"He'll go out the way he went in -- wearing camouflage, and being the great guy he always was, with no attention drawn to him. That's who he is. No matter what happens, there will never be an announcement. Aaron is class and humility. The mere thought of drawing attention to himself is contrary to everything he stands for."
That is a quote from Aaron Smith's agent in a Post Gazette article announcing Smith's release last week after 13 years with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
That pretty much sums up who Aaron Smith was as a football player and who he is as a person.
Ever see the movie Reckless starring Aidan Quinn and Daryl Hannah? Probably not--not too many people have--but in the beginning of the film, Quinn's character, a fullback on his high school football team, throws a key block that springs the star running back for the winning touchdown. After the play is over, fans and teammates rush into the end zone to mob the running back while Quinn's character sat all alone up field, his contributions to the play going completely unnoticed.
That pretty much sums up what it must be like to be a 3/4 defensive end in the NFL--occupy as many blockers as possible so the linebackers can make the sacks and get the glory--and that's why Aaron Smith was the perfect man for the job. Not only did he play his position better than just about anyone during most of his career, he handled the lack of notoriety that is typical for a 3/4 defensive end better than anyone could possibly imagine.
Can you imagine being the best at what you do and not getting noticed for it? I know I couldn't handle it. When I do something great in one of my recreational sports that I play, I write entire blogs about it and make sure that everyone and their mother knows about my accomplishments.
Smith played football at the highest level and excelled. Yet, during an era when touchdown celebrations are planned in advance and sack dances are almost expected, Smith only cared about doing his job and putting his team first.
As our own Neal Coolong mentioned last week in his article following Smith's release, this character trait was evident many years ago when Neal went to cover one of Smith's college games. After the game, when Neal interviewed Smith, he asked him about his draft prospects, and Smith said, "I'm not worried about the draft right now, I'm just playing this season, helping our team win."
At the time, one might think that Smith was just saying all the right things, but he carried that character trait with him to the pro level, and his "team-first" attitude never wavered one time with the Steelers.
For as good as Aaron Smith was, he only made one Pro Bowl in his entire career. But if that bothered him, you would never know it.
Aaron Smith didn't care about the glory. He only cared about his team and representing the Steelers the best way he could.
Smith's teammates recognized how important he was to their success and that, along with the way he carried himself throughout his career, is why he was so beloved and respected in the Steelers locker room.
One could make a case that Aaron Smith was the most important piece to the Steelers recent championship puzzle, at least on defense. In four of Smith's last five seasons, he missed a significant amount of time due to injury. However, in the one season that he did not miss any significant time--2008--the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII.
Smith was every bit as important to the team as Troy Polamalu, Ben Roethlisberger, James Harrison and Hines Ward.
Today, most Steelers fans realize what Smith meant to the Steelers organization, and how important he was to the team's recent Super Bowl success. Sadly, however, Smith's contributions might get lost over time due to the position that he played, and the lack of stats and splash plays that he was able to accumulate throughout his career.
Hopefully, Smith's legacy will be as big 30 years from now as it is today, and people will still remember just how important he was to this new golden era of Steelers football.
A few years ago, Stan Savran hosted a little Steelers tribute show on FSN, and many former Steelers greats were on-hand to share stories and talk about the glory days.
Stan shared the stage with Dan Rooney, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris and "Mean" Joe Greene while the rest of the Steeler greats sat in the audience.
Maybe, years from now, if someone has a similar show, Aaron Smith will be one of the Steeler immortals lucky enough to be on stage because he would deserve to be. Knowing the kind of man Aaron Smith is, however, he'd probably be just as happy sitting in the back-row, watching his teammates bask in the glory.