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Aaron Donald explains decision to retire, reflects on career

Before walking into the locker room after their wild-card playoff game against the Lions in Detroit, Aaron Donald gave head coach Sean McVay a big hug, with a big smile on his face.

"That's it?" McVay asked.

"That's it," Donald replied.

In one simple exchange, the defensive tackle conveyed that yes, he was indeed retiring and at peace with the decision, calling it a career after 10 decorated seasons.

Ultimately, there was nothing else left for him to accomplish after a decade of dominance that included three Defensive Player of the Year awards, 10 Pro Bowls, 8 First-Team All-Pros and being named to the NFL's 2010s All-Decade team.

"I'm complete. I'm full," Donald said during an exclusive sit-down interview with his wife Erica, which was captured by the Rams inside his childhood home in Pittsburgh last week and went more than an hour. "I think the passion to play the game is no longer there for me. I will always love football, but to think about going through another camp and another 17-(game) season, I just don't got the urge to want to push myself through that no more. I'm just, I'm burnt out. The best way to say it is I'm full, I'm complete. I'm satisfied with what I was able to do in 10 years. I think it's time for me at 32 years old to retire from football and jump into the next step of my career, my life. Now it's time to move on."

In the video, Erica brings up Aaron's first retirement letter, which he was set to turn in on May 9, 2022, with the decision being effective on that date. It was written, emailed and ready to go, but ultimately not turned in.

Aaron said that was because he had always said he was going to retire after playing 8 years in the NFL – and in his eighth year, he won a Super Bowl. But after talking to head coach Sean McVay, and still feeling the feeling of winning a Super Bowl, he decided not to walk away, and they worked out a solution financially that made sense for both sides.

"That's the ultimate high," Aaron said of that team success of winning a Super Bowl.

Donald felt like he was able to accomplish everything he wanted to, and dreamed of, in his 10-year career. He said that coming into the NFL, he just wanted to get there, and become the best defensive tackle.

"But to be considered the best player in the National Football League, to be considered the best defensive player in the National Football League, to win as many individual accolades as I did, I just feel like there's nothing I didn't get to feel," Donald said. "From individual success to team success, I felt every low and every high I could feel from the game of football. Was able to make a good amount of money playing this game to be able to provide for my family.

"I dreamed big dreams, I had huge dreams, but I surpassed anything that I thought was possible."

While the Rams entered the 2023 season with the second-youngest roster in the NFL, which was reflected in the experience around Donald on their defense, it still brought him lots of energy and joy in his final season. Even though the Rams fell short of their ultimate goal, he was proud of how those young players played.

He said his goal in his last season was to have the same joy playing as he did when he was a kid.

"I didn't even expect us to be the team that we was, and I had a fun year," Donald said. "I got to enjoy every moment of that year. To watch the young guys grow and become the guys of the team and have success, and be a part of just taking it all in. That was my main thing going into this season was just to go back to how it was as a kid, just enjoy playing football again. That's what it was, and I felt like I got to do that."

Donald said the decision was one where "you just know," with no second-guessing. He said he was satisfied and at peace with everything, though the gravity of it dawned on him as he began taking off his equipment inside the visitors locker room in Detroit.

"I remember in the locker room taking my stuff off, eyes watering, 'last time I'm going to take my pads off with my jersey on ever again.' I'm like, 'Wow,'" Donald said. "I remember getting on one knee, untying my spikes, just like 'dang,' just looking around, 'this is the last time I'm ever going to do this.' My eyes just start watering. I'm just taking every moment in, because it was special to me, because I knew."

Donald also said he felt like he was able to help turn a lot of young players into the players they became, and was proud the growth of the organization from a team that won four games to a team that won a Super Bowl and is one of the most respected in the league.

He said he's leaving at peace, and on his own terms. He feels like he could still play at a high level, but reiterated his passion for the game isn't there anymore.

However, Donald knows he's leaving a team that has a promising future with young guys ready to take the next step.

"I talk to them a million times and tell them, 'it's y'all time now,'" Donald. "It's time for you guys like Kobie (Turner) to be the leader know, to Puka (Nacua), to continue to build on what you did. Ernest, it's your defense now. I told him that. To leave the team how I'm leaving the team, in good hands with great young guys that's going to do some great things for the organization, make it even that much better for me to know I ain't leaving it in a bad condition, it's in good terms and they have a good team, and I feel like they're going to have a lot of success."

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