Playing semi-pro basketball in his hometown of Gottingen, Germany, Aaron Donkor had teammates from all over the world, including the occasional American.
And in addition to introducing Donkor to American football through video games and Super Bowl parties, those American teammates also told their athletic, physical teammate that he played basketball like a running back and should give football a try.
"They were like, 'You play like a running back, you should try this,'" Donkor said. "I had a feeling it was too late, but I got encouragement to try out, see what happens, and it was fun, it came easy to me just flying around."
The problem, as Donkor noted, is that he was already 21 by the time he gave football a try, clearly too old to take up a new sport, right?
Apparently not, because Donkor was on the field with the Seahawks for rookie minicamp over the weekend as a 26-year-old rookie linebacker, part of the NFL's International Player Pathway Program.
And while Donkor has plenty of catching up to do having only played football for five years, including two seasons of junior football at the New Mexico Military Institute, and one season at Arkansas State, he did make a strong impression on Seahawks coach Pete Carroll after a couple of days on the practice field. Donkor's path to the NFL also includes a Seahawks connection. After he started taking football seriously, Donkor started training at a gym owned by Christian Mohr, a German defensive end who played in NFL Europe before joining the Seahawks for training camp in 2005.
NFL Europe is no longer available as a pathway for foreign players, but the NFL International Player Pathway Program, which launched in 2017, has produced current NFL players British defensive end Efe Obada (Bills), German fullback Jakob Johnson (Patriots) and Australian Jordan Mailtala (Eagles). Donkor is hoping to be the next international success story, and while he has a lot of work to do to make that happen, he's off to a good start with his new team.
"I think the program is great, I love that we're doing that and making the opportunities available to people from other areas," Carroll said after the first practice. "Aaron is really charged up, he's really excited about it. The first day out here he fits in with everybody, he doesn't look like it's too big for him at this early stage. I'm anxious to follow his enthusiasm, and I know sending the message back home, it is a big deal. 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; he was 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."
A day later, Carroll was asked if Donkor looked like a project, implying he needs a lot of work to catch up, Carroll shot down that notion, saying, "No, no, he looks very comfortable. He had a couple plays we showed on highlights yesterday, just running and chasing the football. He looks like he fits; has good speed. So that's good start. He's played a lot on the end of the line of scrimmage, which he won't do as much for us—he'll be more behind the line of scrimmage, so we need to see how he adapts to that."
As Carroll notes, Donkor is taking on a different role in his attempt to fit in in the NFL. After dabbling with receiver and defensive back when he first started playing in Germany to take advantage of his speed, coaches moved him to defensive end and outside linebacker to give him a more straightforward position to learn.
"I came in as a receiver, just running the go route—I was always fast—then they said rush the passer, set the edge," Donkor said. "There wasn't much thinking… I ended up playing D-end because it was the most straight forward position in the beginning."
At 6-foot-1, 240 pounds, Donkor doesn't have the size to project as a defensive end at the NFL level, but could be a fit at linebacker, and more realistically for his hopes of earning a roster spot, his speed—he ran a 4.46-second 40-yard dash at a recent international combine—and the enthusiasm Carroll described could help his chances of finding a role on special teams. The Seahawks get a roster exemption for Donkor, as do the other NFC West teams who had international players allocated to them this year, so he won't count toward the 90-man roster this offseason. And the Seahawks have the option to keep him on the practice squad all season without him counting towards that limit as well, though he too will compete for a 53-man spot in camp, even if his limited background might make him a longshot on the surface.
"My goal for this year is to make this team better, whatever it takes," Donkor said. "I just have to earn trust from coaches. I feel like I have the shot, like every guy on this team, to make the special teams, if I'm coachable, if I show my effort on the field. And I really, really want to grow at playing linebacker. I feel like my God-given traits just translate to that position, and it's just earning that trust and competing for a position, and I wouldn't want to do it any other way."
Seahawks rookies and signed undrafted free agents reported to VMAC for day two of rookie minicamp.