Most athletes will say they will know when it's their time to quit, that no one will have to tell them. Then, someone has to tell them.
Few retire voluntarily. Lynn Swann did. Joe Greene did. Jack Ham did. Not many others did. Center Mike Webster retired from the Steelers, joined the Kansas City coaching staff, then unretired and played for the Chiefs the next two seasons. Running back Willie Parker hasn't played a regular-season NFL game since 2009, but he is trying to return and is playing for the Virginia Destroyers of the UFL. Running back Tiki Barber tried to end four years of retirement this summer at age 36, but no one wanted him.
Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith adds a new dimension, saying he will not know when it is time to quit.
"No, I don't think I'll know. They'll have to tell me. My personality is I feel I can do anything. I've always felt anything is possible; you can always turn things around. I'm kind of an optimist. Maybe, it's denial to a point. It would be hard for me to admit it to myself.
"Someone would have to say, 'Hey, Aaron, you're not doing this, you're not doing that. You need to hang it up or something.' "
No one has told Smith that yet, but, if he is true to his word, someone will have to tell him. It could come this year because, at age 35, he's closing in on that day. He had two serious arm injuries that have ruined his past two seasons. He played five games in 2009 before he had to have surgery to correct a torn rotator cuff. He played six last season before he had to have surgery to repair a torn triceps.
Smith returned to practice this week after missing about 10 days and one preseason game because of swelling in his knee. He has practiced the past two days and said he feels good, but he knows he is not immune.
"The reality of this business is at some point you have an expiration date and that expiration date comes for everybody, some sooner, some later," said Smith as he enters his 13th season with the Steelers. "It is a reality in this business. I'll deal with it when it comes; until then, I don't think I've reached my expiration point."
His teammates would like to see him have a healthy, full season for a change.
"I love being on the field with him," said Brett Keisel, the team's other starting defensive end. "It's just been different. We're used to his leadership and stuff out there. That's what we're praying for this year, that he can have a good, solid 16 games."
Until the 2009 season, Smith was regarded as an iron man . He became a starter in 2000, his second season when he started 15 of 16 games. He started every game the next six seasons except one in which he played but did not start. He missed five games in '07, when his biceps were torn, but he bounced back to start every game in '08 on the way to the Steelers Super Bowl victory.
"Believe me, I was his backup for four years; I know," Keisel said. "He'd never come off the field. He's one of the toughest players you'll ever meet. It's great to have him back."
Tony Hills never played guard in his life, not in high school, not in college, not in the pros except for a few emergency snaps one game a few years ago.
But Sept. 11 in Baltimore, this longtime offensive tackle could open the season against the Ravens as the Steelers starting right guard, their fourth since the start of last season.
Two weeks ago, he was still a tackle, entering his fourth season having played little since the Steelers drafted him in the fourth round from Texas in 2008. Every year, others passed him by in the competition at tackle, and his future did not look bright.
Then, line coach Sean Kugler tossed him into the first preseason game at right guard against the Washington Redskins, and Kugler liked what he saw. He started there against the Philadelphia Eagles Friday and will start there again Saturday night against the Atlanta Falcons at Heinz Field.
"I feel like I've done well," Hills said of his brief time at guard. "There are still always going to be things you have to go through. I feel the more I play at the spot, the more comfortable I'll get."
It's been a sore spot for the Steelers ever since Kendall Simmons, their first-round draft choice in 2002, had his career cut short by injuries and diabetes. He last played for them in September '08, when he tore his Achilles tendon. Darnell Stapleton replaced him, but, in '09, he was gone and another former tackle, Trai Essex, started all 16 games there.
Essex opened last season as the starting right guard, but an injury took him out and Doug Legursky replaced him. Ultimately, Ramon Foster won the job from both Legursky and Essex and started the final 13 games there, including the postseason.
Now, it appears Hills has found himself a position in his fourth pro season. As he said, "Now is better than never."