LOS ANGELES -- Aaron Donald has come a long way since the days when scouts used to wonder if he was big enough to thrive in the brutally uncompromising land of helmeted giants that is the modern National Football League.
When the Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle takes to the field for the Super Bowl on Sunday, he will do so as one of the most feared players in the league.
A 285-pound (129kg) human wrecking ball packed into a relatively modest 6ft 1in (1.85m) frame, Donald is regarded by many as the best defensive player in the NFL, and one of the greatest ever.
Now the 30-year-old future Hall of Famer is determined to crown a dazzling career with the one item missing from his resume -- a Super Bowl ring.
"The only thing I'm lacking that I want to achieve is to be a world champion," Donald said. "That's all I'm working for."
Sunday's clash against the Cincinnati Bengals in Los Angeles marks the latest stop on a journey that has seen Donald go from being a self-described "lazy" kid to NFL superstar.
At the age of 12, his father Archie, introduced him to weight training.
By the time he was 14, he would wake at 4.30am to start pumping iron in the gym that his father had built in the basement of their home.
"I was a little lazy probably," Donald recalls. "My work ethic was instilled by my dad."
Those grueling pre-dawn sessions gave Donald the physical foundation to thrive at gridiron.
Yet even after a successful school and college career, some in the NFL were unconvinced that he had the stature to succeed as a professional.
- 'Short and scrappy' -
One scouting report wondered if he would get "ground up by double teams" while another characterized him with the faintly disparaging tag of "short and scrappy."
Donald used the skepticism as fuel.
"You always hear things when you're growing up about being undersized," Donald said. "Me personally, it just made me work that much harder.
"Because it made me think 'Okay, maybe I haven't done enough to make them see that I can play at the highest level, no matter how good I am.'
"I just worked hard and let my film speak for itself. I've seen myself grow from a young high school kid, to a young college kid, to a young professional to being here now in my eighth year in the league.
"It's been a long ride but definitely worth it."
Last month Donald provided one of the signature plays of the NFC Championship game to help the Rams into the Super Bowl, muscling past the San Francisco 49ers offensive line and pressuring quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo into an interception that ended the game.
That victory means Donald is back into the Super Bowl for the second time since the Rams were beaten by the New England Patriots in the 2019 showpiece.
Donald is determined that this weekend's game at the Rams own SoFi Stadium will have a different outcome.
"Last time, when we lost, you think 'It's okay -- we'll get back here next year,'" Donald said. "But it's not that easy.
"The NFL is a a long season, a lot of ups and downs. Having the opportunity to get here a second time you just appreciate it a lot more. And being in the eighth year of my career, you don’t know how much time you've got left.
"So to make it back a second time, knowing how much work we put in to get here - you appreciate it that much more."
© Agence France-Presse