By Teresa Varley
For Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith the past year has been a bit of a blur. It was a year that should have been filled with happiness and joy as he was a main cog in leading the NFL's number one ranked defense to the organization's sixth Super Bowl title.
But the joy was severely tempered when his son Elijah was diagnosed with leukemia during the season. A strong and sturdy family-man, who with his wife Jaimie has four children, was suddenly vulnerable.
But to know Aaron Smith is to know a man who can't be kept down. He has a strong will and an even stronger faith, which helped him get through the dark days of the battle to today, where six-year old Elijah is now happily on the road to recovery.
What he went through didn't go unnoticed by his teammates, who voted him the Steelers 2009 recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award. The award is presented annually to a Steelers player who has fought back from an injury or tough situation to return to the field. Smith's teammates voted for him for the way he handled the personal turmoil he faced last year.
"It's quite an honor that your teammates recognize you," said Smith, who received the award at the Arthur J. Rooney Courage House luncheon. "A lot of life is what you make of it. Overcoming challenges is a big part of it."
Smith received the award from Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin, who was among the many that was impressed with the way Smith never lost his focus on the football field despite what he went through.
"This guy exemplifies what professional football is all about," said Tomlin in presenting the award. "He is a quality player, a quality leader, a quality teammate, but more important than that he is a quality individual. In life like in football we always experience adversity. It either tears you down or brings out the best in you. It doesn't surprise me that we are standing here presenting this award to Aaron, not because he experienced adversity, we all do. He handles it the way you expect Aaron Smith to handle it. It makes you stronger, he is resilient, he continues to put others first. In a position of leadership like I am in, he is inspirational to me on a daily basis."
Smith finished the 2008 season with 62 tackles and 4 ½ sacks in the regular season, adding another six tackles and a sack in the post-season. More importantly, he finished it with an even greater respect and admiration of every player in the locker room, coaches and everyone in the Steelers organization.
"Aaron's an impressive person," said Steelers President Art Rooney, II. "There is no question about it. He showed his strength last year. It was an inspiration the way he handled everything and the way his family did. They are strong people, they have a great faith in God and that's what their strength is.
"Aaron has always led by example, his work ethic, how he prepares for games. He is someone you want on your team. It wasn't a surprise, but it was impressive he brought the same intensity going through those problems. He is a special person."
Smith attended the luncheon in a sling after undergoing surgery on the shoulder he injured against the Lions, forcing him onto injured reserve this season.
"I am doing all right," said Smith. "It's not easy being injured. I love being out there with the guys and playing football. But it gives me an opportunity to be with my family and that's a blessing in itself. Last year was crazy. Maybe this way is God's way of paying me back allowing me to have the extra time with them that I didn't have last year. I would like to be out there playing, but I like being with my family."
Smith was joined at the luncheon by Jaimie, and when he thanked her saying she is the one who should be getting the award, you could hear the emotion in his voice.
"Some of the stuff he has been faced with and the way he has handled it is remarkable," said fellow defensive end Travis Kirschke. "To deal with what he did last year with his son, coming off an injury the year before and then being dealt with the family issues. He has dealt with some tough things you have to deal with in life and he has and his family handled it tremendously well."
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