Home / News / Ron Cook: In 'a city that takes care of its own,' Aaron Smith gets a seat among the greats

Ron Cook: In 'a city that takes care of its own,' Aaron Smith gets a seat among the greats

Jun 17, 2023Jun 17, 2023

PITTSBURGH — Aaron Smith helped save plenty of wins for the Steelers during his impressive run with the team from 1999-2011. Teammates will tell you he was invaluable to their defense during their Super Bowl runs in 2005 and 2008.

"Unblockable," Brett Keisel once said of Smith.

"The key to our defense," James Farrior said. "He never does anything bad out there. The coaches never have to yell at him."

It was appropriate and only right that the Steelers gave Smith their highest honor last weekend by naming him to their Hall of Honor. He was, arguably, the greatest 3-4 defensive end in franchise history.

But Smith also had a hand in saving something much more important than just football games.

Would you believe more than 2,400 lives?

Smith's inspirational story goes back to October 2008 when his son, Elijah, then 4, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer of the white blood cells. Suddenly, Smith and his wife, Jaimie, were living every parent's worst nightmare.

A private man by nature, Smith didn't want to go public with details of Elijah's cancer. It wasn't until he was pushed and realized how much good he could do that he agreed to share his family's story. The final shove came from his wife.

"I swear at that moment I wanted to vomit on the floor," Smith told me about Elijah's diagnosis during an hour-long interview at Steelers headquarters for a column that appeared on Dec. 14 that year. "I didn't know anything about leukemia. I just knew it was something bad. It was a death sentence as far as I knew."

The Steelers had organized a blood drive in Elijah's honor on Dec. 26 at Heinz Field. Smith and other current and former Steelers were there to meet the donors and shake hands and say thank you.

"Elijah had to have blood transfusions four, five, maybe even six times," Smith said in that column. "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."

Pittsburgh's Central Blood Bank estimated the blood drive saved 2,412 lives.

"The turnout was immense," Smith said last week. "The way the city rallied around me and my family was insane. It wasn't just Steelers people and people from my church. It was people who didn't even know me coming out to give back.

"You ask me why I stayed here after my career ended? Me? A guy from Colorado? I stayed because of the people here. What an awesome city. This is a city that takes care of its own. This is where I wanted to raise my family."

Elijah's story had a happy ending.

Because of a break in his chemotherapy schedule, Elijah was able to accompany his family to Tampa for Super Bowl XLIII after the 2008 season. It was not a trip the Smiths approved without considerable thought. Elijah's immune system was severely compromised at the time.

"You should have seen me wipe down everything in our hotel room," Smith recalled. "I wiped and wiped for about four hours. I knew things could change in a hurry."

But they didn't.

Doctors were thrilled to tell the Smiths that Elijah's blood numbers were good after the family returned to Pittsburgh after the Steelers' 27-23 win against the Arizona Cardinals.

"I was so blessed he was able to be there with me," Smith said. "I can still see him holding the Super Bowl trophy. I'll never forget it."

Elijah, the second of the Smiths' five children, is 19 now, getting ready to start his redshirt freshman season at IUP. To say he has grown into a big, strong man would be a significant understatement.

"He's an offensive tackle! That eats at me every day. You know what I think about offensive tackles," Smith said, fairly giggling.

"I tell him, 'Us defensive linemen go to a pool and do a cannonball to jump in. You offensive linemen stick a toe in the water and decide it's too cold.' "

That doesn't mean Smith isn't one proud dad.

"Elijah is bigger than I was," said Smith, who played at 6-foot-5, 305 pounds. "I never thought one of my kids would end up being bigger than me, but he is. We stand back to back in the kitchen and his butt is above my butt. He's stronger than me. He's taller than me. He's 6-foot-6. His arms are ridiculous. His wing span is 6-foot-7 or 6-foot-8."

Smith can't wait to watch Elijah play this season. Fifteen years ago, when Elijah was sick, he had serious doubts that would happen.

Smith also is eager to see his name in the Steelers' Hall of Honor inside Acrisure Stadium. He didn't think that was possible, either, when he retired after the 2011 season. Injuries sabotaged his final three seasons.

"I'm still not sure I belong," Smith said. "The names on that wall are incredible. They are some of the best players in NFL history.

"I'm just glad my kids and grandkids will be able to see it. Maybe they'll believe I did something good as a player."

On and off the field.

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