Chiseled Aaron Donald is virtually fit for Rams' season

Gary Klein
LA Times
During his zoom conference call with reporters, Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald used a photo of himself flexing as his background. <span class="copyright">(Gary Klein / Los Angeles Times)</span>
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)

A pandemic that is preventing NFL players from congregating and working out at team facilities is not slowing down Aaron Donald.

The Rams’ star defensive tackle, one of the league’s most fit and physically shredded players, appeared to be in top condition Thursday during a videoconference with reporters. As if to leave no doubt, he sat before a large background photo that showed him shirtless and in full flex mode.

“I just got to show you I’m still working, still grinding,” he said, laughing.

Donald spoke from hometown Pittsburgh, where is waiting out the COVID-19 pandemic that has forced teams to adopt virtual offseason programs and has also put the status of training camps and the season in the doubt.

During the offseason, Donald typically would work out at the “Aaron Donald Football Performance Center.” That is the name of the gleaming ground floor on the University of Pittsburgh side of a facility it shares with the Pittsburgh Steelers at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

But with the weight room closed, Donald works out with his nephew three times a week in “The Dungeon.” That is the nickname of the basement gym his father, Archie, constructed piecemeal at the family home when Aaron was a child. Family members moved out of the home years ago, but Aaron demanded they hold on to the property for the gym and the memories.

“Just back to where it all started,” said Donald, who signed a $135-million extension in 2018. “If anything, that just pushes you a little bit more, motivates you a little bit more because you understand that where it all started at to get where I’m at today.”

Donald, who turns 29 on Saturday, is the cornerstone for a Rams defense that is being remade under new coordinator Brandon Staley.

Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald still uses his old weight-lifting and exercise equipment in the basement of his childhood home in Pittsburgh. The family calls the space "The Dungeon." <span class="copyright">(Gary Klein / Los Angeles Times)</span>
Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald still uses his old weight-lifting and exercise equipment in the basement of his childhood home in Pittsburgh. The family calls the space "The Dungeon." (Gary Klein / Los Angeles Times)

“I’m working so I’m going to get me the upper hand.”

Aaron Donald, Rams star defensive tackle

The Rams cut or did not re-sign multiple defensive players from a team that finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs last season. Edge rusher Dante Fowler, linebacker Cory Littleton and slot cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman signed with other teams. Linebacker Clay Matthews remains a free agent.

The Rams added edge rusher Leonard Floyd and defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson.

Staley was the outside linebackers coach for the Chicago Bears and the Denver Broncos before Rams coach Sean McVay hired him to replace Wade Phillips. Staley said Thursday that he welcomed the challenge of installing a defense and getting to know players virtually.

He is not concerned about Donald’s ability to prepare.

“Football is football for a guy like Aaron Donald,” Staley said of the two-time NFL defensive player of the year. “He’s going to play well if my wife’s coaching him.”

Donald said he has enjoyed his interactions with Staley, but the six-year veteran won’t be able to evaluate the hybrid 3-4 scheme until the Rams can practice.

Staley has discussed ways the Rams can limit the number of opponent double-teams Donald faces.

“You start to shake a little bit and got a big smile on your face,” Donald said of his reaction to the plans, “but we won’t know until it’s time to go out there and play some ball.”

Donald recently graduated from Pitt after completing his communications degree, a promise he made to his parents in 2014 when he made himself available for the draft.

Donald said he has been enriched by listening to Clippers coach Doc Rivers and Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, guest speakers McVay has called upon to address the team during the offseason program. He also has drawn motivation from watching Michael Jordan in the ESPN documentary series “The Last Dance.”

“It just makes me want to be a champion,” Donald said.

Donald looks forward to the day the Rams can convene for in-person meetings, practices and games. But the prospect of playing games in stadiums without fans — a scenario that has been floated because of the pandemic — is not appealing.

“The fans will give you that extra juice when you’re tired and fatigued,” he said. “When you make that big play, you hear 80,000 fans going crazy — that just pumps you up. ... I don’t think it would be fun to play a football game without fans.”

Regardless, Donald will be ready when teams are allowed to convene and conduct practices. Next week, he said he would begin more double-day workouts in anticipation of a playing a full season.

“Other guys are probably relaxing and kicking their feet up,” he said of opponents. “I’m working so I’m going to get me the upper hand.”

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