Former Steelers defensive lineman Aaron Smith understands the struggle families go through when a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, particularly when that individual is just a child.
It's heartache. It's pain. It's helplessness.
Players come out to support the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society at the Light the Night walk at Heinz Field.
Smith felt all of that when his son Elijah was diagnosed with leukemia in 2008, when he was just five-years old. It was an emotional struggle, one the Smiths didn't battle alone, but with the help of family, friends and his Steelers teammates. And it was that support that made Smith want to do something for others, propelling him to be a part of the Leukemia Lymphoma Light the Night walk in Pittsburgh, joined each year by teammates to bring awareness and raise funds to help others who see their kids suffering from the form of cancer.
Smith never thought he was doing something special, but others did, and that is why he was honored on Thursday night with the Lending Hearts Friend Award.
"It's hard to put in words. It's nice to know you are making a difference, but it feels kind of strange," said Smith. "I almost feel undeserving of the award. Really, the heroes and the ones who are making a difference are the kids who are battling this disease every day and the families dealing with it on a daily basis. For me to feel like I am doing something special or unique, it's nothing thousands of people don't deal with every day. But I am very honored, but humbled."
Lending Hearts is an organization that offers support programs for children and young adults who are battling cancer or are in remission. Smith is blessed that Elijah is among those in remission and leading a normal life.
"To see where he is now, the things he is doing, and what we have been through reminds me how blessed and fortunate we are," said Smith. "It gives me hope that someday no family has to go through this or deal with this, and we don't lose anyone to cancer or leukemia or anything of the sort."
Smith was presented his award by former Steelers running back Merril Hoge, a cancer survivor who won the award in 2014. Hoge has been cancer free for 12 years, but will never forget what the battle was like and considers himself lucky that it was him, and not his children, who battled it.
"It was the most devastating time of my life. It was the dark days of diagnosis," said Hoge. "Any time you get diagnosed with cancer there is a thing I call courage. But a parent whose child is diagnosed, I think there is extraordinary courage there. Here is how I can relate to that. Every morning I would get up and have my prayers before I started my day. The thing I was the most grateful for is I was bearing the cross and my kids weren't. I was grateful for that. That empowered me.
"How Aaron Smith, his wife and family has handled it, there is enormous courage. He is a silent guy, but his story and message on how they handled it for their kids, is special. That is why Lending Hearts is so valuable. It gives them hope, emotional support, and hope through the whole process. It's so overwhelming. I know from my experience how overwhelming it was for me personally. If my child were diagnosed, I would need support and help. It helps take the heavy burden off early and give you direction and peace to fight through it."