Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Unsung Hero - Saying Goodbye to Aaron Smith

The battlement upon which the Pittsburgh Steelers have long been built has been their stifling and punishing defense. One that befuddles opponents with a confusing mix of violence and deception.

For most of the last decade, Aaron Smith was the cornerstone to that battlement. He brought no attention to himself, though. He was always unassuming and dutiful. He simply brought his lunch pail, put on his hard hat and went to work. In doing so, he received little attention either. To most of the media he was the defensive end for the Pittsburgh Steelers. To most of Steeler Nation he was the unsung hero.

From 2000 to 2008, when Smith played nearly-full seasons, the Steelers ranked in the top nine in defense all nine years including four as the top-ranked unit. Smith had at least four sacks in six of his seasons and is 10th on the team's all-time list with 44.

Smith, though, was known mainly for being that block of granite, that cornerstone, that set the edge allowing the much more heralded linebackers to come in and make the big tackles and sacks. While the linebackers and safeties did their interviews for the big networks, Smith just grabbed his tools, punched the clock and collected his paycheck.

Injuries in recent years, though, have had a diminishing affect on Smith's skills and impact. The effect, especially when speaking of the earlier injury years, was palpable.

In the 2007 season, Smith missed the last four games, including the lone playoff game, due to a torn biceps muscle while playing against the New England Patriots in early December. The effect was immediately impactful and ultimately undoing.

The Steelers could no longer stop the run like they had been doing all season. Before Smith's injury, the Steelers were only surrendering 72.6 yards per game on the ground and only 3.57 yards per carry, while being run on 20 times per game. Teams took advantage of the loss and ran on the Steelers 11.5 more times per game and for an increased average of 5 yards per carry , while more than doubling their output to 157.25 yards per game. The ultimate undoing being the 29 yard run by Jacksonville quarterback David Garrard on 3rd down and three that sealed the win for the Jaguars. Impactful and undoing indeed.

Smith's right shoulder was injured October 11, '09 against the Detroit Lions and was placed on the injured reserve list (IR) ending his season. It caused the return of safety Troy Polamalu that next week to be bitter-sweet. As Polamalu himself said, Smith was the bigger loss and that the defense "couldn't replace [him]." The defense yielded many leads and surrendered many big plays that season, finishing 9-7.

Smith's 2011 season ended in October again when he was placed on IR with a neck injury. It was the third straight season that injuries had limited Smith. He played in only four games in 2011, though by now his was more mentor and teacher than actual player. Yet another role he handled with aplomb.

A 1999 fourth-round draft pick by the Steelers out of Northern Colorado, Smith came into the league quietly and Sunday went out the same way. Smith took out an ad in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Sunday to thank everyone for his time with the Steelers. His tone bespeaks his character as much as play ever did: humble, unassuming, and unpretentious. His ad is on page D-7 and it reads this way:

"Dear Steelers Fans,

As of today, I am no longer a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. I leave the field and Steelers with no regrets, and am grateful to have played for such a tremendous organization. I feel truly blessed to have spent my entire professional career in the best town, playing for the most loyal fans who have loved and supported myself and my family.

The last 13 years of our lives have been special because of the people who cheered me on, and I am truly fortunate to have been a part of the Steelers, the City of Pittsburgh and the Steelers Nation. You have opened your arms and your hearts to us as a family and we will never forget that. Your support, enthusiasm, love and dedication are gifts I will carry with me my entire life.

I may no longer be on the Steelers active roster, but I will always be a Steeler and will never forget the people who made it all worthwhile -- the fans, the Rooneys, the front office, the equipment guys and trainers, my teammates and family. Thank you for supporting me over the last 13 years, and I hope you will support me in whatever future path life will take me on.

We plan on making Pittsburgh our home and I will endeavor for the rest of my days to find a way to thank each and every one of you personally for all that you have done and meant for me and my family. You cheered for me for 13 years and now I cheer for you for the rest of my life. You will always be in my heart, thoughts and prayers. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for allowing me to have the job of a lifetime. You will always be in my heart.

Your friend always,

Aaron Smith and Family, No. 91"

One can't help but think somewhat of Shane injured and slumped over on his horse as he rides off into the horizon...

Really, though, nothing else I could write sums him up better than what he himself said. Aaron Smith: the unsung hero.