They say it's the little things that tell so much about a person ...
Just about everybody knows Aaron Smith is a terrific defensive end, the best 3-4 defensive end in the NFL. "One of the greatest players in Steelers history," teammate Brett Keisel gushed last week. "The key to our defense," captain James Farrior added, aware that All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu and sack masters James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley also play on that unit.
But it's the little things ...
When the Steelers played the Detroit Lions at Heinz Field Aug. 14, their exhibition game was delayed for 73 minutes by lightning late in the second quarter. By that time, Smith and the other starters were finished for the night, their work limited to two series. But when the teams prepared to resume play, there was Smith, warming up with the reserves, doing the stretching, doing the running, doing all of the drills.
"Those guys had to do it. Why shouldn't I?" Smith asked. Told that he was the only Steelers' starter to do the warm-ups, he shrugged. "That's just me."
A star who doesn't think he's any better than the team's second- and third-stringers.
That explains, as well as anything, why Smith is such a great player.
The physical tools are invaluable, sure. Smith is a massive man -- 6 feet 5, maybe 300 pounds. His run-stopping techniques are superb. "He's unblockable," Keisel said, still gushing. Smith's knowledge of the defense is second to none. "He never does anything bad out there," Farrior said. "The coaches never have to yell at him."
But Smith's low-key, low-maintenance personality also factors into his success.
Here's another of those little things ...
After working his way through a media scrum the other day, politely answering every question as always, Smith said in a quiet moment: "I don't like the attention. I don't mind doing the interviews. I just don't like the attention. I don't need it."
Smith plays the perfect position.
Polamalu, Harrison and Woodley get the rave reviews from fans and media because they make the spectacular plays. Smith, by comparison, is just sort of there, as far as many in the fans-and-media crowd are concerned. His job description isn't very sexy. Eat up blockers. Stop the run. Free up Harrison and Woodley to get the sacks and quarterback hurries.
"I put my ego aside and try to do what I'm supposed to do," Smith said. "It's all about winning for me. Winning games. Winning Super Bowls. We've won two. I'd like to get more. Can you ever have enough?"
There's no question Smith must stay healthy for this group of Steelers to have any chance of making it three Super Bowls in six years this season. He might be their most irreplaceable player after quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. It's no coincidence the team didn't make the playoffs after Smith missed the final 11 games last season with a torn rotator cuff. Or that it won Super Bowl XLIII after the '08 season when he played every game. Or that it lost three of its final four games in '07 and was bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the Jacksonville Jaguars when he was out with a torn biceps muscle.
What isn't nearly so certain is that Smith will be able to stay healthy. He's 34. This is his 12th season. That's a lot of wear and tear on a man's body.
"Let's say, on average, there are 1,000 defensive snaps in a season," Smith said. "Over 10 years, that's 10,000 snaps. And that's not counting training camp and minicamp and the [organized team activities] ...
"You do this long enough, something is going to start to wear out. How many people tear their rotator cuff and have a biceps tear? That's probably from reaching to make tackles all those years.
"But, truthfully, I don't feel older. I go to practice every day and feel the same way I always have. I'm not worried about making it through this season. I'm really not. I'm going to keep playing as long as I feel this good."
Smith said he had "goose bumps" when he walked into the locker room at Heinz Field before that first exhibition game against Detroit. "It felt like it had been so long since I had been in there." Somehow, it just seemed right that he made the team's first tackle of the season in that game, stopping Lions running back Jahvid Best after a 3-yard gain. It also seemed right that Smith got the first-team defense's first sack of the year when he tackled New York Giants quarterback Rhett Bomar for an 8-yard loss Saturday night. "I'm just glad to be back out on the field," Smith said. "I love it."
That, too, says plenty about Smith.
"There's no reason for me to be playing now if I didn't still love the game," he said. "I've been paid well. We've won Super Bowls ...
"I do it because there's nothing like it. And when I'm done, there never will be anything like it again. I love being around the guys. I love the physical part of the game. I love the competition. I love all of it."
Clearly, these are good times for Smith. That he's healthy again and back playing football is the least of it. His son, Elijah, 6, who was diagnosed with leukemia in October 2008, continues to do well and is down to his final year-and-a-half of treatments. "He inspires me every day," Smith said. As if that isn't enough great news, Smith's wife, Jaimie, is expecting their fifth child in late-November. It should be some Thanksgiving at the Smith house.
Turns out it's not just the little things that define Smith.
The big things in his life are pretty important, too.
Ron Cook: email@example.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.