It's in their blood

Steelers' Aaron Smith can't say enough good things about the many Pittsburghers who donated because his 5-year-old son has cancer

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Grab your Post-Gazette from Monday. Surely, you have a copy, a treasured souvenir after the Steelers' win against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC championship game. "HERE WE GO (AGAIN)" blares the headline across the front page over a huge picture of safety Troy Polamalu pointing toward the heavens after scoring the clinching touchdown on an interception return. There are a couple of Steelers stories looking ahead to the Super Bowl XLIII matchup with the Arizona Cardinals next Sunday night, as well as what you might call fairly significant stories about a Gaza truce and Barack Obama on inauguration eve.

But the most important thing on the page -- at least for our little corner of the world -- might be the advertisement stripped across the bottom.

"Thank you, donors! Up to 2,412 lives saved by Steelers fans! On behalf of area patients, Central Blood Bank thanks the Steelers organization and everyone who donated at the Steelers Locker Room Blood Drive held Friday, Dec. 26, at Heinz Field ...

"What an awesome city," Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith was saying last week during a rare quiet moment in the pre-Super Bowl hoopla.

"This is a city that takes care of its own."

Smith knows, better than most. It's the story of his son, Elijah, 5, that inspired the record-setting blood drive. Elijah Smith was diagnosed in late October with a form of leukemia that doctors tell the family has an 80 percent survival rate. He still faces a difficult road ahead, but all of the medical reports on him so far have been encouraging, Smith said.

"He's going to the Super Bowl with the rest of the family."

After much deliberation, Smith decided to go public with Elijah's tale in a Post-Gazette column Dec. 14 with the hope it would call attention to the region's need for blood. The results blew him away.

Up to 2,412 lives saved by Steelers fans!

"People have no idea the good they did that day," Smith said.

The decision to tell Elijah's story also did the Smith family a world of good. Smith said he long ago stopped counting the cards and letters of support he received from Steelers fans and even non-Steelers fans. Strangers, one after another, reached out to let him know they cared, that they were praying for his boy, that -- somehow, some way -- his family would make it through this horrible crisis and be stronger because of it.

"It's been remarkable," Smith said. "More than remarkable, amazing. For people to take the time to send cards and letters when they don't even know if they'll be read? That means a lot to me."

Those who did send to Smith need not worry.

"I read everything I get," he said. "There were times I'd come to work and those letters would help get me through the day."

Starting Tuesday at Super Bowl media day in Tampa, Fla., the Smiths' story will become a national and international story. Media outlets from around the country and the world will tell of a father's faith and dignity during the most frightening moments of his life and of a young son's strength and courage in the face of a horror that no child should have to endure.

It's safe to say the best part of Smith's Super Bowl week will be when he gets back to the Steelers' hotel each day and Elijah hops in his lap.

"The Lord works in amazing ways," Smith said. "The game is coming at the perfect time for us. He's in a down period of his chemotherapy that doctors give to kids so they have a little time to recover. But almost as soon as we get back home, he'll have to start the intensive stuff again. He'll get more chemo than he's gotten yet."

Teammates will tell you Smith's attitude and steadiness have been extraordinary through his son's illness. He missed the week of practice before the Steelers faced the New York Giants Oct. 26 to be with his family right after Elijah was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia -- a cancer of the white blood cells -- then showed up at Heinz Field the morning of the game and played well. He played the rest of the season at a Pro Bowl level but wasn't picked to the AFC squad, an omission everybody in the organization thinks is a crying shame.

Smith doesn't figure to say much about that to the national and international media this week. Instead, he will talk about his son and his fight.

"He's amazing," a very proud dad said. "He was skipping around my house the other day. And he's still got his hair! I had to give him a trim because it was getting a little long."

Perhaps, Smith will tell the story of a tough, sleep-interrupted night the family spent after Elijah's most recent chemo treatment.

"He woke up nauseous," Smith said. "It was 12 or 1 or 2 in the morning, I don't know. I was holding the bucket for him and, when he got done, he told his mother, 'I don't want to go to sleep yet.' She said OK, then he said, 'Momma, even though I don't feel good, I'm not going to let it ruin my night.' A 5-year-old boy saying something like that, can you believe it? So they read about five books together, then he fell back asleep."

Really, proud doesn't even begin to describe Smith.

"He's an unbelievable boy. A special boy," he said, quietly.

Elijah's father, too.

Ron Cook can be reached at . First Published January 25, 2009 5:00 AM


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