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A night to celebrate life

On a crisp fall evening, with Heinz Field as the backdrop and the City of Pittsburgh skyline lit up across a glistening river, it was a perfect setting for a celebration of life.

Because, when you have been through the battle that former Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith has with his son Elijah, life is a celebration.

Players come out to support the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society at the Light the Night walk at Heinz Field.

In October of 2008 the Smith family was rocked by the news that young Elijah had leukemia. It shook them, but it never broke them. There were tears, there was emotion, but there was strength.

Six years later, 10-year old Elijah is stronger than ever, proudly taking part in the Leukemia Lymphoma Society Light the Night Walk as a strong survivor.

"He is doing fantastic," said Smith. "His memories of what happened are so vague. He has nothing but happy memories. He is playing soccer, flag football. To watch him is such a blessing.

"I am not one to cry, but there are some monumental moments in his life and it almost makes me cry. You realize how fragile life is. When you go through something like this as a parent you count your blessing and appreciate those moments even more."

This is the sixth year that the Smith family, along with some of his former teammates including Brett Keisel, Bruce Gradkowski, Cam Heyward, Steve McLendon, Cam Thomas and Nick Williams, participated in the walk as a part of Team Elijah, all wearing shirts he helped design. It's not to draw attention to themselves, but attention to a disease that can be battled victoriously.

"Some of the players might not be able to do the walk, but they wear the Team Elijah shirt, and people know it's for cancer, and it's huge," said Tina Massari, executive director of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of Western Pennsylvania.  "Our thing isn't just about getting money. That awareness helps us make sure we can get financial aid to patients and let them know that we exist, that if they need something they know who to call.

"Last year, just in Western Pennsylvania we gave just over $1 million to patients to help them cover their co-pays. We want patients to know we are here. It's amazing to have the players wear the shirts and be such great advocates."

As darkness fell on Pittsburgh's North Shore, the lights from the lanterns lit the way for the walk, with gold ones representing those lost to the disease, red ones held by those supporting family and friends who have fought or are fighting it now, and the white ones for survivors like Elijah.

"This is my favorite event ever because this event is only about the patients," said Massari. "We are there for them. It's the one thing we truly do that is just about the patients. It focuses on why we do what we are doing every day."

The Smith family, with Elijah out in front filled with pride knowing he truly is a survivor, walked with joy, happily guided by the white light.

"We have gone through this to bring awareness and give back and contribute to defeat this disease and make a difference," said Smith. "This time of year I start to relive it. I think back to what we went through that season, the support we got, especially here with the Steelers and the friendships and guys being by my side during that time of my life.

"I think that is the thing that is unique about this organization. It's a family organization. When you work here you are part of the family, but when you leave they don't forget about you. They still hold on to you and still bring you into your arms and rally around you and support you."

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