LOS ANGELES — Aaron Donald is not thrilled about the prospect of playing football without fans.
The Los Angeles Rams superstar defensive lineman doesn’t like the idea of playing an NFL season in front of empty seats, saying it “wouldn’t be fun to me."
“I feel like you need fans to play the game,” Donald added Thursday on a video conference call from his offseason home in Pittsburgh. “I don’t see how you could play a game without the fans. I feel like that takes out the excitement and the fun out of the game.”
Donald realizes his opinion won't carry much weight if the coronavirus pandemic forces the NFL to take extraordinary measures to provide a television product to the world. But the six-time Pro Bowl selection is among those sportsmen worldwide who don't really see the point of continuing with their professions while large crowds are unable to gather safely.
“I feel like the fans pick you up," Donald said. “The fans are what makes the game exciting. The fans would give you that extra juice when you’re tired and fatigued. When you make that big play and you hear 80,000 fans going crazy, that pumps you up. If you don’t have that in the game, I think that just takes the fun out of it.”
The possible realities of a pandemic year are coming home for Donald and the Rams, who haven't reopened their training complex while conducting their spring work online. Donald is used to missing offseason workouts with his teammates, thanks to two contract holdouts that eventually ended with his mammoth six-year, $135 million extension in August 2018.
Donald usually spends much of his offseason working out at Pitt, where the Aaron Donald Football Performance Center is at his disposal for obvious reasons.
But with the university shut down because of the pandemic, Donald said he has been working out “back where it all started” in The Dungeon — his nickname for the tiny basement of his father’s home. He’s lifting weights three days a week for at least two hours a day alongside his nephew, a high school defensive lineman.
Donald has still been busy with his school, however: He recently finished his communications degree, joining his brother and sister as college graduates.
“I’ve been taking classes for the past couple of years here and there, online classes,” said Donald, who headed to the NFL in 2014. “It’s a promise I made to my mom and dad. When I got drafted, I promised my mom and dad that I’d still get the degree, because that’s what they wanted. It took a while, but I accomplished it. They were proud of me. I’m just glad and relieved that I’m finally done.”
Donald will head back to the West Coast eventually, but he is getting plenty of screen time with his new teammates and with the Rams' coaching staff, including new defensive coordinator Brandon Staley. Donald is optimistic about the direction of the Rams' defense, although he is getting eager to get onto a football field so he can learn Staley's schemes alongside his teammates.
Staley, a relatively inexperienced NFL assistant who just got his first coordinator job in the league, realizes he has an enormous advantage in his task with likely the best defensive lineman in the world at the center of his planning.
“My mom is a teacher, and she always said, ‘You’ve got to get your best students to perform better,'” Staley said. “It’s easy to take the best students for granted ... We all know what he’s capable of, but how can we help him do his job better and maybe lift some weight off his shoulders? We want to make sure we get him in as many isolations as possible. If we can get him against one [blocker] as opposed to two, then our odds of being successful go through the roof.”
Staley still has a few months left to work on ways for Donald to make a splash in the Rams’ palatial SoFi Stadium. LA’s preseason game against the New Orleans Saints is now scheduled to be the first event ever held in the Inglewood arena, thanks to postponements of concerts by Taylor Swift, Kenny Chesney and Guns N’ Roses because of the pandemic.
Donald isn't exactly looking forward to breaking in a new stadium without tens of thousands of his closest friends, however.
“You practice and practice and practice, and you prepare to play a game and be on a big stage and play in front of a crowd," Donald said. “Without fans, I don’t see how that could be possible. There’s just no excitement.”