Steelers' Aaron Smith one of the greats, on field and in life
If you cover sports for a long time, you build up an impressive list of favorites, great, wonderful people whom you are thankful to know or have known. I think of Art Rooney, Sr. and Jr., Mel Blount and Jack Ham. Jerome Bettis, James Farrior, Larry Foote and Hines Ward. Herb Brooks, Brooks Orpik and Mike Rupp. Jim Leyland, Chuck Tanner and Carl Barger. Johnny Majors and Joe Paterno.
But I'm not sure I wouldn't rank Aaron Smith No. 1, all time.
"If I could be like him and live my life like he lives his, I'd die a happy man," Steelers teammate Brett Keisel once said of Smith.
I reminded Keisel of that comment after the Steelers beat the Arizona Cardinals Sunday, a day after news broke that the team had placed Smith on injured reserve because of a neck injury, ending his season and his superb career.
"I meant it then and I mean it now," Keisel said. "He is everything to me. It's hard for me to put it into words."
Keisel really didn't have to say more.
That he had to reach into his locker for a towel to wipe his eyes said it all.
I'm guessing a lot of other Steelers felt like crying when they heard that Smith was done at 35 after 12 1/2 NFL seasons. Team neurosurgeon Joe Maroon examined Smith and couldn't promise him that he wouldn't have a catastrophic neck injury if he played again. Instead, Smith will have surgery that will allow him to continue to lead a normal life.
This is three consecutive seasons and the fourth time in five years that a major injury ended Smith's season.
"When you play as hard as he does and you compete like he does, these things happen," Keisel said. "I don't think [the neck injury] was the result of any one play. I think it was just wear and tear. His body just wore out."
That thought didn't make it any easier for Smith's teammates to accept that he won't be playing with them again.
"His locker is right next to mine," said Farrior, the Steelers defensive captain and, at 36, their oldest player.
"I know how hard he worked and the struggles he went through to come back from his [torn triceps] injury last season. He really wanted to have a great year. It [stinks] how he's going out."
Smith was a great player, one of the best in Steelers history. Certainly, he was their best 3-4 defensive end.
"An awesome player," Farrior called Smith.
"He never got dogged by the coaches or dominated by an opponent," said Foote, a veteran linebacker. "All of us get yelled at by the coaches and laughed at by our teammates for doing something stupid on the field. Not Aaron. Never once can I remember leaving the film room saying, 'That play was Aaron's fault.' He never was out of position. He never made mistakes."
Here's the best part about Smith:
He is a better man than player.
I saw it after Smith's son, Elijah, then 4, was diagnosed with leukemia in October 2008. Smith is a private guy, generally avoided the spotlight his entire career and didn't respond to repeated telephone requests to talk about this latest injury. But he agreed to go public with Elijah's story when he realized it could help others. I sat with him for a couple of hours at the South Side compound and listened as he bared his soul. It was my most memorable interview. ("Since October, pain has had new definition for family of Aaron Smith (12/14/08)")
What parent couldn't relate to Smith's pain?
"I swear at that moment I wanted to vomit on the floor. I didn't know anything about leukemia. I just know it was something bad. It was a death sentence as far as I knew."
An entire region was touched.
That December, the Steelers held a record-setting blood drive at Heinz Field that was inspired by Elijah's illness.
"What an awesome city!" Smith gushed in response. "This is a city that takes care of its own."
The Steelers beat the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII after the 2008 season and Elijah was in Tampa, Fla., to see the game. Today, he's doing well, a happy 7-year-old, the second-oldest of Smith's five children.
You think Smith is going to fret too much about the end of his career?
I mean, really?
"He's handling it the same way he handles everything," Keisel said. "He saw me after we found out and said to me, 'Listen, bro, I don't want any pity parties.' I told him, 'I'm not worried about you, Aaron. I'm worried about me and the team. What are we going to do without you?' "
The Steelers will carry on. They don't have a choice. They are 5-2 and must get ready for a big home game Sunday against the New England Patriots. The Baltimore Ravens come to town the following Sunday.
Life goes on in the NFL, no matter what.
"That's just the way this game is," Keisel said.
He, Farrior, Foote and the other 30-something players know their time is coming. Smith's injury made them painfully aware of their football mortality. None liked that feeling.
"It hits you hard," Foote said. "First, Jerome [Bettis] left. Then, Joey [Porter]. Now, Aaron. Every one of us knows we're going to have to cross that bridge one day. You don't like to think about it, but it's always in your mind."
As Farrior put it, "We're all on deck."
The 30-somethings should be so lucky to face the end of their career with Smith's strength and class.
They should be so lucky to be so well-remembered.
First Published October 25, 2011 12:00 am