The NFLs Aaron Donald Knows How To Play To His Strengths

Aaron Donald has been a standing dish in the NFL’s list of elite defensive players. Since bursting onto the scene for the St Louis Rams in 2014 winning Rookie of the Year, he’s gone from strength to strength. Here he talks about combines, Beast Mode and dodging knives in the gym…

RSNG You’ve been a one-franchise player. That, in itself, is very special isn’t it? AARON DONALD, ALL-AMERICAN DEFENSIVE TACKLE “It’s been an absolute blessing, as it was to win the Rookie of the Year award in my first season in the NFL. It was the start of a dream I had always had, wanting to play in the National Football League. When you grow up, you know that the things you thought of as a kid might never come true – but it turns out that some do.”

RSNG You obviously came through the NFL Scouting Combine? AD “Yeah, it’s a set up by the NFL and is at the Lucas Oil Stadium [Indianapolis Colts home ground] so that scouts from the franchises can see how college players perform in different situations. So, there are mental and physical tests and they go on for about four days.”

“There’s a lot of excitement in these; a lot of nerves. You have kids in there who may only get the one chance to impress, because it’s tense. You can only get on the pitch with an invite, so it’s a good sign if you are given one, but as with all things in life it’s then up to you to prove that you’ve got what it takes to be picked by an NFL franchise.”

“I made sure that I worked hard and I was fortunate enough to get a pick by the St Louis Rams, as they were then, and I am still here now.”

I was taught as a kid you had to find out what made you different to everyone else – if you find it and finetune it, it can be a gamechanger

RSNG You’re not what NFL experts would call something of textbook stature for a defensive tackle. But you’ve made sure that doesn’t matter? AD “Well, my game is all about strength and speed and that’s something that I have over the bigger guys, because I can get to that QB far quicker than most of the players who are taller than I am.”

“I try to use that to my advantage. I was taught as a kid you had to find out what made you different to everyone else. We all have this, somewhere inside – if you find it, finetune it and exploit it in performance, it can be a gamechanger in your life.”

RSNG Who would you say is the toughest opponent you have faced? AD “Well, I had to face Marshawn Lynch a number of times in the NFC West and he’s not nicknamed ‘Beast Mode’ for nothing, haha! He’s not a guy who just lets you bring him down, in fact he does not let you do that. It’s like trying to knock down a wall… or even a whole house!”

RSNG What were your thoughts about when the Rams moved to LA? AD “Well, I wasn’t really thinking about it too much at the time, although I had heard rumors and there were discussions that were apparently taking place. But as a player, you have no control over that and all you are doing is just concentrating on playing games.”

“The whole point you are in the NFL is to play football, so you have to make that your main focus. Let’s be honest, you’re mostly playing in different cities for 16 weeks in the regular season and then, if you get to the postseason and you’ve played well enough to have homefield advantage, that’s that.”

“But when things started to become real in 2015/ 16, there was the reality of moving house and all that sort of thing. Other than that, wherever you play shouldn’t change how you play or what happens on the field. The only thing that will change is the fans in the stadium.”

“I don’t know how many fans who were in St Louis and still support us, but I know there are some there – fan groups – so I’m happy that’s the case.”

People thought I was crazy when they saw the videos of me dodging knives in the gym

RSNG What advice would you give to young players who want to be like you or at least follow their dream of playing in the NFL? AD “One thing is for sure is that if you want to be a defensive player, you won’t be getting as much attention as the offensive players – especially the quarterbacks. But that doesn’t mean that your job is any less important. Good defense wins championships, there’s no doubt about that.”

“Points are scored in every game, so it’s rare that one score is going to win a match. But if your defense is working hard and stopping the opposition scoring, then you’ve got a far better chance of winning football matches.”

“It’s a tough position to play in and it takes a lot of guts, a lot of bravery, determination, skill and you have to put your body on the line in every play for your team. But like I said earlier, find out what makes you unique – both as a defensive player, then amongst your other defensive players. Specialize in what you’re unique at; adapt to what you’re less good at, and become a player who cannot be dropped.”

Once that snap is called and you’ve got a 6ft 5in, 280lb opponent steaming towards you, you soon realise where you are

RSNG When did it hit you that you were an NFL player and you had fulfilled your dream in the long journey? AD “That would be the very first match I played in my first pre-season against Green Bay. When I walked onto the pitch instead of watching from the sidelines as a fan, who was in college, it hit me then.”

“Reality beats everything and when I lined up to look into the eyes of the players I was used to seeing on my TV, that’s when it dawned on me. This is real, now. You’re here for real, you’ve earned it, you’ve worked hard. Show them that you belong here.”

RSNG Did you get starstruck at any point? AD “I can’t lie, yeah, I did. It’s one of those things where you go from not experiencing something to then being there in front of some of the most famous players in the world and you’re just a matter of a few feet away from them. That’s until you realize that you can match them, you do feel starstruck.”

“When you prove to yourself that you deserve to be there and you understand and remind yourself that you’re playing for your career and the team-mates who consider you to be family, you fight for everything and then – no disrespect to anyone, but if they’re not with us, they’re against us.”

“But yeah, until you snap out of that surreal feeling that you get from just being out there with and against some of those great players, who you have the utmost respect for, you still feel like one of the fans or someone who has won a competition to meet the players, haha!”

“But once that snap is called and you’ve got a 6ft 5in, 280lb opponent steaming towards you, you soon realise where you are. That’s the biggest wake-up I’ve ever had!”

RSNG Lastly, what was this all about where you were training with knives in practice? AD “Haha, they weren’t real knives, they were plastic. People thought I was crazy when they saw the videos of me dodging knives in the gym. I wasn’t going to play around with real knives, but it was just something that no-one else – certainly in the NFL – was doing, so I agreed to do it.”

“It was something which I thought was helping me improve my game and also to make me sharper – no pun intended!”

WHAT NEXT? Read the RSNG interview with another defensive demon, Bishard “Budda” Baker.