wasn’t the biggest guy so they didn’t want to give me a scholarship. Coach Gattuso and Wannstedt gave me an opportunity, gave me that scholarship, gave me an opportunity to play at Pitt, my dream school, where I was born and raised. Always gonna be grateful for that. They’re a big part of why I’m here today.’’
Donald went on to star for Pitt, became the 13th overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft and is universally accepted as being the best defensive player in the league.
“The one question I get asked a lot, did I foresee him becoming this good?’’ Gattuso said. “It always makes me laugh. Who could ever foresee this?’’