For two straight years, in the last game of the season, cameras caught Aaron Donald crying after a game and telecast the images to tens of millions. He’s not much of a crier, really. But for him, opposite ends of his football life almost required tears.
“Last year,” Donald told me, “the thing about the Green Bay game, what broke my heart the most, I felt like I wasn’t at my best.” Donald tore rib cartilage the previous week in a wild-card win over Seattle, and his stat line in the 32-18 NFC divisional loss in Green Bay was incredibly un-Donald-like: zero solo tackles, one assisted tackle, zero sacks. Zero everything. The game darn near broke the three-time Defensive Player of the Year.
“I’m a piece to the puzzle. I’m not everything. That day, I wasn’t able to be that piece for my team,” Donald recalled. “That hurt, man. It really did. I don’t think I ever cried that much, you know, after a game. I was in the shower. I was in the locker room. I just couldn’t stop crying.”
Now it was last Thursday, four days after Super Bowl LVI, and Donald was on a Zoom call, absolutely hoarse. Ecstatically hoarse. “Sorry,” he said. “I really haven’t slept.”
Forgiven. Now, about this year’s tears?
“Happy tears,” Donald said.
“This,” he said, “is truly football heaven. Von Miller was saying that the whole time leading up to the game. We’re living in it right now.”
[fmia_section_header title=”The Lead: Aaron Donald” teaser=”NFL’s best defensive player delivers in Super Bowl 56″ ad=1]
Each season, a week after the Super Bowl, I try to deconstruct the biggest play or plays of the game, diving deep into them with the biggest people in the game. Twice with Tom Brady, and once each with Eli Manning (exactly 10 years ago, after Manning-to-Manningham); the Philly coaches who designed the game-winner against New England; MVP Julian Edelman; MVP Patrick Mahomes; and, until now, just one defensive player. That was Von Miller six years ago, after he wrecked Carolina in Super Bowl 50.
This year, I was stuck on Donald, indisputably the best defensive player in football. How often does a truly great player—and Donald goes down with Lawrence Taylor and Reggie White as the three best defensive players I’ve covered in my tenure (Deion Sanders four, Ray Lewis five)—make the biggest plays of his life at the biggest moment of his life, in perhaps the last two plays of his life? That’s exactly what Donald did, showing throughout the game one of the great, versatile big bodies and smart X-and-O brains in football—speed to get around blocks, power to blow up blocks, knowing how to attack weaknesses. He led with passion, particularly in the last two minutes. On the biggest series of plays since the NFL handed the keys to America’s second-largest market to the Rams six years ago, it was the gritty and powerful Donald who was the decisive player on the field.
Think of it: Rams 23, Bengals 20. Cincinnati ball at the Rams’ 49-yard line, 48 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Bengals need 49 yards to win, maybe 15 yards to be in position for an automatic kicker, Evan McPherson, to tie and send it to overtime. Really, if you’re a Rams fan right here, facing the steely Joe Burrow with the new Vinatieri warming on the sidelines, you’ve got to be thinking, Hope we can force OT.
Third-and-one: Burrow handed to Samaje Perine, who looked like he was in the clear to make the yard. But Donald used brute strength to pry the 240-pound Perine back from the line to gain. The replay looks like a cartoon. It appeared that Perine, a big man, hit a wall.
— Sᴘᴏʀᴛs 24/7 (@Sports_24x7_) February 14, 2022
Fourth-and-one: Burrow in the gun. Bengals set up to throw. Donald, lined up on left guard Quinton Spain, darted to the guard-tackle hole, sprinting around Spain. Center Trey Hopkins tried to get over to help but Donald was too fast, and there was nothing but air between Donald and Burrow. As Donald brought him to the ground, Burrow, in desperado fashion, threw it to someone, anyone, and it bounded incomplete. That should have been Donald’s third sack of the game, but as defensive coordinator Raheem Morris likes to say, quoting a thousand bygone NFL coaches in history, “Stats are for losers.”
— ESPN (@espn) February 14, 2022
What was great about those two plays? They followed the exact coaching points Morris drilled into his players in the two weeks prior to the game. The most important two things the defense had to do to win were to dominate run downs, and mentally and physically affect the quarterback. Donald dominated the most important run down of the game, and he mentally and physically affected Burrow on the most important pass play of the game.
“This game,” Morris told me Friday, “was not about me making some genius calls. This was about showing the players plays of themselves making the exact kind of plays we needed to win the game. It was just beautiful that the last two plays set up for Aaron.”
The night before I Zoomed with Donald, he sat courtside at the Lakers-Jazz game.
“My first Lakers game,” he said.
The Lakers, in a lost season, rallied from 12 points down in the fourth quarter to beat the far better Jazz. LeBron James scored 15 points in the fourth quarter, and he said afterward he was inspired by Donald’s performance Sunday, and by Donald sitting courtside. “I just tried to take the inspiration of what he was able to accomplish,” James said.
They embraced after the game, the first time they’d met. “He pretty much told me I’m the best defensive player he ever watched play,” Donald said, and it was clear he was blown away by it. The same way he’s been blown away by the impact of this game.
Two things struck me about my Zoom time with Donald. This was four days after the game, and I don’t recall anyone being as ebullient and overjoyed days after winning. Usually there’s fatigue and a bit of a businesslike nature to players and coaches days after it’s over. Watch Donald when my conversation with him drops on the NBC Sports’ YouTube channel, and on Tuesday when “The Peter King Podcast” drops. It’s 38 minutes of mostly joy, hoarse joy.
Second thing: For Donald, winning Defensive Player of the Year three times is an honor. Winning the Super Bowl is everything. This is not phony-baloney stuff from Donald. How many times during the year did he talk about the far less famous guys on the line helping make his job easier—nose men Greg Gaines and Sebastian Joseph-Day, end A’Shawn Robinson, and the rush capabilities of Leonard Floyd and Von Miller creating space for him to be his best self. Miller said it, Jalen Ramsey said it: This defense wanted to win the Super Bowl for Aaron Donald.
There is something so just when a great player wins his first Super Bowl. At 30, sand was running out of the hourglass for Donald. Lots of reasons why so many Rams were rooting for him, but the thought of seeing all-time greatness finish one shy of a Super Bowl ring for a second painful time was certainly part of it.
When the NFL named its NFL 100 All-Time Team two years ago, there were seven defensive tackles on the roster. Donald was not one of them; as the deliberations were done in his fifth year in the league, it is probably not an injustice. But Donald has now won three Defensive Players of the Year awards. The seven defensive tackles on the all-time team, combined, won three DPOYs. Donald has been named first-team all-pro in seven seasons. None of the seven DTs on the team made it more than seven times.
Mean Joe Greene: first-team all-pro four times in 13 professional seasons. Aaron Donald: first-team all-pro seven times in eight seasons.
That’s the last time I’ll mention the individual stuff. It’s not why Donald plays. He plays for the thing he thought was a million miles away his first three years in the NFL.
The Rams were 17-31 in Donald’s first three years—two in St. Louis, one in L.A. They weren’t particularly strong on D, finishing 16th, 13th and 23rd in scoring defense. “Horrible,” said Donald of his early years. “I tell people all the time it was the worst feeling in the world. It’s kinda like, you keep studying for the test but you keep failing. In St. Louis or that first year in California—that was one of the years I got my most fines just for doing silly things.”
Donald was fined more than $81,000 and was ejected twice in 2016. He slammed his helmet to the turf in San Francisco in Week 1. In the midst of a season-ending seven-game losing streak, in a 21-point loss at Seattle, he threw a penalty flag back at the official.
“Losing, man,” he said. “It just brings the worst out in people.”
The Rams fired Jeff Fisher after that first season back in L.A. A few days after the season, Rams executives asked Donald to meet them at the Ritz Carlton in Marina del Rey. They were interviewing a new coach, Sean McVay. They wanted Donald to meet him and give some input.
“I remember walking into the room and they said, ‘We’re gonna hire this guy. We want you to talk to him. Let us know what you think,’ “ Donald said. “I’m looking around, I see this young coach just sitting there. I’m like, I know that’s not the head coach they’re about to get, is it?
“It ended up being an amazing hire. It’s been a blessing to have him as my head coach and build the bond with him.”
Division title in year one, Super Bowl loss in year three, second Super Bowl shot in year five.
One minute into the second half—after the 75-yard TD pass from Burrow to Tee Higgins and a Bengals’ interception on the first two plays of the third quarter—the momentum was shifting. Radically. Bengals 17, Rams 13. Cincinnati ball at the Rams’ 31. On second and 10, Burrow sprinted left out of the pocket. Donald chased him and gave him a shove out of bounds near the boundary. Clean play.
“Actually, Burrow was the one, he looked at me, like, ‘Hey Aaron, that was a clean play.’ The quarterback told me that! I feel everybody start pushing me, hitting me. I almost lost it. The refs were like, Aaron, get out of here. They [the Bengals] already got me mad. Now they want to push on me, say all these words to me.
“You just woke me up. You just woke me up!”
Same series, a few snaps later, the Bengals had third-and-three from the Rams’ 11-yard line. An 11-point lead was one clean pocket away for Burrow. Donald lined up across from right guard Hakeem Adeniji, Cincinnati’s number 77. “That number 77,” Donald said, “he did a little talking, so I wanted to show him how strong I was.”
Donald lined up in a three-point stance a yard across from Adeniji and proceeded to make one of the biggest man-among-boys plays of this, or any, NFL season. He rushed straight at Adeniji, no pretense of juking or stunting. Straight bull-rush. Contacting Adeniji’s chest at the 13-yard line, Donald plowed the 330-pound starting NFL guard seven yards back and directly into the lap of Burrow. The nine-yard sack kept it a one-score game; the Bengals settled for a field goal.
Two sacks in three minutes for @AaronDonald97! 😳
— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) February 14, 2022
“Pretty much bowled him back into the quarterback,” Donald said proudly. “You wanna start pushing and saying all these words to me? I like a little competition. We can play mean. Let’s play mean. I had to show them. They got three points out of it, but off a short-field turnover, we fought.”
Now to the end, bitter or triumphant. It was all on Donald’s shoulders.
And in Donald’s lungs.
“When Cooper Kupp scored the go-ahead touchdown inside of two minutes to go,” Raheem Morris said, “Aaron got up off the bench and had such a leadership moment. He went up and down the sideline, to every defensive player, and he kept saying, ‘This is our moment! Let’s go!’ “
Ours? More like his.
“That’s one of those moments as a coach,” Morris said, “when you think, They don’t need me. Just stay out of the way.”
Third-and-one, Rams up 23-20, 48 seconds left, Bengals at the Rams’ 49.
“I kinda knew they were gonna run it,” Donald said. But at Donald? And not with Joe Mixon, but with the journeyman Perine?
Here came Perine over the right guard, between nose tackle Gaines and Donald. “Greg Gaines did a good job collapsing the A gap,” Donald said, “making it small to the point where it was hard for [Perine] to squeeze through.” Donald reached through the traffic and grabbed Perine, then used brute strength to drag him back a yard.
“I actually thought he got the first down,” Donald said.
“Unbelievable strength,” Morris said. “Kept ‘em from getting that last inch. Crucial.”
Next play: Donald was surprised when he saw Burrow in the shotgun. As was the Ram sideline. McVay, as captured by NFL Films, called Donald’s shot. “Aaron’s gonna close the game out right here!” McVay said.
Spain, the left guard, flashed to his left when Donald sprinted there at the snap. Too late. Hopkins, the center, scurried to his left to help. Too late also.
“The center peeled back late,” Donald said. “He didn’t slide hard enough. He got a little lazy with the slide.”
Donald could see Burrow in his sights, nothing between them except four yards of artificial turf.
“In my head, I promise you I’m like, I’m about to make this play. We’re about to win a Super Bowl. And when I grabbed him, I was like, We just won a Super Bowl!” Burrow’s desperate pass fluttered to the ground.
“You couldn’t write it any better. It felt good. It felt really good.”
If this is it—Donald would only say he’s living in the moment and wants to enjoy today; plenty of time to think about playing more football—then no NFL player has ever ended a career more dramatically: game-turning sack to stunt a huge momentum swing in the third quarter, then a run stuff and a QB-stopper on the two clinching plays of a Super Bowl.
Talking to some people close to Donald and the team, it sounds 50-50 on retirement. There will be time for that. Good for Donald taking his time to revel in the greatest game of his life. The man has been playing football for 25 years. Give him 25 days, 50, 75, to enjoy this.
“Just imagine being a kid—I’ve been playing football since I was 5 or 6 years old,” Donald said. “I always talked about, I wanna make it to the NFL. I always set high goals but I surpassed anything that I ever thought was possible. I remember being a kid watching the Super Bowl, cheering for the Steelers. I got to play in my second Super Bowl and win one.
“Like, that’s the type of experience that … You can’t dream bigger than that, man. If you ain’t playing for this, if you ain’t playing to be a world champion, then you’re in the wrong business.
“When you visualize this game, when you think about being in big moments and big games, wanting to close out a game like that and make the big play, that’s why you do the extra rep in a weight room. That’s why you do the extra sprint during the offseason. That’s why you exhaust your body. That’s why you study so much film. You’re groomed for that moment.
“When you’re just chasing a goal like this, you really working for that and you’re really putting the time in when nobody’s watching … That’s the best [advice] I can give to people or young guys. Just work. Don’t worry about money, don’t play for stats, don’t play for individual awards. Play to be a world champion and really work at that. Grind at that. And I promise you, you’re gonna accomplish more than you ever thought you’d accomplish.”