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Son's fight with leukemia holds lessons for Pittsburgh Steelers' Aaron Smith

PITTSBURGH — It is a father's job to teach.

And so Aaron Smith sits his 4-year-old son down, and pulls out paper and pen. First, he draws a circle. Smooth, neat and clean. And then he draws a second circle with squiggly lines and imperfections.

He explains to Elijah the second circle is abnormal and needs to be replaced. That it needs to be removed to make room for more of the clean circles. The lesson is neither technical, nor quite anatomically correct, but it will suffice for now.

• • •

Ten days before the Super Bowl, and the Steelers locker room is a madhouse.

One player chases another out the door and into a hallway where a staff member tells them to knock it off. Pictures making fun of placekicker Jeff Reed's shocking head of peroxide hair are pinned to the bulletin board. An offensive lineman kicks a soccer ball around the room before stopping to do a mangled cartwheel — all while nude.

Meanwhile, it is quiet near the locker of 32-year-old defensive end Aaron Smith. Just an empty chair and a copy of the Samson Syndrome, a book that suggests physical strength is less important than spiritual strength.

Nowhere in sight, Smith could be in the trainer's room. He might be in one of the meeting rooms. Or, perhaps, he is finding out more about All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, because doctors have told him that's where he needs to go if something happens to Elijah during the family's trip to the Super Bowl this week.

It has been a little more than three months since Smith and his wife, Jaimie, took Elijah to a children's hospital in Pittsburgh because he couldn't shake a cold. They were concerned a virus might have embedded itself in his chest.

Two hours after they arrived, they were taken into the office of an oncologist.

"How much do you know about leukemia?" the doctor began.

It felt as if the floor had collapsed beneath them. Their lives had been irretrievably changed at that moment, and everything they had felt certain of was now in doubt.

The days that followed were like a blur. Jaimie went home that first evening to take care of their three daughters, and Aaron spent the night watching Elijah as the child slept in his hospital bed.

Soon there would be tests. And large needles. And the screams of a child asking his parents to make the doctors stop hurting him. Sounds that a parent could never imagine, and will never forget.

And as much faith as they tried to maintain, there will always be moments when the mind drifts and the worst-case scenario suddenly seems possible.

"The first two or three days are the worst," Smith said last week, when he finally returned to the locker room after a practice. "There are a couple of different subtypes of leukemia, so you don't know what form you're dealing with until you get the actual bone marrow test.

"It's a pretty intense time. It's almost like you feel shell-shocked. Like you're numb. Honestly, if it wasn't for my faith in the Lord, I think it would have devastated me. You have to trust in the Lord that he's going to help you through this and that somehow you'll get through this storm and survive. Because, otherwise, it's overwhelming."

When the tests came back, the news was good. Which, as the Smiths have learned, is a relative term in their new reality. Elijah was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a less severe form of the disease with a survival rate of nearly 80 percent in children.

Treatment began immediately and will continue, in one form or another, for 31/2 years. Elijah was introduced to chemotherapy. He was put on steroids. His face grew round, and his mood grew dark.

"That first month was hard. I'm looking at him, and it's like he wasn't my son," Smith said. "He's got steroids and all this other stuff in him. He's sick, he doesn't feel like doing anything, he's not motivated. It's almost like he's in depression. But then you get further in the treatments and you get to different phases, and he comes around a little bit and starts acting more normal."

Through it all, Smith missed a few practices but no games. Now in his 10th season with the Steelers, he finished with 51/2 sacks, moving him to eighth on the franchise's all-time list.

Elijah's diagnosis was not quite a secret, but Smith had done his best to keep the news as quiet as possible. It wasn't until the Steelers had their annual blood drive in late December that he decided to talk to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist. Transfusions had been such a large part of Elijah's treatment and Aaron wanted to encourage the team's fans to take part.

Even now, he remains reluctant to provide many details because it is such a personal story. And he is fearful of the attention it will bring during Super Bowl week because he does not want the focus to be misplaced.

"I don't want anybody saying, 'Oh, look at how Aaron Smith is playing with everything he's going through.' This has nothing to do with me," Smith said. "I don't know how much I'm going to talk about this, but if I do, it's only because I think it might possibly help somebody else going through something similar."

Elijah, who turned 5 in December, is responding well to treatments, but setbacks are never far. Twice he has had to return to the hospital because of complications. And when his white blood cell counts are low, he has to be isolated because a simple virus or cold can be extremely dangerous.

Still, Smith says he feels fortunate. He has seen enough in the past few months to know his circumstances could be far worse, and that other families are enduring more.

"You can't go through something like this and not become a different person," Smith said. "You can't look at life the same way. Honestly, I don't see anybody in the same light I used to. I look at my wife, and I realize how unbelievable she has been. She's the rock of our household.

"My prayers now are usually thanking the Lord for my son. Just for every minute, every moment I've had to raise him. We think we're appreciative of our lives, but until you're faced with a new circumstance, you don't truly appreciate the gifts that you have been given. And I am so grateful now for every day I have with my son, and my girls and my wife."

• • •

During one of his early hospital stays, Elijah was in bed when his three sisters showed up in his room. Elijah got out of his bed and hugged and kissed each of them.

"Don't get me wrong, it's been hard," Smith said. "But we've also seen some beautiful, beautiful moments. Our family is going to be stronger for having been through this."

Sometimes, it's a son's pleasure to teach.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com

Son's fight with leukemia holds lessons for Pittsburgh Steelers' Aaron Smith 01/25/09 [Last modified: Monday, January 26, 2009 7:26am]
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