By Mike Bires
Beaver County Times
January 6, 2012
Cameron Heyward #97, Chris Hoke #76, James Farrior #51, and Casey Hampton #98 of the Pittsburgh Steelers sit on the bench during their game against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium on October 23, 2011 in Glendale, Arizona. (Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH -- After a strenuous workout in the weight room, Aaron Smith looked like he's ready to help the Steelers out in Denver on Sunday. He may be 35, but he's in excellent shape right now.
Unfortunately, he knows he may never play again.
For the third straight year, major injuries that required corrective surgery have shut Smith down
In 2009, his season ended after five games due to a torn rotator cuff in his shoulder.
In 2010, he played six games before suffering a torn triceps.
This year, he played only four games before a neck injury put him on injured reserve.
Of the Steelers' past 48 regular-season games, Smith has missed 33 of them.
He even missed five games in 2007 with knee injuries.
During the heyday of his 13-year run with the Steelers, Smith was regarded as one of the NFL's most underrated defensive ends. He went years without missing a game or a practice. Although he seldom received national acclaim, he was regarded by his coaches and teammates as a true warrior.
In recent years, however, it's been difficult for Smith to watch so many games from the sidelines.
"It's the worst thing," he said after his Thursday morning workout. "Watching a game for me is like taking a recovering alcoholic to a bar. How much do you think they enjoy being in that bar? Everyone else is partying and enjoying themselves and this guy is miserable.
"I love playing. I love competing. I love the game of football. It's painful to stand on the sidelines and watch. If and when I do decide I'm done, it may be awhile before I watch football."
It was brutally painful for Smith last year because coach Mike Tomlin never put him on the season-ending injured reserve list. So respected by everyone in the franchise, the Steelers kept Smith on the active roster the entire season in hopes he'd return for the playoffs.
The Steelers even kept Smith on the roster throughout the playoffs in hopes that he might be able to play in Super Bowl XLV against Green Bay. But that never happened.
"I still fantasize about it," Smith said. "I drive down the road and fantasize about playing. I don't think it will ever stop. Even when I'm done playing, I think I'll still fantasize about competing. I watch games now and think what I would do in that situation or how I would handle this."
Obviously, Smith would love to play Sunday in Denver. A native of nearby Colorado Springs -- he attended Northern Colorado University in Greeley --- Smith was never a fan of the Broncos though.
"I was a Broncos hater," he said. "My family loved the Broncos. I guess I was the jerk kid that always wanted to root against everybody, like a kid here (in Pittsburgh) rooting for the Ravens."
Smith has been part of many memorable wins during his time with the Steelers. He started on the two most recent Super Bowl championship teams (2005 and 2008). One of his favorite moments was the '05 AFC Championship Game in Denver, a 34-17 Steelers victory.
"I remember I wanted to win that game more than anything, especially being from there," he said. "I remember thinking, ‘If we lose this, I can't come back home.'"
Home these days for Smith is Pittsburgh. He sold his house in Colorado, which was located near the Broncos' practice facility, several years ago. All five of his children were born in Pittsburgh. When he retires, he and his family will remain in western Pa.
Smith said that he has yet to decide if he'll try to play again next year. He'll be 36 in April and he's not sure if his body can withstand a 14th season.
Sometime during the off-season, he and his wife will sit down and make that decision. He's under contract for the 2012 season and is due to make $4.5 million in base salary. But now that Ziggy Hood, a first-round pick in the 2009 draft, is firmly entrenched at Smith's customary spot at left defensive end, Smith would have to take a significant pay cut to return.
Not that money is an issue. In 2007, he signed a five-year, $24.5 million contract that included an $8 million signing bonus.
"The money is just kind of useless at this point," he said. "I mean, how much is enough?"
All that would drive Smith back for one more year are the competitive fires that still burn inside him. That's why he still frequents the weight room.
"This is all I know," he said. "I'm afraid if I stop, what's going to happen?"