Plaschke: Retiring Aaron Donald didn't just lead the Rams, he was the Rams



For years he had remained hidden, lost underneath a giant helmet, buried in a defensive line.

He was a star who behaved like a stunt man, doing the dirty work, punishing his body, disappearing into the scrum.

He was the most important Ram that nobody knew, the greatest player that nobody saw, the biggest force with the fewest cheers.

Then, finally, it happened. The deciding play of Super Bowl LVI happened.

Aaron Donald happened.

The Cincinnati Bengals were driving toward a potential tying field goal in the final seconds of the championship game in 2022 at SoFi Stadium when Donald swiped past a guard and eluded the center and put both giant hands on Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow.

Donald was in the process of flinging Burrow to the ground when the quarterback rushed a wobbly pass that fell incomplete and, then, finally, everyone saw and everyone knew.

The Rams were Super Bowl champions. And Aaron Donald had led them there.

Now that he’s gone, the Rams will never be the same.

Donald announced his retirement Friday, ending a 10-year career spent entirely with the Rams, mostly in the opponents’ backfield, and always with his arms around somebody.

Now that he’s gone, the void will be as huge as those biceps.

He was as steady as the Hollywood sign and as enduring as the TCL Chinese Theatre handprints, yet instead of embracing the glitz, he celebrated the growl.

He was an unassuming giant who was arguably the greatest defensive lineman ever. He was an anonymous Angeleno who was one of only three players to win Defensive Player of the Year three times. He worked in the shadows yet he was only the second player who made the Pro Bowl in each of his 10 seasons.

Think about that. An entire career spent without one bad stretch. A decade of fighting double- and triple-teaming blockers and always winning.

And, oh yeah, he had the second-most sacks of any defensive tackles since sacks became an official statistic in 1982.

Donald didn’t just lead the Rams, he epitomized the Rams. Those simple yet brutish horns on their helmet? That was him.

“There will never be another Aaron Donald,” Rams general manager Les Snead said.

He symbolized the Rams’ joy after their 2022 victory, tearing off his helmet and pointing to his ring finger after his final chase-down of Burrow.

He later served as the loudest voice in the Rams’ giddy victory parade, commanding the post-parade podium shirtless while drinking Champagne.

“I’ve been having a little fun tonight so if I slur my words I apologize,” he told the crowd. “We dreamed this for so long, to be living it right now with you guys in L.A … what? What?”

He concluded by saying, “Drink as much as we do tonight and live it up … we’re world champions!”

Donald, who before the game had hinted at an early retirement, inspired coach Sean McVay to start the now infamous celebratory chant in hopes of convincing his star to stay.

“Run it back … run it back!” McVay shouted.

Donald agreed to run it back, and he remained an effective player for the ensuing two seasons, but he never reached those boozy heights again, and there was a sense that a decade of fistfights disguised as football games had finally taken their toll.

In a classy farewell letter on social media, Donald thanked the folks in St. Louis — where he spent the first two seasons of his career — and Los Angeles while referencing the awesome commitment he made to the game.

“Throughout my career, I have given my everything to football both mentally and physically — 365 days a year was dedicated to becoming the best possible player I could be,” he wrote. “I respected this game like no other and I’m blessed to be able to conclude my NFL career with the same franchise that drafted me. Not many people get drafted to a team, win a World Championship with that team and retire with that team. I do not, and will not, take that for granted.”

Perhaps Donald’s most recognizable feature was his number. Even if you couldn’t see or appreciate his constant interior battles, you couldn’t miss the impossibly stretched jersey bearing number “99.”

You know who else wore “99” in this town, right? Wayne Gretzky, of course.

Goodbye to another G.O.A.T.



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