Aaron Donald used his strength, mind and humor to power a bigger-than-football persona

Inglewood, California January 30, 2022: Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald celebrates.

The Rams’ 2023 season had ended.

An emotional defeat in an NFC wild-card game at Detroit closed a successful run for star defensive lineman Aaron Donald and his mostly younger teammates.

Disappointment coursed through the visiting locker room at Ford Field, but players said they were proud of what they accomplished, and looked forward to next season.

After speaking with Donald and his teammates, reporters made their way toward the exit.

Suddenly, from behind, Hulk-sized hands landed on my shoulders. Forearms that felt like iron cannons pressed down on my back.

Read more: Rams' Aaron Donald heads to hometown Pittsburgh, where star was born and he still has roots

Soon it registered.

Aaron Donald had me in his grip.

Now that Donald, a certain first-ballot Hall of Famer, has announced his retirement after a 10-year career with the Rams, I reflect on that moment.

For eight years, since the Rams moved back to Los Angeles from St. Louis, I watched quarterbacks helplessly find themselves wrapped up in Donald’s clutches. The three-time NFL defensive player of the year routinely — and violently — smashed them to the turf.

During training camp and portions of in-season practice sessions, I got a close-up view as the muscle-bound and cat-quick Donald perfected his craft.

One drill in particular always spurred intrigue. Donald shuffled through a line of tackling dummies, wickedly slapping them at head height along the way. How could opposing players absorb such blows?

Several years ago, my fascination led to a what-were-you-thinking? situation.

Donald was scheduled to speak with reporters in the locker room. But first, longtime teammate and wingman Michael Brockers fielded questions at his locker next to Donald’s.

Much like he often did on the field, Donald sensed an opening. A gap. So he made a lightning-quick move to skip out of the room.

Instinctively, albeit foolishly, I leaped into his path.

A colleague audibly gasped. At 6 feet 1 and 285 pounds, Donald might have initially been regarded as undersized for an NFL defensive tackle. But not when face to face with a reporter 30 years his senior.

Donald took a step to his right, then another to his left.

Read more: Plaschke: Retiring Aaron Donald didn’t just lead the Rams, he was the Rams

Like an undrafted free-agent running back trying to make the roster, I held my ground. Comically, I might have even raised my hands to block him.

“C’mon, Aaron,” I said, laughing nervously.

Donald chuckled, shook his head and returned to his locker to answer questions.

Not that he always appreciated them, especially when pressed after offering vague first or second answers about his contract situation or other uncomfortable topics. Ultimately, though, he never refused to articulate his thoughts. And he usually did so with a grin.

In 2019, a trip to Donald’s hometown of Pittsburgh provided a window into his personality and how he became one of the greatest players in NFL history.

For a visitor, descending the steps to the dark and musty basement of his boyhood home on Churchland Street was unforgettable.

Aaron Donald's childhood home basement in November 2019.
Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald was still using his old weight-lifting and exercise equipment in the basement of his childhood home well into his NFL career whenever he visited home. He calls the space "The Dungeon." (Gary Klein / Los Angeles Times)

“Welcome to the Dungeon,” said his father, Archie Donald Jr., a former powerlifter who molded his son into a workout colossus on the spartan basement equipment.

Another comment that resonated came from Donald’s older sister, Akita.

Sometimes when her then-chubby brother got angry as a youngster, she noted, he threatened to run away. He packed a book bag full of snacks and left the house.

“Ten to 15 minutes later,” she said, “guess who’s back with no shoes on, eating all the snacks?”

That image never left my mind. Especially when Donald, muscles rippling, proudly appeared shirtless for news conferences during training camp. Or when he projected a shirtless image of himself in a bodybuilder pose as the background during Zoom calls with reporters.

Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald used a photo of himself flexing as his background.
During his zoom conference call with reporters, Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald used a photo of himself flexing as his background. (Gary Klein / Los Angeles Times)

Donald used that strength and his smarts to make one-of-a-kind plays, none bigger than when he pressured Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow to clinch Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium.

Afterward, Donald ran elatedly across the field pointing to his left index finger, as if he was screaming to the world, “Ring Me!”

I had heard Donald at full volume in the aftermath of another significant win.

In 2017 at Tennessee, in the locker room after the Rams clinched the NFC West for the first time since 2003, a joyful Donald yelled so loudly that it almost knocked me over.

He loved to win — and hated to lose.

Tears rolled down his cheeks as he stood on the sideline during a divisional-round playoff defeat at Green Bay that ended the 2020 season. He came back the next season and helped lead the Rams to their Super Bowl victory.

After that win, Donald answered questions while seated at a podium, then rode with his kids on the back of a cart to the locker room. He looked at peace.

Rams defensive end Aaron Donald celebrates after sacking Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow.

Two years later, there we were in a locker room in Detroit.

After Donald answered a few questions, another reporter noted the joy and energy the Rams young defense exhibited during their run to the playoffs, and asked Donald if he was eager to carry it forward.

“For sure,” he said.

I followed with another question.

“So, in terms of continuing to play,” I began, “you’re going to continue to play?”

Donald chuckled.

“We going to see,” he said. “I’m proud of this team. I’m proud of this group, you know, we got a lot more football left.”

I followed again.

“So you are?” I asked, “Or we’re going to see?”

Aaron Donald celebrates with his children while riding on the back of a golf cart at SoFi Stadium.
Aaron Donald celebrates with his children while riding on the back of a golf cart at SoFi Stadium following the Rams' victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI on Feb. 13, 2022. (Gary Klein / Los Angeles Times)

Donald laughed and asked why I asked that question.

The session was over.

A few moments later, I was engulfed from behind, a loud voice in my ear.

“Gary!” Donald said with a hearty laugh as he squeezed me, ”Man, how can you ask me that question when we just lost the game and got off the field?”

He kept walking and exited the room.

One day, I hope we meet up again.

I’ll congratulate him on a great career and thank him for his professionalism, cooperation and his humor.

I’ll probably shake his hand.

Or perhaps I’ll pull him in.

And wrap him up.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.