Steelers' Smith bounces back from surgery
Running alone in the Steelers' cavernous indoor practice facility recently, Aaron Smith slowed down for a second.
"Just trying to fool 'em for one more year," he called out.
"That's the running joke around here," Smith later explained. "You always act like you can't play and you're trying to fool your coaches into thinking you can play, and they keep you around."
Long one of the top 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL, Smith only has to fool Father Time these days. And the latter isn't faring much better than opposing offensive linemen do against Smith.
Despite turning 34 last month and coming off major shoulder injury that limited his to five games in 2009, Smith shows no signs of slowing down. He has been a full participant in offseason practices, even though doctors told Smith he might be significantly limited in football-related activities until July.
How someone at such an advanced football age could heal so quickly from a torn rotator cuff sustained last September is a mystery even to Smith.
"If I had an answer I could sell it, huh?" the 12th-year veteran said, smiling.
Smith professes not to have an answer either for how the product of a Division II school, Northern Colorado, has become an anchor of one of the stoutest defenses in the NFL.
What can't be questioned is the fact that Smith has secured a spot in the pantheon of great Steelers players.
He is eighth on the team's all-time sacks list (43) despite playing a position that is not conducive to piling up statistics, and the 6-foot-5, 298-pounder has won a pair of Super Bowl rings.
Since Smith broke into the starting lineup in 2000, the Steelers have led the NFL in rushing defense three times. They have finished outside of the top three in that category just twice.
"He's the best run player in this league," Steelers assistant head coach/defensive line coach John Mitchell said. "He cannot be blocked."
Smith has been blocked from one thing during his distinguished career: multiple trips to the Pro Bowl.
Smith has been selected to just one Pro Bowl, which to most in the Steelers' organization is at best an oversight and at worst something that should be looked into by a congressional subcommittee.
Not that Smith has ever complained about the lack of accolades.
"When I first got here, I thought I would play three years and just back people up and save a little money and get on with the rest of my life," Smith said. "This has far exceeded anything I've ever dreamed of."
It hasn't surprised Mitchell.
When the Steelers took Smith in the fourth round of the 1999 draft, he was a raw but intriguing player with superb athleticism and elite lower body strength.
Smith never had a position coach in college, and when he joined the Steelers he essentially turned himself over as a blank canvas to Mitchell.
That he is a polished if not yet finished product is a testament to both Smith and Mitchell.
"If I had a company or was a CEO, he would be the guy that I want because he's going to come to work, he's going to do everything you ask and even the things you don't ask." Mitchell said. "Aaron Smith's not playing this game for the money or notoriety. He's playing this game because he wants to be one of the best players when you're talking about defensive ends in the National Football League."
So much of Smith's value to the team is hard to measure by the untrained eye.
His ability to take on multiple blockers has helped the Steelers' defense consistently accomplish its No. 1 goal of shutting down the run. He has also served as a mentor to players such as Brett Keisel, who starts opposite Smith.
The two have made Mitchell's job easier.
Whenever Mitchell wants to make a point to young defensive ends such as Ziggy Hood and Sunny Harris, he'll show them tape off Smith and Keisel running 20 yards down field to tag a running back during a mid-week or offseason practice.
"There's no question I wouldn't be where I'm at without (Smith's) help," said Keisel, who is entering his fifth season as a starter. "He's one of the all-time Steelers greats in my opinion."
One of the toughest, too.
"Aaron Smith played three games this last season that the average guy wouldn't have played because he had one arm," Mitchell said of the rotator cuff injury Smith sustained in the second game of 2009. "And he would have played the whole season if we would have let him."
Battling through adversity is nothing new for Smith.
He had to overcome a torn biceps muscle that cost him the final four games of the 2007 season and contributed to the collapse of the Steelers' run defense.
In October of 2008, Smith's son, Elijah, was diagnosed with cancer of the white blood cells.
Elijah has made remarkable progress, and while he is still undergoing chemotherapy all signs point to him making a full recovery.
"He's in what they consider maintenance and he does everything a normal boy does," Smith said. "He goes to school, he participates in sports, after-school activities."
Elijah will soon become a big brother for the third time. Smith and his wife, Jaimie, are expecting their fifth child.
More family responsibilities don't figure to dampen Smith's enthusiasm for football. Smith recently indicated that he'd like to continue playing beyond the five-year contract he signed with the Steelers in 2007.
Indeed, when asked if the finish line is drawing closer, Smith said, "If it is, it's way out there in the distance. I really enjoy playing, and when the time comes somebody will let me know. I don't think I'll be able to see it — I think someone else will have to tell me."
Defensive end Aaron Smith ranks among the Steelers' all-time leaders in sacks. Here are the top 10 in that category:
Name (Position) Tenure — Sacks
Jason Gildon (Linebacker) 1994-2003 — 77
L.C. Greenwood (Defensive end) 1969-81 — 73.5
Joe Greene (Defensive tackle) 1969-81 — 66
Joey Porter (Linebacker) 1999-2006 — 60
Keith Willis (Defensive end) 1982-87, '89-91 — 59
Greg Lloyd (Linebacker) 1988-97 — 53.5
Dwight White (Defensive end) 1971-80 — 46
Aaron Smith (Defensive end) 1999-present — 43
Ernie Holmes (Defensive tackle) 1972-77 — 40
James Harrison (Linebacker) 2002-present — 38