Aaron Smith: Don't be denied

Following are excerpts from Jim Wexell's new book, Steeler Nation: A Pittsburgh Team, An American Phenomenon. Here he's with Aaron Smith's family in Colorado Springs a few days before the Steelers played the Broncos in Denver.

... Let's start with Great Grandpa Smith. He was run over by a freight wagon and killed, so his son had it rough growing up 40 miles east of here in the town of Rush.

"No matter what we tell you about my father," said Aaron Smith's older brother Steve, "he was so much more milder on us than his father was on him."

Aaron's mom and dad lived with the four boys in Colorado Springs, but Mr. Smith's construction partner cleaned out Smith's accounts and left town. So when Aaron was six months old the family moved to a small farmhouse near Rapid City, South Dakota. The town was booming, so Mr. Smith was hoping to pile up a stake large enough to re-start his business as a general contractor.

Times were tough on the Smiths in South Dakota. "We were collecting aluminum cans for gas and we would road-hunt at night for rabbits," said Dave, the oldest of the Smith boys. "I will not eat rabbit to this day."

"But some of my best childhood memories were in South Dakota," said Steve.

"Absolutely," agreed Dave. "That was the best time. We lived on a 40-acre alfalfa farm and around the farm went a creek in a horseshoe shape, so we had our own little island of alfalfa farm, fishing, pigs, cows, playhouses. We had running water in it. It was absolutely wonderful at times, but it was also the hardest times we lived through as a family."

Mr. Smith soon developed diabetes and was told he only had a year or two to live, so the family moved back to Colorado to be closer to the rest of the family. Aaron was three at the time, and the diabetes turned his father into a tyrant. ...

* * * *

... "There was a constant fear in our house," said Dave.

"Constant tension," said Steve.

It came to a head when 12-year-old Aaron spilled milk on the counter. Dad went after Aaron, but Kevin stepped in and threw his dad across the kitchen, denting the refrigerator door.

"The next morning," Steve said, "my mom pulled my brothers aside and said, ‘We're leaving. When I tell you to go, you'd better grab what you can and we're out of here.'"

Mom didn't move too far away. The boys wanted to stay within the school district, so the three found a place a quarter of a mile from dad. It's why Aaron continued to keep his Bokuto bedside.

"Dad could still come over at any time and break into the house," said Dave.

"And he was really mad now because mom left him," said Steve.

Mr. Smith passed away during Aaron's freshman year at Sierra High. Both of the older brothers had made their peace with their father and try to look on the bright side.

"Because my father was the kind of person he was, I think all four of us boys learned to lean on each other, and we are very close," said Steve. "I think I talk to Aaron five times a week on the phone." ...

* * * *

... The brothers said that Aaron was far more animated in high school than he is with the Steelers. He'd throw the Hulk Hogan pose on the field, "or he'd do this thing with his arms, a sort of body-building pose, ‘Which way to the gun show?'" Dave said.

Aaron was the center on the Sierra basketball team and his rival was 6-foot-9 Lewis-Palmer High center Pat Garrity, who went to Notre Dame and was the Big East Player of the Year before moving to the NBA.

"Aaron had to play against him two or three times a season," Steve said. "They manhandled each other. That's how Aaron got his first broken nose – in basketball. Blood was everywhere on the court, and I remember Aaron throwing a fit because the ref didn't call a foul. The ref said ‘No foul, no foul,' so my brother took a handful of blood and threw it in his face and said, ‘Tell me it's no foul!'" "Aaron's settled down a lot since then," Dave said. ...

* * * *

... He ended up at Northern Colorado where he filled out and blossomed into a maniacal pass-rusher. He was spurred on by his brothers. Dave bet Aaron in his sophomore year that he wouldn't get 15 sacks. Dave lost and had to change the number on his stock car.

"I'm number 91 to this day," he said.

Dave then bet him the next season that Aaron couldn't set the school record for sacks. Aaron got 21.5 and shaved his brother's head. When the NFL draft rolled around, Aaron was considered by many as one of the nation's sleepers, and some experts believed he'd be drafted in the second round. Perhaps they got that info from the Broncos.

"The Broncos called our house and said they'd take him with the 61st pick," said Steve. "Instead they picked a guard."

The Broncos passed on Smith twice in the third round as well. He wasn't drafted until the Steelers took him in the fourth round with the 109th pick. He saw action in six games as a rookie in 1999 and started the 2000 opener. He became a Pro Bowler in the 2004 season, chased down Shaun Alexander from behind (and from the opposite side) in Super Bowl XL, and entered Sunday's game in Denver riding a streak of 121 consecutive games played.

"I don't know how much our childhood upbringing helped," said Steve. "Kevin ended up going to boot camp, and he said the drill sergeants made everybody in his basic training group cry at one time or another. They couldn't get Kevin to cry. They made him spend 16 hours in the dark, dressed in his boxers in the rain and mud, trying to make him break or cry, and they couldn't do it. Because we grew up with my dad as tough as he was, they couldn't say anything to make him cry. Aaron was the same way. He said we can thank our dad for giving us so much negative, that you rise above it, and you focus on what you need to.

"I'll ask Aaron about the new rookies and he'll say they have talent but that they have to have it in the head. He says the ability to deal with it mentally thins the herd pretty quick."

The book Steeler Nation is available at PittsburghSportsPublishing.com

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