"Wait, you're going to pay me to go watch the football game and write about what happened?" I asked Cameron Haaland, editor in chief of The Spectrum, North Dakota State's semi-annual student-run newspaper.
Haaland looked at me like I had antlers growing out of my head.
"Yeah," he said. "Go cover the game."
Just like that, a skinny freshman had a way to earn money for beer.
I covered Division II NDSU's first two home games that season, a 23-21 loss to Emporia State (Kan.) and a 16-6 win over Texas A&M Kingsville before the Bison went on the road for their first two North Central Conference games, a 49-28 loss at Nebraska-Omaha and a 44-12 win at Augustana (S.D.).
A rocky start for the Division II powerhouse, and it didn't get any easier with national championship contender Northern Colorado scheduled to visit the Fargodome for the season's fifth game.
Perhaps my youth benefited me as a young buck on the football beat. It afforded me the opportunity to do annoying things to the sports information director like request interviews with assistant coaches from the opposing schools.
Eventually, the SID got me in touch with an assistant coach at UNC, and you couldn't put a gun to my head and demand I remember his name. AlI wanted to know was how good their quarterback, Corte McGuffey, was.
McGuffey would eventually have his number retired, a Harlon Hill Trophy (Division II's Heisman) winner in 1999. A tall task, indeed, for the Bison defense.
After a few youthfully obnoxious questions about his arm strength and his footwork, the coach, very polite and professional, muttered something most likely to get it on record for the sake of re-telling this story later to his colleagues.
"I figured you'd want to talk about Smith."
"Who's that?" I blurted out, while feverishly paging through press releases.
"Aaron Smith's our defensive tackle stud," he said, almost proudly. "Scouts have been watching him."
My jaw nearly hit the table. Scouts? Nevermind this McGuffey guy. I just wanted to hear about Aaron Smith.
Armed with a notebook, a press pass dangling from a Steelers lanyard and every stat sheet the sports information department had put together for the 1998 season, I rushed out Saturday evening to do me some sports writing. I took it seriously. That beer didn't pay for itself.
No one on earth has ever been better prepared to cover a regular season Division II football game, I tell you what.
The seat reserved for the student newspaper reporter was the third to last seat in a 65-seat press box at Fargodome. The two chairs to my left were empty, as were about 35 seats to my right. I felt odd being cut off from the rest of the ink-stained wretches, but I had my soda, my thing of nachos and 200 pages of stats, bios and history from both schools in front of me, so I was doing just fine.
About midway through the first quarter, a short, very athletic younger guy came in and sat in the last seat at the end of the row. He went through the media buffet, probably the only one there who bypassed the nachos and got fruit and a salad. Odd, for this business.
He had on a light yellow polo shirt with a small logo above the left breast. I strained my eyes to see it, widening them as I realized it was the logo of the Washington Redskins.
The scout probably regrets responding to my first question, because I asked him approximately two thousand more over the next 2.5 hours. The topic was Aaron Smith, whom the scout confirmed he was there to see.
I remember him telling me of Smith's potential, and how he'd likely be a base defensive end, not a tackle or a rush end. He used a phrase to describe Smith's possession of certain abilities as "it's there," like, "his footwork is there, his quickness is there."
I was eating this up and asking for seconds.
I asked him what he looked for in a defensive lineman. He said bluntly, "hands." I asked him how Smith's hands were.
"They're there, but not as much as they should be." I dumbly asked him if that meant his hands weren't big enough, and he gave out something of an annoyed laugh, much like older people would do when being bothered by a child.
"How a defensive linemen uses his hands is important in what they do. He needs to be able to shed a block and the best way to do that is to control the blocker. That's done with his hands."
Watching Smith the rest of the game, I paid attention to his hands. They were "there," keep in mind. Having no clue what that meant, I immediately surmised he had the best hand placement of anyone in the game. Pretty sure I even noted that in my article, somewhere in the 1,400 words I used for that story (enough for a case of Keystone Light).
Whatever it was for Smith, it worked that game. He had three tackles - two sacks and a tackle-for-loss - in UNC's 29-16 win over NDSU. Around the midway point in the fourth quarter, the SID brought sheets around for the media to write down the names of people for both teams they wanted to interview.
Everyone wanted to interview the standard home team players, i.e. the quarterback, wide receiver and running back. I put in a request to talk to Aaron Smith. I had covered two games, but no one ever informed me I was allowed to interview players.
Bypassing the team I was being paid to cover, after the game, I headed to the other side of Fargodome to interview Smith, for absolutely no reason than to talk with a guy who may get drafted in the upcoming spring.
Smith came out of the locker room with a surprised but friendly look on his face. Lankier than bulky, but as muscular as the day is long, Smith power-walked over to me, as if he had enough energy to play another game.
It dawned on me at that moment I had never interviewed anyone before, and I had no clue what I was doing.
I reached out my hand, almost as a peace offering, because the speed in which he was moving made me feel like he was about to break down and lay my skinny butt out.
"Hi Aaron, I'm Neal Coolong with The Spectrum at NDSU."
"Hi, nice to meet you."
He didn't shake my hand, he enveloped half of my arm. His hands were "there," all right, enormous and extremely strong. The kinds of hands you could see ripping a phone book in half.
I asked a few of the basics about the game, but then I dropped the bomb on him.
"I sat with a Redskins scout, he said you have a good chance of getting drafted."
Smith stared at me for a quick second, almost as if I said some kind of trigger word which transformed him into the Manchurian Football Player.
"I'm not worried about the draft right now, I'm just playing this season, helping our team win," and blah blah blah. It quickly got awkward, so I switched back to questions about the game, waiting for a chance to re-direct the conversation.
He did it for me, though.
"Steelers fan?" he asked, pointing at my lanyard.
"Absolutely!" I responded. And waited.
He didn't say anything specific after that and I eventually let him go back to the locker room. I thought to myself, "wouldn't it be cool if the guy I just interviewed was drafted by the Steelers?"
Six months later, he was.
I heard "With the 14th pick of the fourth round, the Steelers select, Aaron Smith, defensive end, Northern Colorado."
There may have been trumpets sounding in the background, I'm not sure.
You would have thought Smith and I were best friends, the way I was speaking about him. I mentioned how his hands were "there," and how strong they were. I also mentioned how nice he was, and how the interview he gave me was among the greatest things one human has ever done for another.
Smith was starting for the Steelers in his second year. He started for the Steelers for the next 12 years. In the prime of his career, we saw No. 91 dominate in the quietest way possible. His helmet and shoulder pads humorously looked like toys on his massive frame. At his best, he was unblockable.
Aaron Smith epitomized Steelers football. If Hines Ward and Jerome Bettis were the faces of the team in the early-to-mid 2000s, Smith was the heart. A staple along a defensive line that demonstrated not only the Steelers' defensive dominance during that time, but the emergence of one of the best front offices in all of football. First-round pick Casey Hampton was flanked at nose tackle by seventh-round pick Brett Keisel and Smith. All of whom went to Pro Bowls in their careers.
Smith was the pro's pro. His coaches often lauded his work ethic, labeling as the hardest worker on the team. A quiet, consummate trencherman who constantly drew praises of "underrated" from national media.
We never underrated Aaron Smith. We cried upon learning of his son, Elijah, battling leukemia. We celebrated hearing Elijah's recovery. We cheered Smith's 2004 Pro Bowl season probably much more loudly than he did. We watched him for 13 years represent our team at just as high a level as any player in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Smith's career with the Steelers will end this year, and he may not play again. Battling multiple injuries over the past three seasons, we look at our battered hero, thinking, "say it ain't so."
The business end of the game, along with simple human mortality, has hit Steelers fans harder this offseason than perhaps it ever has in the history of the franchise. It's sobering, painful even, but regardless of what happens in 2012 and beyond, Smith's release, and that of Hines Ward earlier this week, formally marks the end of the Steelers' Second Dynasty.
That dynasty isn't about winning, although they won plenty. It was about the core group of guys defining championship character and ability.
Aaron Smith defines those guys better than anyone. He defines this era of Steelers greatness. Even if we knew this day was coming for some time now, it still hurts.
My sports writing career rightly ended far before Smith's playing career did, but my interview with a future Steelers legend will always be one of my favorite memories.
If all I got was a "I knew him when" story, that's ok with me. Guys like Smith come few and far in between, but I can't think of a better name-drop story than the first interview I ever did.
Thanks for the time, Aaron, both in Pittsburgh and in Fargo.