Aaron Donald has won just about every award available to a defensive lineman during his spectacular eight-year career with the Los Angeles Rams.
As he points out, the only trophy he lacks has Vince Lombardi’s name on it.
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“This is the only thing I’ve been chasing,” the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year said Monday while the Rams began Super Bowl week at home.
At 30, Donald is still at the top of his formidable game, as his seven straight All-Pro selections attest. But he is also mature enough to understand that any Super Bowl could be the last for any player, even arguably the greatest defensive player of his generation.
An interesting thing happened during the Rams’ run through the NFC playoffs: Donald’s teammates and coaches have adopted his final quest as one of their rallying cries. Even though Donald is far from a late-career veteran hoping to cash in one last chance at a championship, the sentiment is only growing stronger as Sunday approaches.
“This building wants to win for Aaron Donald, to create more for his legacy and what he’s done,” said defensive coordinator Raheem Morris. “Our people in PR, community relations, the football office, the training room, the players, his brothers – we want to win for Aaron Donald.”
His singularly disruptive playing skills aside, the Rams’ respect and admiration for Donald off the field is obvious from their new goal.
Von Miller brought it up unprompted near the start of the Rams’ playoff run, saying it was important to the Super Bowl 50 MVP to help one of his few true defensive peers to get his own ring. Miller has repeated the sentiment in the ensuing weeks, saying the Rams talk about it in the locker room.
“Selfishly, I want to be the guy that helped Aaron Donald get a Super Bowl,” Miller said. “When he walks across the stage in Canton and says, ‘Man, when Von Miller came to the team, things changed,’ that’s what I do for it.”
Jalen Ramsey, the All-Pro cornerback and fellow cornerstone of LA’s defense, echoed the sentiment early on in the playoff push. Odell Beckham Jr. and several other Rams have brought it up since.
The Rams (15-5) naturally want to beat the Cincinnati Bengals because it’s the culmination of a half-decade of growth under coach Sean McVay. The coach’s arrival ended Donald’s three seasons as a good player on a bad team who was wondering if he needed to come up with an exit strategy from the Rams to realize his desire to win.
But the mild-mannered, approachable Donald has been playing long enough to gain the entire NFL’s respect, and to inspire a half-generation of players behind him.
“Words can’t express the way that feels, hearing that from your brothers, your teammates,” Donald said. “You’re doing everything in your power to help them to win, and for them to feel like they’re trying to help me accomplish something, that’s huge, man. It’s a blessing that my guys have got that much love for me to try to do that. It’s an accomplishment we can have that’s going to last for all eternity, that we ain’t never going to forget, and a bond that’s going to last forever.
“That tells you the type of brotherhood we have with this team. That’s why we’re at where we’re at today.”
When the Rams lost at Green Bay in the divisional playoff round last season, Donald caught the league’s attention with his naked emotion on the sideline. He was playing through torn cartilage in his ribs, and that pain combined with the finality of the loss brought him to tears.
Even Morris, who hadn’t joined the Rams yet, was moved by the televised images of the player he says “might be the best player that we’ve ever seen.”
“Looked into his eyes, and I felt that hurt,” Morris said. “I felt that pain. And when I got here, that was the first thing that I said to him: ‘I’m going to do everything in my power, everything possible, to help you win a championship.’”
The rest of the Rams are firmly behind the cause, and almost everybody has a story about how Donald became a friend and a mentor. Rookies like linebacker Ernest Jones have become friends with Donald after being star-struck by him in OTAs just eight months ago.
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It seems everybody is working to complete no. 99’s quest.
“The way he goes about building his teammates up, bringing them with him, that’s the greatness in Aaron Donald,” McVay said. “When you have something bigger than yourself to play for and motivation that drives you, what a powerful thing that is. That’s what I think is great about this team, but guys like Aaron Donald are why you want to be able to do this.
“You can’t help but love this guy. I feel so grateful to work with him.”