Seated behind a dais in a makeshift interview room in SoFi Stadium, Aaron Donald was now unquestionably the most accomplished defensive player of his generation, a Super Bowl win added to a resume that already included countless individual achievements.
He was also a father who kept a promise.
By his side was his 8-year-old daughter, Jaeda, who clutched a handful of blue, yellow and white rectangular strips of paper.
“We won it!” the girl squealed in delight.
In the eyes of Jaeda, her father had presented her with a long-awaited opportunity to play in confetti, as he promised her three years earlier. As she grows older, she will start to understand the broader significance of what he did Sunday.
The Rams were Super Bowl champions. Donald was the uncrowned king of football no more, his coronation coming in a two-sack effort in his team’s home stadium.
In the weeks leading up to the 23-20 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, the Rams’ other players spoke at length about how much they wanted to win for him.
Ultimately, he won the game for them.
On fourth and one on the Rams’ 49-yard line with less than a minute remaining, the Bengals lined up in a shotgun formation. The Rams had expected them to run the ball.
“Aaron’s going to close the game out right here,” Rams coach Sean McVay later recalled saying.
McVay’s intuition was right.
Donald sailed by guard Quinton Spain, who looked as if he were stuck in a tar pit. Donald grabbed quarterback Joe Burrow and swung him around 360 degrees counterclockwise. Burrow desperately heaved the ball in the direction of running back Samaje Perine, but it didn’t reach him.
Incomplete pass. Game over.
“He is the effing man,” McVay said.
Donald sprinted downfield in celebration, removing his helmet and raising it over his head. He pointed to his ring finger.
“Now, we’re champs,” Donald said.
Limited by the double- and triple-teams he faced in the first half, Donald started to be more disruptive in the third quarter as the Bengals opened up offensively.
The Bengals claimed a 17-13 lead on the first play from scrimmage in the second half, a 75-yard pass from Burrow to Tee Higgins.
On the Bengals’ next drive, Donald sacked Burrow twice as the Bengals were advancing in Rams territory, first by shoving him out of bounds and again after simply overpowering guard Hakeem Adeniji. The Bengals settled for a field goal.
The Rams sacked Burrow a total of six times in the second half, seven times in the game.
“To be the last team standing, you have to give it everything you got,” Donald said. “It’s about being relentless and showing up when you need to. Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games.”
Aaron Donald is a big-time player.
He hinted he might not be for much longer.
Donald conducted a pregame interview with former NFL player Rodney Harrison, who was working as a reporter for NBC. Harrison reported that Donald told him off the air that there was “a strong possibility” he would retire if the Rams won.
Asked after the game whether he would retire, Donald replied: “I’m just in the moment right now. I’m going to enjoy this with my teammates, my family. And I’m just going to be in the moment and enjoy this today, for a couple of days.”
Donald has three years remaining on his contract.
He previously described a Super Bowl victory as the only milestone missing from a decorated career that has included a rookie of the year award, three defensive player of the year awards, seven first-team All-Pro selections and 98 career regular-season sacks.
Linebacker Von Miller sounded skeptical of the retirement possibility.
“He’s done everything you can possibly do,” Miller said. “But this feeling right here, there’s nothing like it. It’s addictive. Once you feel this …”
Miller continued: “Coming to the Super Bowl is one thing, but winning it is different. We just have to see. But I’ll tell you, this feeling is great. It just makes you want it more and more and more. I just can’t see him walking away from this.”
The feeling was certainly more pleasant than what Donald experienced in other seasons.
Fans celebrate the Rams’ first Super Bowl victory in Los Angeles, a 23-20 triumph over the Cincinnati Bengals at SoFi Stadium.
He was in tears last year when the Rams were eliminated by the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round.
He was similarly crushed three years ago when the Rams were defeated by the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII. Donald had made a promise to his daughter before that game too.
When the Rams trudged off the field in defeat, Donald was asked by Jaeda, “Dad, I thought we were going to play in confetti.”
Donald compared that moment to this one.
“So, this is something,” Donald said. “I had to keep a promise to my daughter and make sure we were able to complete the mission. We got to play in the confetti this year. We had some fun.”
In the process, he built on his already splendid legacy.