Better Loved Ye Cannot Be: Aaron Smith and the Pittsburgh Steelers

It is often played on bagpipes at police and military funerals. It has become a traditional song of parting, a song of farewell.

Mad Jack Churchill, the only known British soldier to have felled an enemy with a longbow in the course of World War II, picked up his bagpipes and played it to keep his men in battle during a raid in the Balkans. Out of ammunition, he played on until knocked unconscious by an enemy grenade. The Germans captured him and took him to a POW camp. He escaped, of course.

When Bobby Jones visited the town of St Andrews in 1958, it was his first visit in 22 years. The townsfolk loved Bobby like they loved no other, and there was a ceremony where he was made a Freeman of the town, and given the right to chase rabbits on the course, and even the ancient right to dry laundry on the first and 18th holes. He was the first American to be given that honor since Benjamin Franklin, but Bobby was crippled by a terrible disease and had not played golf in years. He got out of his motorized wheelchair, stood, and delivered a thank you that has become legend in the world of golf.

As Bobby got back into his wheelchair and headed down the center aisle to leave, a single tenor began to sing this song. Then, as one, the entire community joined in. The great golf writer, Herbert Warren Wind, was there, and he wrote, "so honestly heartfelt was this reunion for Bobby Jones and the people of St. Andrews (and for everyone) that it was 10 minutes before many who attended were able to speak again with a tranquil voice."

The song is called Bonnie Charlie, and its stanzas tell of the Jacobite rising in England, and a bloody civil war that ended with the Battle of Culloden, that led to the exile of Bonnie Prince Charlie, and the end of the House of Stuart. But the chorus has a universal meaning, and it deals with the pain of parting.

Will ye no come back again?

Will ye no come back again?

Better loved ye cannot be.

Will ye no come back again?

Those words reflect the feeling of Aaron Smith’s teammates Saturday morning, when they received word that his neck injury had become so painful that it will require surgery. Aaron Smith would go on Injured Reserve, and would play no more this year. Probably never again.


In Monday’s Tribune-Review, Dejan Kovacevic writes how Smith sat down with a group of his teammates and talked about the injury, his hopes for the future, and what he thought about the only NFL team he ever played for or ever will play for. It was followed by a long silence.

Then his great friend and bookend DE Brett Kiesel asked, "are you going to come with us?"

Kiesel was talking about the flight to Arizona, and the game against Steelers West.

Kovacevic writes that Smith smiled and said, "Well, what else am I going to do? Am I going to sit around and mope? No, I'm coming."

Smith worked the sidelines Sunday, giving encouragement to all and tips to his young pups. This, of course, came as no surprise to anyone who knows anything about Aaron Smith.


Since drafted by the Steelers in the fourth round of the 1999 draft out of Northern Colorado, he has been a model citizen, a team leader, and arguably the greatest defensive end in the history of the 3-4 defense. He didn't miss a single game from 2000-2006.

His strength, speed, and technique made him literally unblockable. He may have been named to only one Pro Bowl, but Peter King listed him on his All-Decade team as a starter. And an NFL feature on him showed numerous famous coaches using the word "unblockable" to describe Aaron Smith.

Steelers Defensive Line Coach John Mitchell loves his enthusiasm.

"In my room, I don’t have any egos," Mitchell said. "Aaron Smith, when he practices, he practices like a rookie."

"The reason my room is so good, I’ve had these guys for so long that when a rookie comes in, they tell him right off the bat, we don’t do it this way. We don’t come to the meeting late. We don’t wear a cap to the meeting. I don’t have to do that because that’s the way Aaron Smith was brought up with the guys who were in that room when I got there. It’s a hand-me-down thing."

And Smith spent many hours, after his 2009 injury, working with then-rookie Ziggy Hood, teaching him assignments and technique.

Smith knew that Hood would eventually take his job, but worked with him on the practice field because he always put the team first. And this past summer, a reporter walked past Hood at camp as Ziggy was working with rookie Cam Heyward.

"Now Aaron says we do it this way," Hood told the rookie, explaining some fine point of the defensive end position.

The young guys on the defensive line are Smitty’s pups, and proud of it.


Smith’s teammates have been through war with him. They’ve seen the pain he’s endured, playing hurt, and battling to come back after serious injuries. They’ve also seen the terror that he and Jaimie went through, as their young son Elijah battled leukemia.

When the Smiths received Elijah’s diagnosis early in the 2008 season, there was serious question whether Aaron would continue to play. The Steelers told him it was his decision. Late that first week, he asked Brett Kiesel to bring the week’s playbook to his home, and Aaron showed up that Sunday and for every game.

Coach Tomlin told him to take all the personal time he needed, and he would not be required to attend practices. The Steelers listed him as missing practices and the official explanation was "(personal)." That was a league requirement.

As far as sportswriters and fans were concerned, it was "don’t ask, don’t tell." Many knew Elijah was sick, but the family’s privacy was protected.

Fortunately, Elijah’s form of leukemia was diagnosed in its early stages and has a high cure rate. With therapy, including several blood transfusions, he began to get better.

Aaron and Jaimie decided to go public with Elijah’s condition prior to the Steelers’ post-Christmas blood drive. They felt it might do some good to explain how blood donations help save their son’s life.

When the story hit the newspapers and radio and television, the Steelers had more than triple their usual turnout, enough blood to save 2,400 lives. Aaron and Jaimie were overwhelmed.

Five weeks later, the Steelers were in the Super Bowl and Elijah made the trip. And when the game was over, he was down on the field, held high in his father’s mighty arms, with bits of confetti showering their hair.


Since that day, Aaron Smith has been dogged by injuries. The spirit has remained strong, and his teammates have watched him work through the pain and struggle to get back into playing condition. If anything, it has only deepened the bond they have.

And that’s why Saturday’s announcement was so profound. Brett Kiesel and several other Steelers told Kovacevic that they plan to dedicate the 2011 season to Aaron.

"He's one of the greatest Steelers to ever put on a uniform," Keisel told the Trib. "There aren't a lot of guys who have played and battled like he has. Everyone looks up to that. We love him. We respect him. The least we can do is go out and win games for him."

Late in yesterday’s game, Ryan Clark put his forehead on Smith’s left shoulder on the sideline and said something to him.

After the game, Kovacevic asked what was said, and Clark said he told him, "I’m going to miss you, man."

When Dejan asked Clark to elobrate, his eyes welled.

"He's a guy you root for, but he's a guy we love."

"Better loved ye cannot be,

Will ye no come back again?"

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