Big, tough Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel nearly was in tears. It wasn't because of the hurtful 21-14 loss to the New York Giants last night. That disappointed Keisel and ticked him off more than it made him want to cry. No, the emotions came pouring out when he was asked what it meant to see teammate Aaron Smith line up with him on the defensive line after a serious personal crisis forced Smith to miss all of practice last week.
"I love the guy so much," Keisel said, his voice quivering just a bit. "He's the best. If I could be like him and live my life like he lives his, I'd die a happy man. I'm just so thankful he's in my life."
Smith declined interview requests after the game and asked for privacy, which he surely will get here this morning. But he did say it wasn't a hard decision to show up for the game even though he had been excused by coach Mike Tomlin and the Rooneys.
"This was the best part of my week -- by far -- even though we lost," Smith said. "This was where I needed to be for a few hours. There's nowhere I'd rather be than right here. These guys are family to me. I'm closer to them than I am to my own brothers."
Smith's difficult situation added greatly to an almost unbelievable week of distractions for the Steelers. First, there was the aftermath of wide receiver Hines Ward's season-ending hit on Cincinnati rookie linebacker Keith Rivers last Sunday. Then, there was the meeting Wednesday with a couple of NFL czars, who came to town to explain to Ward and others on the team just how and why the league goes about its business of fining players for their transgressions. Finally, there was wide receiver Santonio Holmes' arrest Thursday for possession of a small amount of marijuana, an issue that so incensed Tomlin that he deactivated Holmes for the game and told him to stay away from the team until today.
All things considered, a Steelers win against the defending Super Bowl champions probably was too much to ask, especially after long snapper Greg Warren (knee) and valuable safety Ryan Clark (shoulder) were injured during the game. You don't think about a snapper until he's gone. Well, you thought about the position last night after Warren went down late in the third quarter and the emergency backup -- linebacker James Harrison -- snapped the ball over punter Mitch Berger's head for a safety.
"I've never been through a week like this," safety Troy Polamalu said after it finally was over and he prepared to head off into the night. "I truly believe if we had somehow won this game, after everything that had happened, we would have really set ourselves up as a special, special team."
The Steelers didn't win, but it wasn't because they didn't leave everything on the field. That's why Tomlin made it a point to greet each player on his way into the locker room after the game, shake his hand and say, "I appreciate your effort." When Smith passed by, the two shared a long hug.
Smith isn't just one of the team's top players and a respected leader in the locker room and on the field. He's one of the more popular teammates.
"Unbelievable," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said of Smith's decision to play.
"An emotional day for him and for us," nose tackle Chris Hoke said. "Every single one of us wanted to win the game for him."
"If he wouldn't have been out here, no one would have cared," Roethlisberger added. "He's got a bigger battle to fight."
It's tough for any player to miss a week's practice and still play at a high level, even a 10-year veteran. But Smith was on the field for all but a handful of plays. It was a good thing for the Steelers, who almost certainly would have lost by a much bigger margin without their best run-stopper.
We saw how much less the Steelers were as a team last season when Smith missed the stretch run and playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars because of a torn biceps. The Giants came in as the NFL's top rushing team, yet managed only 83 yards on 35 carries, a paltry 2.4-yard average.
"It's hard to miss practice like that, but, if anyone can do it, it's Aaron," Polamalu said. "You know what you're going to get from him every play. He's such a smart player and his technique is so flawless."
Keisel has been studying Smith's game for years. "From the second I landed here, I've had my eyes on 91, just watching how he practices and how he gets himself ready to play."
Now, Smith is teaching Keisel and his other teammates something much more important.
He's teaching them how to deal with one of those tough breaks that life throws at all of us from time to time.
"The man's strength amazes me," Keisel said, tearing up again.
On and off the field.
Ron Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .