On Feb. 3, 2019, blue and red confetti drifted to the turf of Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium in celebration of the NFL's new world champions, the New England Patriots. Aaron Donald had just finished yet another stellar individual season for the Los Angeles Rams, leading the NFL with 20.5 sacks, and yet he left the field heartbroken, having fallen short of accomplishing his childhood dream.
That was only the beginning of the pain he'd feel that night.
"Daddy, I thought you were going to get me confetti," Donald's mother, Anita Goggins, recalled Donald's then-5-year-old daughter, Jaeda, saying.
"That broke his heart even more, because he made a promise that he couldn't keep," Goggins said last week. "Aaron works hard for his family. It's all about his family."
Donald took three days off after the loss in Super Bowl LIII, and then it was back to work, putting in long days and early mornings. In the three seasons since then, he earned his fifth, sixth and seventh consecutive first-team All-Pro nods. He captured his third career Defensive Player of the Year award, in 2020. And now, he's right back to where he was in 2019: staring down a chance to win a ring.
Before Donald and the Rams take on the Bengals in Super Bowl LVI, I talked to Donald's family and friends to get a better sense of where he stands at this moment.
"This is really the last thing on his list," said Aaron's wife, Erica Donald. "He's like, I've accomplished everything else I want to accomplish in my career. This is the last thing on my list that I want to accomplish. For him to accomplish that is going to be insane."
As Donald's defensive line coach at Penn Hills High School (Pennsylvania), Demond Gibbs, put it: "All of us who have played the game of football, we all dream about winning the Super Bowl. Nobody really thinks I want to win the Defensive Player of the Year ... As a little kid running around in the backyard, you're like, I want to win the Super Bowl one day."
As for Donald's childhood specifically, Donald's father, Archie Donald, remembers helping a young Aaron develop the discipline to fulfill his potential.
"He was a hell of a sports player," Archie said. "He could play real well, but he was kind of chubby. He was a little lazy."
Archie quickly realized yelling at his son wouldn't be effective, so instead, he made him work out with him each morning before school, which he hoped would teach him some form of obedience.
"It was just this discipline that he took for the weights, and the rest is history," the elder Donald said. "We're here today."
That's not to say the 30-year-old Donald hasn't continued to grow, even eight seasons into a decorated NFL tenure, or in the 1,000-plus days since the Rams' Super Bowl LIII loss. Erica Donald said she's seen him evolve, especially this season -- and there's one thing in particular that has led to that.
"Von Miller is somebody that's really pushed him to be more vocal," Erica Donald said. "Aaron's the type of man where he leads by his play. He leads by example."
Aaron's family members describe him as someone who's always been shy around people he doesn't know, but his wife has seen him come out of his shell this season, thanks to the guidance of Miller, the longtime Bronco who was the MVP of Super Bowl 50. She said Aaron realizes how important it is to speak up and talk with the team, and he's really taken to that role. She and he sometimes even prepare for those team conversations together.
"He truly thinks about what he's going to say, what he thinks is meaningful for everybody else, what he thinks is going to get everybody else motivated and fired up," she said.
Goggins said she can understand why Miller would have influenced Donald to, as Donald himself put it recently, be "more of a vocal leader."
"I always say, God puts people in your life at certain times for a reason," Goggins said. "Aaron looks up to [Miller]. There's certain people that you say, Dang, I would like to play with him. Well, Von is one of them, and Von is vocal. He told Aaron, 'If you speak, they'll listen.' "
And they did listen.
During the NFC Championship Game, it was Donald who rallied his teammates on the sideline when they were trailing the San Francisco 49ers, 17-7. Then, in the final minutes of the game, Donald pressured Niners QB Jimmy Garoppolo on third-and-13, tipping Garoppolo's pass, leading to an interception that clinched L.A.'s spot in the Super Bowl.
As Erica put it, Miller's ability to "push [Aaron] out of his comfort zone" was "very instrumental in the way things have gone this season." It also seems to have helped continue a process that Archie Donald foresaw back in 2014, when Aaron was picked 13th overall by the Rams.
"The night that Aaron got drafted, I told him there are going to be a lot of things that come with success and people are going to say that you've changed," Donald's father said. "You are going to change; that just means you're evolving. The one thing you want to do is start opening your mouth, because people don't read minds. Success has opened up Aaron a lot."
Whether Donald will finally secure the title that eluded him three years ago remains to be seen. But he's already followed through on one goal this postseason: setting things right in the Rams' rivalry with the 49ers, who'd beaten Donald's team six straight times heading into the NFC title match.
"He was talking through his patio door, and he said, 'Dad, I don't care how we get to the Super Bowl, but it must be through San Francisco,' " Archie Donald said. "You know how a kid drops the mic and walks off? He slid his patio door, and then he just walked off. I remember saying to him, 'You be careful what you wish for, because God has a way of giving you what you asked for.' "
As the crowd roars into SoFi Stadium on Sunday, Donald will look at the same picture of his family that, Erica said, he always looks at before every game. He'll give it a kiss one final time this season and take the field, hoping to fulfill his promise to his daughter and give her a playground of confetti.