THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Aaron Donald spent an entire summer away from his team. He ended his holdout the day before the season opener and participated in three practices -- only one of them in pads -- before playing in his first game. And then Donald just kept playing, far more than any of his Los Angeles Rams teammates and coaches would've ever expected. Over the course of five days -- a Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles, a Thursday night near San Francisco -- Donald took 115 snaps, an extreme workload for any defensive lineman.
On his 115th, he recorded the sack that basically won a game.
Days later, Donald was asked how he did it all; how he put his body through so much, without a traditional training camp or preseason, and appeared to stay so fresh until the very end. Donald smiled. Two words came out of his mouth: "Dewayne Brown."
Brown is a 42-year-old with a pickup truck. Twelve years ago, he founded the company 2/10ths Speed & Agility to provide high-intensity training for athletes in high school, college and the pros. The bed of Brown's black, 2013 Chevy Silverado is usually stuffed with enough medicine balls, recoil belts and resistance bands to train more than 150 people at a time.
Donald spent his entire summer with Brown in Pittsburgh, while his teammates went through formal practices in Southern California. They trained three times a week, at an indoor facility that is part of the University of Pittsburgh's Medical Center. Sessions lasted only 45 minutes, but they tested Donald's limits. The workouts began with dynamic warm-ups and went straight to movement exercises with resistance belts. Then core work with medicine balls, explosions with resistance bands, footwork drills through 25-yard obstacle courses. Then sprints with either a parachute or a sled. Then flipping tires. Then frantically chasing tennis balls.
Breaks didn't last more than two minutes.
"It's full throttle, pedal to the metal, hard as you can go," Brown said.
Brown would meet Donald and his brother, Archie, a former linebacker at Toledo, at 10 a.m. ET every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. By then the two had already finished lifting weights in the gym. Then they would navigate through the grueling workout. "And then," Donald said, "I'd do pass-rush moves when I'm dead tired."
How did it get him ready?
"Well, shoot," Donald said, "conditioning-wise, I feel great."
Donald played 48 snaps -- three shy of the lead among Rams defensive linemen -- during a 27-20 loss to the Washington Redskins in his first game on Sept. 17. He admitted to being "a little rusty" and promised to be better. No more than 96 hours later, Donald played 67 snaps at Levi's Stadium and sacked Brian Hoyer on fourth-and-20 with less than two minutes remaining, solidifying a 41-39 win against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 3.
Brown wasn't surprised.
Donald, he'll tell you, is that kind of specimen.
"He's one of those guys from 'Game Of Thrones' you would throw out there on the front line with an axe," Brown said, laughing. "He's a gladiator, you know what I mean? He's just a gladiator. He's one of those guys born for football."
Here's the thing: Donald hates Brown's workouts. He hated them ever since he first started doing them as a teenager. They have become a necessary evil, increasingly more so as the years go by.
Brown played basketball at small colleges in Missouri and Pennsylvania. When he returned to Pittsburgh, he noticed that the inner-city youth in his community weren't being taught proper technique and thus were unprepared for college camps. He sought to change that. Brown took $3,000 out of his savings account, invested in resistance-training equipment and started teaching 15-20 kids at a local park free of charge in 2005.
"I never was in it for the money," Brown said. "Never was."
Brown's cousin attended high school with Donald's father, also named Archie. So Donald trained with Brown heading into his senior year of high school and his freshman year of college, despite initial skepticism that his workouts would benefit only skill-position players. Those sessions became infrequent over the next two years, but then Donald was given a fifth-round grade after his junior year and recommitted.
He spent the ensuing offseason with Brown, then took his game to new heights as a senior, being named ACC Defensive Player of the Year at Pittsburgh while on his way to becoming the 13th overall pick in 2014.
Now Brown says he trains about a dozen Pittsburgh-area NFL players, including Demetrious Cox (Panthers), Will Clarke (Buccaneers), Treyvon Hester (Raiders), Tyrique Jarrett (Broncos), Ejuan Price (Rams), Nic Grigsby (Ravens), John Wetzel (Cardinals), Manasseh Garner (Redskins), Quinton Jefferson (Rams), Dontez Ford (Lions), DeShawn Williams (Bengals) and James Conner (Steelers).
Donald is a little bit different from the rest.
"It's his will," Brown said. "This dude, he does everything hard. That's why, if you notice, he never gives up on a play. He's got a high motor. His explosiveness, to other athletes -- you don't see too many linemen as explosive as him."
Donald takes two weeks off at the end of each season, then calls Brown and gets back to work. They'll train leading up to organized team activities, then reconvene again leading up to training camp. This year, though, they stayed together a lot longer than usual. Donald didn't return to the Rams until Sept. 9, uncertain about how his body would hold up once the grind began.
"I didn't know, honestly," said Donald, still without a new contact. "I didn't think I would be in as good a shape as I'm in as far as football-wise, being able to play so much. I feel like I can play 10 snaps straight without having to take myself out."
Rams defensive line coach Bill Johnson says he believes Donald needed about a week to put the distractions behind him and truly settle in on football. He noticed some initial indecisiveness off the snap from the three-time Pro Bowler, which is to be expected for a player suddenly thrust into a new system. Donald was hearing a lot of calls for the first time.
"So any time you're not sure of yourself, you've got just a little bit of indecision," Johnson said. "And when you get into a football game, everything's going so fast."
Donald's playmaking ability was more noticeable in his second game, and Johnson says he believes Donald will only get better with each passing week. Playing Donald that many snaps "was never the intention," Johnson said. But the games were close, and Johnson never noticed any real stress on Donald's body. So he kept playing, right up until the end.
Said Donald: "I just felt good."
"I'm not surprised, because Aaron puts the work in," Brown said. "The dude is nonstop. How many defensive linemen look the way he does? Not too many."