As the white balloon floated in the air you could see the tears in Jaimie Smith's eyes. It wasn't sadness that had overcome her, but rather tears of joy. Because holding on to that white balloon was Elijah, the six-year old son of Aaron and Jaimie Smith. And he was holding it because he is a survivor.
Almost two years ago the Smith's received devastating news. Elijah was diagnosed with leukemia. Uncertainty and fear, sadness and disbelief, and tears were definitely part of the emotions the family went through.
Those emotions have taken a drastic turn since those dark days. Elijah went through treatments and has battled through it. He is a young boy filled with life, never standing still and enjoying every moment. He is a survivor, a winner. And they celebrated winning that battle with family, friends and teammates at the Light the Night walk for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society as a part of Team Elijah.
"Seeing all of the family and friends support him lifts his spirits," said Jaimie Smith. "He gets excited. To see him full of joy is just great and it's emotional. It is times like this that I remember two years ago being diagnosed. He is such a normal little boy. Elijah really wanted to do it. He got so excited about it."
With lights from downtown Pittsburgh serving as a bright background, just after dark over 4,000 walked for their loved ones holding balloons with flashing lights. Friends and family held red balloons to show support, while white balloons signified those living and surviving leukemia and gold symbolizing the ones who were lost.
"To come out here and have the support it really touches your heart," said Aaron Smith just moments after finishing the walk. "This is awesome because no one has to go through it alone and no one should have to.
"It's emotional. You fight back some tears. But it's also a celebration and joyful night. To be here doing this with our family and loved ones is special."
Members of Team Elijah walked while wearing vivid red t-shirts that Elijah designed, with two leukemia cells being knocked out after getting hit on the head by bricks on the back.
"It shows fighting the leukemia cells," said Elijah, who for a brief moment only turned shy. "It feels good to do the walk. I liked walking all around. It's very important."
The walk raised over $600,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, which goes to patient aid and research programs, and Smith's hope is it goes to finding a cure.
"I would love to eradicate this off the face of the planet," said Aaron Smith. "I don't want anybody to have to deal with it again. The way we have grown and money has helped science. I believe there is a cure out there for all cancers."
Smith is certainly doing his part. Taking part with his Steelers teammates has helped draw attention to the battle against leukemia and their fund-raising efforts.
"Any time there is a celebrity involved or somebody people look up to it brings more awareness and people want to be involved," said Tina Massari, executive director of the Pittsburgh Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. "But of course it's about Elijah. As much as we love Aaron it's all about El being an all-star."
He was definitely the center of attention with Smith's teammates, all of them spending at least a few minutes with the rambunctious youngster who was having fun playing with his school friends as well.
"Elijah is a special young man," said punter Dan Sepulveda. "He is fighting hard. Elijah is a strong young man. To hear updates and stories on how he is doing is great. To see the smiles on their faces tonight is special. It's a tough situation to be in. We are out here for all of the families. It's an opportunity to come out and support them and help them, it's the least we can do."
The turnout of players was an indication of the respect and admiration Smith's teammates have for him and the battle the entire family faced. Two seasons ago Smith came to practice daily with the weight of the world on his shoulders, not knowing what the next day would bring.
"You could see the stress in his face when he came to work and Elijah was going through this," said linebacker James Farrior. "He has come a long way and hung in there. We said a lot of prayers for him and now we are celebrating instead of being sad."
That sentiment was echoed from player to player.
"We saw the pain in his eyes when he found out Elijah was sick," said fellow defensive end Nick Eason. "I consider Aaron a brother and friend. It's good to see him smile. Elijah has gotten better. By the grace of God everything works out. We are glad to see they are all doing well."
Despite all the pain and heartache, he never let it impact his work ethic, giving of himself fully every time he took the field for practice or a game.
"You knew he was going through it but he did a good job of focusing on his job," said quarterback Charlie Batch. "Whenever he wants to talk about it we are there for him to talk about it. He has so much strength and courage to go through it and maintain what he does on the field. It speaks volumes for him."
The walk couldn't have taken place in a more fitting location as it started right outside of Heinz Field, a place that holds many special memories for the Smith family, from winning the AFC Championship game just months after Elijah was diagnosed to much more. But nothing tops the walk.
"This is my favorite celebration," said Smith, just as fireworks exploded into the night sky. "I have had a lot of celebrations here. We have had some great wins and stuff. It's an awesome celebration to come out here. We are talking about life. It's bigger than games and anything else we have to deal with."