May 28, 2024

Last summer during training camp, Aaron Donald was always the first Rams player on the field.

And he was there early: Routinely 45 minutes before the workout began.

The three-time NFL defensive player of the year made his way to the area cordoned off for defensive line work, where he would plop down onto large pads or the base of a tackling dummy and quietly reflect.

Donald turned 32 last May.

“Just taking it all in,” he said.

Donald, who hinted at retirement after the Rams won Super Bowl LVI to end the 2021 season, carries a salary-cap number of $26 million in the second-to-last year of his contract.

But he shows no obvious signs of slowing down.

The seven-time All-Pro came back from season-ending ankle surgery in 2022, and has recorded two-and-half sacks and eight tackles for losses for a Rams team that evened its record to 3-3 with a 26-9 victory over the Arizona Cardinals last week.

On Sunday at SoFi Stadium, Donald faces his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers.

It’s the third time in his 10 seasons with the Rams that he will play against the team that he and his family grew up supporting. Donald played against the Steelers in St. Louis in 2015, and at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh in 2019.

“It’s not no extra excitement playing against the Steelers this time,” Donald said Thursday before practice.

Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald (99) celebrates a sack.

Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald (99) celebrates a sack.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Donald, however, acknowledges that he still follows a franchise that has won six Super Bowl titles.

“I still consider myself a Steelers fan, obviously, until we gotta play them,” he said. “I still look to see if they’re doing good.”

Donald grows animated when he recalls former Steelers receiver Santonio Holmes’ game-winning, toe-tap catch against the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII at the end of the 2008 season. He mentions other memorable plays made by former Steelers stars James Harrison, Jerome Bettis and Ben Roethlisberger.

“A lot of good memories,” Donald said, adding with a laugh, “I don’t want to keep praising them too much!”

With 105½ sacks and counting, Donald is a lock to be voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame after he retires.

Could he see himself finishing his career with the Steelers?

“Not really,” he said. “I never thought about it.”

Donald remains top of mind for the Steelers, who are 3-2 and coming off an off week.

Coach Mike Tomlin and his players cannot avoid him: The Aaron Donald Football Performance Center is on the ground floor of the facility the University of Pittsburgh shares with the Steelers at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

The University of Pittsburgh named its football training facility after Aaron Donald.

The University of Pittsburgh named its football training facility after Aaron Donald.

(Gary Klein / Los Angeles Times)

“His name is on the building,” said Kevin Dotson, an offensive lineman who played three seasons for the Steelers before he was traded to the Rams in August. “That’s his aura.”

Donald is familiar with Steelers players, and especially Tomlin, who is in his 17th season as the team’s head coach.

“I got a lot of respect for him as a person,” Donald said. “He’s just a cool guy. When I’m back in Pittsburgh training sometimes, he might be over there talking to my trainer and watching me train. We get to talk a little bit.”

This week, Tomlin told Pittsburgh-area reporters he was well acquainted with Donald’s resumé.

“We better do a good job of minimizing any additions to that resumé in the stadium this weekend,” Tomlin said. “And obviously, you work your tail off to minimize his impact on the game, but I imagine that week-in and week-out, everyone does that, but he still does what he does.”

Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett, like Donald, played in college at Pitt. He told Pittsburgh reporters he recalled watching Donald train after Pickett graduated from high school early.

“Showed me the ropes, showed me the way just from afar,” Pickett said, “watching how he works at Pitt. So, grateful for the experience.”

Donald has yet to be on the winning side against the Steelers.

In 2015, the Rams lost, 12-6. Four years later, in his first NFL game in Pittsburgh, Donald had six tackles, including three for losses, and a sack for a safety in a 17-12 defeat.

Donald’s family remains Steelers fans but they are now “more Rams fans,” he said.

They will be there en masse at SoFi Stadium on Sunday.

“The whole family going to be out here,” Donald said, “so I guess that’s going to be cool.”

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