Aaron Donkor's journey from Göttingen, Germany to the Virginia Mason Athletic Center in Renton, Washington has been a long road travelled—far longer than the 5,000-plus mile trip Google Maps will suggest. In roughly half a decade's time, Donkor went from being a semi-pro basketball player to competing for a roster spot with one of the NFL's most successful franchises of the 21st century.
Introduced to the game of American football well into his basketball career, calling Donkor a 'late-bloomer' feels like an understatement. Told his athletic traits would translate to the sport well, he contemplated the transition at the age of 21.
"I played semi-professional basketball and we had some guys who came overseas - like, some American guys - and they were playing Madden, they were into football, they were watching the Super Bowl. For me, that was very foreign," told reporters following the second day of Seahawks rookie minicamp.
"They just gave me a look and was like, 'You play like a running back' or 'You should try this.' And I had the feeling I was a little bit too late, but, you know, I got a little encouragement: 'You know what, try out, see what happens.' It was fun, it came easy to me. I was just flying around."
From there, Donkor was all about football. After trying his hand at receiver and defensive back, he found his calling as a pass rusher for the Düsseldorf Panther of the German Football League. Registering 14.0 sacks and 74 combined tackles in his lone season, it was clear he needed to test his might against stiffer competition.
Heading over to the United States, Donkor landed a role in the football program of junior college New Mexico Military Institute. As he admits, simply moving to one of the more amateur levels of football in the U.S. was an eye-opening experience for him.
"It's a huge difference," Donkor explained. "Even a jump to junior college or to a Division I college, it's a big jump just when it comes to the playbook, when it comes to the details, and the technique."
Judging by his performance at NMMI, one would think football had been a lifelong passion of his. In 2018, Donkor earned Junior College All-American honors, putting up an extraordinary 11.5 sacks and 27 tackles in just four games.
Having already earned buzz with his high sack total in Germany, Donkor's dominance at the junior college level opened up even more doors for him. Taking his talents to Arkansas State at the age of 24, he was able to climb the ladder all the way to Division I. There, Pro Football Focus gave him a positive overall grade of 73.5, though he failed to record a sack in that time.
Hoping to take what he learned from that season and apply it to his final year of college eligibility, the COVID-19 pandemic struck and forced Donkor back home. Unsure of what his next move would be, the NFL's International Player Pathway Program (IPPP) presented itself.
"They found me more than I found them," Donkor said. "I had a coach, [former Seahawks defensive end] Christian Mohr, he got some contacts with the International Pathway Program and he threw my name in the mix. And they reached out to me, then they had some regional combines where I showed out."
Show out he did. Standing at 6'1" and 240 pounds, Donkor's 4.46-second 40-yard dash time, 39-inch vertical, and 22 bench press reps were more than impressive. As Seahawk Maven's Corbin Smith discovered, equal or better numbers had been posted just three times in a publicly recorded combine by players of Donkor's size: tight end Vernon Davis and linebackers Quincy Black and Manny Lawson.
With those elite testing numbers, Donkor was an obvious selection to be one of the four players allocated through the IPPP in 2021. Since 2017, the program has gone by division to determine which teams will be the recipients of these players. This year, it was the NFC West's turn.
For Donkor and the Seahawks, there was perhaps no better fit. Germany has long been a major part of the organization's international fanbase, with outlets such as German Sea Hawkers building considerable followings over the years.
"I know they have a lot of fans there," Donkor said of the support. "It's exciting [the IPPP] made me a part of this team, and I hope to represent the Seahawks and Germany well."
As he learned about the game, Donkor says his familiarity with the Seahawks and his exposure to other German-born NFL players made the dream of getting to this moment all the more tangible.
"It helped that I had some people back in Germany who made it to the NFL and even made it to the Seahawks, it made it feel more real. Interacting with people, interacting with my coach, Christian Mohr, or [former Colts defensive end] Björn Werner, people who made it to the NFL I can talk to, I can touch, you know, and it felt like, 'Oh... the NFL is something [real].' It feels more real if you have people around you who've been there."
At the time of this writing, Donkor is now four days past the conclusion of his first NFL camp. Down on the sunlit fields down by the water of Lake Washington this past weekend, the 26-year old was met with drills and terminology he's had limited experience with, if at all. But like with everything else he's done to get to Seattle, he's taking this next chapter of his life in stride.
"It's been great," Donkor said enthusiastically. "I'm just getting adjusted to this new competition, new reality, and just excited to be here. It doesn't feel like I've been here for two days, it feels like I've been here for, like, two weeks. You know, we did a lot in the first two days and so, I'm just getting adjusted and I really, really like this grind, this process."
Growing pains aside, he earned positive reviews from head coach Pete Carroll following his first day in camp.
"He had a good first day, and we'll learn a lot more as we go, but he will not be without a lot of excitement and enthusiasm," Carroll said with a smile. "He was jacked up today. He's been coming around the office, we've seen him a couple times in the first day already. So he's trying to find his way a little bit, but he's doing well."
It remains to be seen just how much Donkor will factor into the Seahawks' plans for 2021. As part of the IPPP's efforts to encourage teams to give its players every opportunity to compete, the Seahawks can receive a practice squad exemption for Donkor if he doesn't make the 53-man roster. However, if they utilize this, he'd be ineligible to play for the remainder of the season.
Being the competitor he is, Donkor hopes to leave the team with no other choice but to roster him. And he has a fairly good shot to do so for now, moving to a linebacker spot the Seahawks currently have minimal depth at behind its two starters in Bobby Wagner and Jordyn Brooks.
"I really, really want to grow and play linebacker," Donkor exclaimed. "I feel like my traits - my God-given traits - just translate to that position."
While the team is in the process of converting 2020 second-round pick Darrell Taylor into a strongside linebacker and also have 2019 selections Cody Barton and Ben Burr-Kirven on hand, they've been willing to go as deep as six or seven players at the position in the past.
If Donkor performs well in the preseason, particularly on special teams, he could potentially push someone like Burr-Kirven for one of those spots or etch out one of his own. If so, he would then be set to follow in the footsteps of Bills defensive end Efe Obada, Patriots fullback Jakob Johnson, and Eagles tackle Jordan Mailata as IPPP success stories.
"My goal for this year is to make this team better," Donkor confidently explained. "Whatever it takes. I just have to earn trust from the coaches. I feel like I have a shot like every guy on this team to make the special teams if I'm coachable, if I show my effort on the field."