INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- Much of Aaron Donald's pregame routine is visible for the world to see. The Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle can be spotted working on his hand techniques or perfecting his burst from a three-point stance. But there is another part to his routine, a part that is both personal and private.
Before putting on his uniform and turning offensive linemen into human turnstiles, he makes a point of reading text messages from his wife, Erica, who sends him words of encouragement before each game. Sunday was no exception. With Donald preparing to play in the biggest game of his career, a Super Bowl matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals, she reminded him of three things: I love you. I'm proud of you. You're built for these moments.
The three-time Defensive Player of the Year then went out and confirmed -- again -- why some regard him as the baddest man in football, regardless of position. With 43 seconds to play and the Bengals driving for a possible overtime-forcing field goal, he ended the threat by bursting past blockers on fourth-and-1 from the Rams' 49-yard line and grabbing and spinning quarterback Joe Burrow before Burrow could set his feet, causing the ball to flutter harmlessly to the turf and ensure a 23-20 Rams victory.
Donald then held up both hands and pointed to his ring finger. He had made no secret in recent weeks about the importance of filling the only void on his résumé: a Super Bowl championship. The lack of a title didn't haunt him, but it did drive him after losing to the New England Patriots three years ago in his only other Super Bowl appearance. From the moment he walked off the field that night against the Pats, there was a feeling of unfinished business; and after Los Angeles regained the lead with 1 minute, 25 seconds to play when Matthew Stafford found Cooper Kupp for a 1-yard touchdown, Donald knew the moment had arrived to finish the job.
"If you want something bad enough, you gotta go get it," he said afterward. "It was right in front of us. We had the lead and it was put on the defense's shoulders to make the big stop to help us be world champions. You wouldn't want it any other way. All offseason you work, you train ... just for this one game to be the last team standing. You gotta give it everything you've got. It's about being relentless and showing up when you need to. Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games."
The scene was a virtual replay of the NFC Championship Game, in which the Rams took a 20-17 lead on the San Francisco 49ers with just under two minutes to play. All San Francisco needed was a field goal to force overtime, but on third-and-long, Donald burst free, grabbed and spun quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who threw up a floater that bounced off his running back's hands and into those of inside linebacker Travin Howard, sealing the victory.
In the two biggest games of the season, with the clock running down and the outcome in doubt, Donald hit the repeat button and showed that he is built for such moments.
"Best ever," Rams head coach Sean McVay said of his defensive captain. "I feel so privileged to even just be around him. Everybody asks me all the time about Aaron Donald, and I say he's even better than you think. He's such a special person, such a great player. I love Aaron Donald. Guys like him are why you coach."
When the game was over, the world was waiting to hear from him, Donald addressed another piece of unfinished business. He gathered with his wife and three children in an area behind the on-field stage and sat and played in the confetti. It was a touching display, one of the strongest and most intense men in football flipping the switch to his softer side. But while he was focused on his family, Erica, for one, could not stop thinking about what the moment meant for him.
"This is the only thing he hadn't done on his bucket list," she said. "This has been his goal his whole life, and for him to be able to achieve that is everything. He was very focused, very locked in all week. After the NFC Championship Game, he celebrated, but then went back to being totally focused, sticking to his routine and not letting any distractions happen. He's been positive and did what he had to do."
In the lead-up to the game, NBC reported that Donald, an eighth-year veteran, might call it a career if the Rams prevailed. As he made his way across the confetti-covered field, I asked him three times if he planned to return next season. The first time, he smiled and walked away. The second time, he smiled before taking selfies with actors/comedians Anthony Anderson and Cedric The Entertainer. The third time, he smiled and laughed.
"I'm just in the moment," he finally said before stepping on a television set.
Rams general manager Les Snead was less evasive when asked if Donald might walk away.
"He'll sleep on it and see, but I'm not buying it," he said. "He's a young kid. He'll get bored and need something to do."
There was plenty to occupy his time Sunday. The Bengals consistently double-teamed him and used quick passes to neutralize his rush. But the longer the game went on, the more impactful Donald became. On Cincinnati's final possession, he tackled Samaje Perine for no gain on third-and-1, then harassed Burrow on fourth down to force the incompletion.
At that moment, it was as if everything had come full circle. Donald and his wife had talked before the game about what it was going to be like to see each other after the Rams won. And now the moment had arrived.
"We knew we weren't going to have words," Erica said, "other than I love him and I'm proud of him."
She was not alone. The entire fan base shared her sentiments. If this indeed turns out to be Donald's final game -- which few believe it will -- he left no doubt he was built for the moment.