Cook: Steelers not afraid to tell sob stories

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Former Pirates manager Jim Leyland is the greatest crier this town has ever known.

It's one thing to get emotional and cry after your team wins division championships. But legend has it that Leyland cried the day he had to send spare-parts outfielder John Cangelosi to the minors.

The Ol' Bawler, they called him.

Former NFL coach Dick Vermeil was another good one. He cried when he took a job, cried when he left it and cried almost every day in between.

People ridiculed him.

Yet no one seems to be making fun of Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith.

"Haven't heard a word about it, not even from the guys in here," Smith said this week, gesturing toward the team's South Side locker room.

It's amazing what you can get away with when you're 6 feet 5, 298 pounds. Smith melted into a puddle of tears when he spoke at an emotional team meeting Sunday morning before the Steelers dragged a 2-6 record into their game against the New Orleans Saints. Teammate Willie Parker mentioned it to the media after their 38-31 victory. It's hard for some people to accept that a big, tough football player has a sensitive side, but the other Steelers weren't the least bit surprised.

"Whenever Aaron speaks -- which is hardly ever -- it comes straight from his heart," linebacker Joey Porter said.

Added wide receiver Hines Ward, "That's how passionate Aaron is. ... It was deep."

Smith acknowledged that tears rolled down his cheeks when he addressed his teammates about "staying together" and "keeping the faith," but he didn't appear especially comfortable talking about it. Not because he's afraid some might think it reflects poorly on his manhood. "I'm way beyond thinking I have to prove I'm a manly man. I know now sometimes it takes more strength to be vulnerable." Because he's doesn't enjoy the spotlight. "I really don't like the attention."

It's a good thing, because Smith plays a position that gets very little. In the Steelers' 3-4 defense, his role is to occupy blockers so the linebackers can make the plays. He does a fabulous job. He's not just stout against the run; his 38 tackles are most among the team's defensive linemen. He has 21/2 sacks and 11 quarterback pressures. Porter and linebacker Clark Haggans -- who are supposed to get to the quarterback -- have a total of five pressures.

"I like that we're like street sweepers," Smith said of the Steelers' defensive linemen.

"You get up every morning and wonder why the streets are clean. You don't see the street sweepers doing their thing."

Steelers coach Bill Cowher so respects Smith that he went to him at midweek last week and asked him to speak to the team before the game.

"I had time to think about what I wanted to say," Smith said. "I didn't plan on getting so emotional, but I'm not sorry that I did. I'm happy these guys know how I feel about them."

The Steelers might still be in last place in the AFC North Division, but they have to lead the NFL in criers.

Ward is the most well known. Who can forget him sobbing the day after the Steelers lost to the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game after the 2004 season? This newspaper ran a huge picture of it on the front page. At the time, Ward thought teammate Jerome Bettis was going to have to retire without a Super Bowl.

It turns out just about all of the Steelers cried that day, including the NFL's most feared player.

"We had a team meeting about 15 minutes before you guys talked to Hines," Porter said. "Plaxico [Burress] knew he was leaving [as a free agent] so he got up and spoke. He cried and the rest of us cried. Then, it was Jerome's turn ..."

Center Jeff Hartings emerged from that meeting with damp eyes to say, "It's definitely the tightest team I've ever been on. I would rather lose a game like that with this team than win a Super Bowl with a team I didn't even enjoy playing for."

A city was touched.

Ward's popularity with the fans soared.

This wasn't like when former Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart cried on the sideline in Tampa in '98 when Cowher benched him during a game. That offended people.

Ward's tears moved them. "People told me they appreciated me not being afraid to show my emotions and thanked me for caring so much," Ward said. "They said I made them cry. They said they felt my pain."

Added Porter, "It's not about your manhood.

"We're people, too. The things that move other people move us, too."

That's it for today.

Next time, we'll explore how sports figures show their sensitive side with kisses.

Cowher kisses Stewart on the cheek after a big win in Baltimore in '97 ...

Porter kisses Cowher on the neck after the Steelers beat the Miami Dolphins in the opener this season ...

You won't want to miss it.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1525.


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