TAMPA, Fla. – For three hours and change every week, Aaron Smith can escape.
He can leave behind the image of long needles being stuck in his 5-year-old son Elijah as doctors check his bone marrow, measuring the effects of the medicine the little boy is taking to fight leukemia. Smith can escape from having to explain to his son that, despite the painful evidence to the contrary, the doctors are trying to help, not hurt.
For those few, precious hours, Smith can forget about such scary words as "oncologist" and "chemotherapy" and terms like "white-cell count," the stuff most people hope they never have to deal with or at least get a chance to live a full life before hearing.
Sure, Smith gets to spend much of that time in the midst of violent collisions with other men weighing 300 pounds – men who would like nothing more than to inflict the kind of pain that would cause their opponent to quit.
But when you compare that to the pain and fear inspired by a doctor asking you, "What do you know about leukemia?" or the image of your little boy bloated by steroids as he goes through chemo, double-team blocks don't measure up.
On Sunday, Smith gets relief for a few more hours as his Pittsburgh Steelers face the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. Elijah will be in the stands with his mother and sisters. The doctors at Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh gave Elijah clearance last week to come to the game, saying his ability to fight infection in the aftermath of chemo was sufficient.
While the prognosis for Elijah is good – 80 percent of patients with this type of acute lymphoblastic leukemia survive, Smith said he was told by doctors – the battle is years from being over.
In the meantime, Smith finds momentary escape in his "man thing," as his wife Jaimie put it back in October, when the couple first learned Elijah had cancer. The couple found out on Oct. 21 when they took him to the hospital for a fever that wouldn't go away. By the following Sunday, after the first of many days and nights spent in a hospital, Jaimie told Aaron he needed to go play, to be with his teammates, to do the thing he does like few others in the world.
"My wife has been unbelievable through this whole thing," Smith said. "We're all just dealing with it. It's really through the Lord's strength that I've been able to cope through this."
That strength has been critical to the Steelers getting to this point. The story of Elijah's battle with cancer could have easily been the tragic subplot to a season gone awry if his father didn't have the strength and support to handle it. Few people in football understand what Smith means to the Steelers. He is a lynchpin of the team's 3-4 defense, particularly against the run.
In 2007, after Smith was placed on injured reserve with three games remaining, the Steelers went into a tailspin. They gave up 224 yards rushing at home to Jacksonville in the first game without Smith; they proceeded to lose three of their final four, allowing at least 135 yards rushing in each of the losses. That included a first-round playoff loss to Jacksonville at home.
"He's the focal point of our run defense, no question," nose tackle Chris Hoke said.
"This is the best way I can say it," said defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "I've been here five years since I came back, and I can count on one hand how many times I've seen Aaron Smith blocked. He never gets blocked, and there's no way you can overstate that value to any defense. He gets his job done on a consistent basis."
OK, but that sounds like hyperbole.
"You would say that, but I'm telling you," LeBeau said. "That's why I can never understand why he doesn't go to the Pro Bowl every year. He doesn't get quite as many sacks as the defensive ends in a 4-3 scheme, but I think our guys should be in competition with the defensive tackles. … To me, Aaron Smith is a shoo-in for the Pro Bowl."
In other words, as much as head coach Mike Tomlin gave Smith the latitude to "take as much time as you need" when he visited Smith and his family in the hospital back in October, the team's hopes rested on Smith's ability to handle a crisis akin to putting your emotions in a blender and hitting the crush cycle.
Five days removed from that fever-turned-nightmare that will take at least 3½ years to monitor if everything goes well, Smith listened to the urging of his wife.
"She was the one who was really encouraging me to go, to be with my teammates. She said, 'Go do your man thing,' " said Smith, who didn't make the decision to play against the Giants until about four hours before the game. "Playing in that game was something I had to do that week: some type of normalcy that I had during the week. I really wanted to be there for my teammates that week because that's a big part in what we do. So the response and support I got from my teammates was awesome."
Said fellow defensive end Brett Keisel: "When he walked into the locker room, it was definitely emotional. … Yeah, there were some tears."
And even though the Steelers lost to the Giants, it was the type of moment that bonds people. The act of playing a brutal sport when most people would like to do nothing more than curl up in a blanket of fear was a statement that his teammates have fed off.
"Aaron definitely wanted to go to battle with us," nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "He's going to do everything that he can to be out there with us. With him having gone through the things that he had gone through at the time and then to come out there, it just makes you want to go out there and do it even more."
Said LeBeau: "I could never overstate my admiration for him. He has been unbelievable – every day, to be with your son and to deal with this. He's a great husband, a great father, a great family man, and he's been a great leader for our defense."
Even if game day is really an elaborate escape.
"When you go out there, you don't have to think about anything else for two or three hours," Smith said. "It's kind of an escape of reality a little bit, and it's always been that way."