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    How young Rams have infused Aaron Donald with new energy and joy
    • December 20, 2023

    Last year, it got dark early around the Rams’ Thousand Oaks headquarters.

    Not the way the nights come early in December. But for a team that had won the Super Bowl a year prior, the hangover could not have been worse. Injuries piled up in a startling fashion, and with them came losing like the Rams hadn’t seen since 2016, their first season in Los Angeles.

    No one was immune from it, even the man built like a superhero. An ankle sprain and subsequent tightrope surgery ended Aaron Donald’s season in Week 12, the fifth of six straight Rams losses. The superstar defensive tackle did not play the final six games, four more than he had missed in the first eight seasons of his career combined.

    “It was tough. It was tough but something that I had to go through, that we had to go through,” Donald said, “and we’re here now.”

    “Here” is somewhere it wasn’t clear the Rams could reach so quickly after last season’s 5-12 disaster. At .500, 14 games into the season, in control of their own destiny for a playoff spot.

    But most of all? The Rams are having fun, thanks to an influx of young energy in the locker room. And Aaron Donald, best known to the outside world for his glaring intensity on game day, is allowing himself to get swept up in it.

    New beginnings

    When Donald first met with the media at training camp in July, he declared he had “something to prove” in his 10th season. It was a comment that raised eyebrows among his teammates. What exactly did the three-time Defensive Player of the Yea and Super Bowl champion, already fitted for his Canton gold jacket, have to prove?

    But defensive line coach Eric Henderson knew it had more to do with how the previous year had ended than anything to do with Donald’s résumé.

    “I think anytime that you end the season, whether it be losing or not finishing the way you wanted to finish as an organization but also not having the opportunity to finish because of your health,” Henderson explained, “you want to get a second chance at it.”

    When Donald arrived in Irvine in July, he was technically playing for the same team with which he has spent his entire career. But it was like everything had changed around him.

    The Rams spent the offseason shedding expensive veteran contracts. The defense, and the defensive line room in particular, were struck hard. A’Shawn Robinson and Greg Gaines left as free agents. So did outside linebacker Leonard Floyd.

    For a team that had entered so many camps with the Week 1 roster predetermined, 36 rookies were vying for spots.

    “It felt like a whole new team even though it’s the same team. But it was pretty much, everybody was different,” Donald said. “You got Ernest [Jones], a couple guys that were out there that you played with, but for the most part it was a lot of new pieces that you never played with, didn’t know what to expect.”

    If it was discombobulating for Donald, the situation was intimidating for the rookies who had grown up in reverence of Donald. Here they were, expected to share ideas and strategies with the man whose tape they had modeled their games after.

    “You just never quite know how it’s going to go coming in and with him being as talented as he is and what kind of person he’s going to be,” rookie third-round pick Kobie Turner said. “But you could tell that he wasn’t like holding himself way above everybody else. It was pretty comforting.”

    As the days and weeks went by, Donald did what he could to take his young linemates under his wing.

    Donald has always been known more as a leader by example. He sets the standard when it comes to how to work out, how to take care of his body, how to practice, how to watch film. In other words, what it means to be a pro. If Aaron Donald takes it all so seriously, you have no excuse not to.

    “I know these young guys have just gravitated towards him. Everything he does, they try to do,” Henderson said. “I think that’s helped our culture.”

    But Donald has taken on a different kind of leadership role this season, too. He’ll invite the young defensive linemen to his house, or take them out to dinner, or organize the rookie dinners in which first-year players pay for veterans’ meals.

    “Just creating a lot of atmospheres where you can get the guys together. I think those have been the things that he’s been excited about,” Henderson said. “That was one of the things that really stands out, just his attitude, his approach. He’s a little bit more sensitive to the guys being young. But I think the personalities of these young guys have really rejuvenated him to where he’s having so much fun just being around these cats.”

    Poke the bear

    The young Rams in the defensive line room call Donald a “big brother” figure. If that’s the case, though, the other guys have certainly embraced the “little brother” hallmark of trying to get under Donald’s skin.

    Rookie Desjuan Johnson, “Mr. Irrelevant” in April’s draft, has been a prime instigator, often leaning across the laundry basket in front of Donald’s locker to see his reaction to the latest jab. Donald usually fights back a grin as he concentrates on tying his gold-trimmed New Balances.

    “Everybody likes to laugh, everybody likes to smile,” Johnson reasons. “As a young player, you still want to talk junk and push him to be the best version of himself – even though that’s Aaron Donald, he don’t need nobody to push him – but just knowing that you got somebody that got your back.”

    This button-pushing hasn’t been limited to Johnson. Practice squad member Cory Durden frequently talks about wanting to dunk on his veteran teammate at Donald’s home basketball court.

    “[Durden] said, ‘We gotta play basketball. I bet you got AD on the court, huh, right on the middle?’ ” Turner recounts. “AD is like, ‘Yeah.’ He was like, ‘I’ll drop 30 from the AD logo.’ So everybody tries to get up under his skin a little bit, but it’s all love, man.”

    Asked about this dynamic, and Donald – typically stoic at press conferences – drops his head with a quick snort of laughter before recovering.

    “That’s what it’s about. You want to come to work, you want to have a group of guys that you enjoy being around, you have fun being around, that works, that want to be good,” Donald says. “I think we got a bunch of guys in our room that are like that and then obviously, having different personalities and everybody clicking together and having fun with each other, that helps everything.”

    Skipping off

    The Rams had just put the finishing touches on their third straight victory in a fashion befitting a team that has woven together generations of players. Donald and Turner had combined for a safety late against the Cleveland Browns, and their work for the day was done.

    As they headed for the sideline, Donald wrapped his arm around Turner’s shoulder, and Turner returned the gesture. But then something strange happened: Donald began to skip.

    “I didn’t understand that it was happening at first,” Turner said, eyes still wide days later as he recalled the moment. He then added with a belly laugh, “It was definitely a core memory.”

    And one that resonated across the Rams’ locker room, too.

    “It was definitely funny, I’m not going to lie,” third-year tackle Bobby Brown III said. “I definitely need that picture, that picture is hilarious.”

    “I was laughing so hard about that. That made my day to see him enjoying the young exuberance of Kobie Turner,” defensive coordinator Raheem Morris said. “When you have veteran players and that stuff rubs off on those guys in that way, it’s pretty fun to see.”

    But it wasn’t much of a surprise to Henderson and the rest of the defensive line room that have seen a new side to Donald this season.

    “It was exactly what we’ve been seeing in the D-line room amongst the group. It was just something that the world had a chance to see,” Henderson said. “But I was already seeing that. It was a genuine love and appreciation for each other and for just the camaraderie that we have.”

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    “Even though we won the Super Bowl and stuff my first year, I feel like he smiles more this year. He’s taking the memories in more this year than probably he has maybe in past years,” Brown added. “He is the vet. So now that he’s around a whole bunch of young guys, it’s like full of life.”

    And a far cry from the dark days of 2022. But at this stage of Donald’s career, it’s the right vibes at the right time.

    “Just enjoying it, never taking nothing for granted,” Donald said. “Obviously, around this time last year [I] wasn’t able to play so had the opportunity to be out there playing with them guys. Just never taking it for granted, just trying to have fun and enjoying it.”

    ​ Orange County Register