No ordinary Smith
The most difficult period of Aaron Smith's professional career draws to a close Sunday, and it will likely end with the Steelers defensive end watching the Super Bowl in street clothes.
Smith is a long shot to play against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, despite recovering faster than he anticipated after partially tearing his triceps in late October.
The Steelers listed the 12th-year veteran as questionable for Super Bowl XLV on the injury report released Friday. But Smith hasn't fully practiced since his injury, and time is waning in his bid to complete a comeback like Rod Woodson's in 1995, when the former Steelers great missed virtually the entire regular season after having reconstructive knee surgery only to return in time for Super Bowl XXX.
"I've come to grips with it," Smith said of the possibility he will not play. "I'm holding out hope, but that's a reality I've had to deal with (for) months. I've tried optimism, I've tried pessimism. I've tried being happy. I'm just day to day. If I get an opportunity to (play,) it will be a blessing."
It would be for the Steelers.
Thanks in large part to Smith, the Steelers have been as hard to run on as wet cement since he became a starter in 2000, and his 44 career sacks rank ninth on the team's all-time list.
That the Steelers kept Smith on their 53-man roster after his injury is a testament to his value. There were no assurances, after all, that the 6-foot-5, 298-pounder would be healthy enough to return this season, even if the Steelers advanced to the Super Bowl.
That decision has been lauded by teammates such as inside linebacker James Farrior, who calls Smith a "pro's pro."
"He does everything the right way," said Farrior, the Steelers' defensive captain. "He doesn't talk a lot of trash. He just goes about his business. Whenever he talks, you know he means it."
The rehabilitation process can be as lonely as it is grueling, which is why Smith said the support from coaches and teammates means so much.
"You feel detached from the team sometimes," Smith said. "Yet to have the guys embrace you, speak highly of you, I can't say enough. I've been with these guys through the best and worst of times in my life."
Smith went through the latter two seasons ago.
His son, Elijah, was diagnosed with leukemia in 2008, plunging Smith and his wife, Jaimie, into every parent's worst nightmare.
Elijah, 7, has proven to be every bit the battler as his dad; he has not let chemotherapy treatments and hospital visits stop him from living a relatively normal life.
He plays on a youth basketball team and is strong enough that he knows to ask his father which arm he injured -- before promptly belting him in the other one.
"He's doing really well," Smith said. "He does pretty much everything a normal boy does. I love watching him play basketball. I think he's going to be pretty good."
Smith has learned to live with the gnawing feeling in his stomach -- the "pit," as he calls it -- that started in late October 2008 after a trip to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh changed his life.
That doesn't mean the worrying and anxiety have ceased.
Elijah spent a week in Children's Hospital in December, and Smith and his wife constantly monitor their son's white blood cell count, as his immune system would become compromised if the count drops below a certain level.
"It keeps all of this in perspective," Smith said. "I love playing football. This is all I know. But in the end after seeing what Elijah's gone through and what he's dealt with, my faith has grown, and it just keeps this in perspective. This is important, but it's not the end all. My boy is healthy, my family's healthy. You just keep moving."
That is the approach Smith has taken since undergoing surgery in late October following his third major injury in the past four seasons.
He said he has progressed faster than when he tore his biceps in 2007 and his rotator cuff last season. Still, the recovery process has been painfully slow, considering the tight time frame.
The concern is that if Smith, 34, returns too quickly, his left arm won't be strong enough to fight off 300-pound blockers and his triceps could be pulled from the bone.
"I'm not saying I'm absolutely miserable, but from a professional standpoint it's been hard," Smith said.
He has remained a quiet but strong presence in the locker room. When asked if there is a more respected player on the team, defensive end Nick Eason shook his head.
"Absolutely not," he said. "The dude went nine years without missing a football game. We know he's doing everything he can to get back here."
The Steelers would love for the guy who played every game from 2000-06 to suit up for the final one of 2010. And his wife and five children, including 2-month-old Ezekiel, will be with Smith at the Super Bowl.
His teammates have talked about what an inspiration it would be to see Smith in uniform against the Packers. But Smith said he doesn't want to take a game-day roster spot unless he can get on the field.
"Why suit me up and not play when someone else can suit up and help the team win?" Smith said. "I think it has to be, 'Can I be productive• Can I contribute?'
"The whole point of this game is to win this thing. It's not to just go down and make an appearance."Additional Information:
Winning despite losses
The Steelers have had to overcome a number of injuries this season, including a partially torn triceps that has sidelined defensive end Aaron Smith since an Oct. 24 game against the Miami Dolphins. Here are other Steelers starters who missed games during the regular season:
Player/position -- Games missed --
*Max Starks, LT -- 8 -- neck
Brett Keisel, DE -- 5 -- hamstring
Ben Roethlisberger, QB -- 4 -- suspension
Heath Miller, TE -- 2 -- concussion
Troy Polamalu, SS -- 2 -- Achilles
Casey Hampton, NT -- 1 -- hamstring
Chris Kemoeatu, LG -- 1 -- leg
*Placed on season-ending injured reserve Nov. 10