More than 70,000 people will scream vile things at the Steelers today when they play the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. But to defensive end Aaron Smith, it will be like elevator music compared to the screams from his young son when doctors began poking his tiny body with needles to do their spinal taps, bone marrow tests and blood transfusions.
"Daddy, make them stop! It hurts so bad! Please make them stop! Don't let them do that to me ..."
"They tell me he's so young that he won't remember any of it," Smith said the other day at Steelers headquarters. "But his mom and dad will remember it the rest of their lives."
Smith's son, Elijah, who turned 5 Dec. 6, was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia -- a cancer of the white blood cells -- a few days before the Steelers played the New York Giants Oct. 26. The disease has an 80 percent survival rate, the doctors told Smith and his wife, Jaimie. They are encouraged about Elijah because he has responded well to once-a-week chemotherapy treatments and his follow-up blood tests have been good.
"We feel blessed," said Smith, a man of faith. "We will come out of this and be a stronger family, and my son will be a stronger person."
Smith had much different thoughts on that horrible Tuesday when doctors delivered the news. One minute, he was sitting at Children's Hospital thinking they were going to give his son medication for his high fever and send the family home. The next minute, he was told an oncologist would be in soon to speak with them.
"I don't know what you guys know about leukemia ..."
"I swear at that moment I wanted to vomit on the floor," Smith said. "I didn't know anything about leukemia. I just knew it was something bad. It was a death sentence as far as I knew."
Smith called what followed "the craziest three days of my life." He was excused from Steelers practice by coach Mike Tomlin and stayed at the hospital around-the-clock, leaving only to get food. While his son went through those awful tests and had surgery to implant a port line under his skin for his treatments, he went through the normal stages of denial, anger and depression, asking himself time and again, "Why not me instead of my son?" As he put it, "I would switch in a heartbeat with him. Any parent would jump on that hand grenade."
That's not how life works, though.
"I kept asking, 'Could it just be a virus?' " Smith said. "One of his doctors said, 'It's not a question of if he has leukemia. It's what kind.' "
It wasn't until Friday before the Giants game that the Smiths learned Elijah had the more common form -- the more easily curable form. And it wasn't until Sunday morning -- only hours before the game -- that Smith decided to play because he knew his teammates were counting on him.
Tomlin had visited Smith at the hospital Wednesday and told him to take as much time as he needed for his son and his family. The Smiths also have three daughters -- Elliana, 6; Elysia, 2; and Emilia, 6 1/2 months.
"I don't think you get that support anywhere else," Smith said. "I don't have a normal job. It's not like, if I miss a game, I can make it up later. That's 1/16th of our season. The game was at 4:15, and [Tomlin] told me, 'If you show up at 2 or 2:30 and you want to play, you're playing.' "
Despite the Steelers' 21-14 loss, Smith said afterward, "This was the best part of my week -- by far." His teammates felt bad about letting him down. He might be the most-respected player in the locker room and is invaluable to the defense. "Every single one of us wanted to win the game for him," nose tackle Chris Hoke said. Added defensive end Brett Keisel, near tears, "I love the guy so much. If I could be like him and live my life like he lives his, I'd die a happy man."
Said Smith last week, "It's unbelievable the group of guys we have. Honestly, I know some of them better than I know my own family."
By all accounts, Smith played well against the Giants, even though he missed all of the practices that week. "At first, it was awkward," he said. "I'm trying to play an NFL game, and my mind is somewhere else. I didn't know their personnel, the plays they ran, their blocking schemes. I didn't know anything about them."
Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau didn't care. "I knew we were a better team when he walked into the locker room that day. I didn't give a damn about the missed practices."
Smith said LeBeau, more than anyone, has helped him get through Elijah's toughest times. "Talking to him is like talking to your dad." For his part, LeBeau said Smith has "been tremendously solid through this whole thing ... He's been a Pro Bowl defensive lineman since I came back here [in 2004], and this might be his best year." Asked why, LeBeau said, "He never gets blocked."
The road ahead for the Smiths will not be easy. There is the chemo and there may be more steroids treatments. "The steroids was the hardest part to take for me," Smith said. "He was on them for a month. To see my 4-year-old son's body stretch out and his face get round and his personality changes ... "
The Smiths have to keep people away from Elijah because of his weakened immune system, at least until the chemo treatments do their work. He has been hospitalized twice since his diagnosis because of bacterial infections.
It was during one of those hospital stays that Smith said Elijah climbed out of bed and went around the room to each of his sisters, giving them a hug and kiss. "He would be sad and depressed, but he would perk up when they came around. That was a beautiful moment for me. I'll never forget it."
Doctors did allow Elijah to have friends over for a birthday celebration during a time when his blood count was good. They also let him go to one of his favorite restaurants, Red Robin.
"We come in with the kids and put them in the corner," Smith said. "We are pulling out Clorox wipes and wiping the counters, the seats, the ketchup bottles. People probably thought we were crazy."
"Red," the restaurant's mascot, was there that day. His thing is to hug the kids.
"He comes over and reaches across the table to give [Elijah] a high five," Smith said. "My wife jumps up and was like, 'No, no, no! Don't touch.' Elijah is just looking at her and Red is looking ...
"My wife has been unbelievable through this whole thing. I think women are stronger than men ... She just keeps going."
The Steelers will tell you there is no one tougher than Smith. He wasn't expecting this fight, but now he hopes to make something good come from it. He has thrown his considerable weight behind the team's annual locker room blood drive from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Dec. 26 at Heinz Field. Donors will be able to meet current and former Steelers and be eligible to win two tickets to the Steelers-Cleveland Browns game Dec. 28.
"Elijah had to have blood transfusions four, five, maybe even six times," Smith said. "There's such a shortage of blood. I don't think people understand the difference they can make in people's lives by donating. I didn't understand. But you're talking about saving someone's life."
It was time for practice, and Smith had to excuse himself. You might have heard it's a big game against the Ravens.
Smith clearly will be ready for whatever comes his way today. And tomorrow. And all the days ahead.
Ron Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .