The Aaron Smith You Never Knew: A Real Q&A with the Steelers Defensive End
JC: Aaron, tell me about your Super Bowl experience.
Aaron: It was unbelievable. Honestly the stress on that level is so far beyond anything. You know, I tell people, it’s like working your entire life for a chance at something, and then realizing this might be the only opportunity you have to get it. So I mean, I was so focused.
JC: You were telling me a similar story about the days leading up to Super Bowl XL.
Aaron: Yeah (laughs). My wife was pregnant at the time with our third child. So we go to Detroit and she flies up early that week so we have some time together. Well, I was so focused like a deer in the headlights, I feel bad man. I mean, I hardly even talked to my wife those three or four days up there. (laughs) And uh, so then we go and play the game, we win, and we wind up driving back with my wife and my kids, and I’m talking to her, and she’s like man, it’s so good to have you back.
She’s like this last week when we were alone, you hardly talked to me, I thought we were going to have to get counseling. (laughs) I’m like, I didn’t even realize it, you know, cause I was so focused on the moment. And uh I felt so bad for my wife. So it was a good moment, but it was also probably one of my lower moments as a husband.
JC: Aaron, I am sure your life has changed since winning two Super Bowls.
JC: Before that most people knew you as an All-Pro Defensive End for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but not a lot of fans know your story prior to finding success in the NFL. What was life like for you growing up?
Aaron: I grew up the youngest of four boys. Um, my father was a construction worker. Uh my mom was a nurse. Early on in my life my father didn’t work much, you know, it was kind of seasonal, in and out, up until he got sick with diabetes, and then he was really unemployed. At that point it seemed to kind of change him as a man.
JC: How did he change?
Aaron: I think a lot of us, men in today’s society; we put so much stock in what we do for a living as what we are as men. And uh I think that he lost his identity. As far as he was concerned, he wasn’t—in his eyes; maybe he wasn’t thinking he was really a man.
He became kind of angry and violent toward a lot of us. Uh and then it was to a point where a lot of times I’d go to bed at night, um, scared, you know, of what he was going to do. So I would tell him I loved him just in case he did something that night. He’d think I was the last one who loved him and might not—might not kill me that night or whatever else.
JC: When did the situation finally turn around?
Aaron: My mom finally said I’m going to leave your dad. My oldest brother was gone, so she told him to come get all the firearms and stuff out of the house. Then she told us I’m going to take you kids out, but I got to tell your dad. So she told him. And he took it well. I mean, I think that was the work of the Lord right there for him to handle it as well as he did.
JC: Did things ever get better with your father?
Aaron: I was around 11 or 12 when we left. When I was 16, my father passed away. And it was unfortunate because I still had a lot of anger and resentment built up towards him. Actually the last time I saw my father, um, he stood up to give me a hug at my grandfather’s house and I walked straight past him. I didn’t even acknowledge him. And a couple months later he passed away. My mom came to school and told me, and I had to drive home and that—that was a hard moment in my life.
JC: That’s a lot to deal with for a young man. How did you get through that time in your life?
Aaron: Things got worse before they got better. From that point on, I really struggled. I figured what was the point of living? What was the point of even trying? We’re all going to die, you know. I was really angry with God. Um, for giving me the father I had. You know, I’d go to the basketball courts and see fathers playing ball with their sons, or seeing men doing things with their sons, and meanwhile here I am with the father that I had that didn’t even want to do anything with me. And uh, I was...I was pretty bitter about it. Almost to the point of self-destruction.
I was pretty fortunate though. I had some strong, moral Christian men in my life as coaches. They really took an interest in me and they kind of pulled me up out of the gutter a little bit, enough to get me off to college, cause I wasn’t even trying to go to college at that point.
So I went to college, and life was a lot better. I met my wife, had a good college career and in ’99 I was drafted by the Steelers.
JC: That’s funny man because from what I remember you didn’t even want to play football.
Aaron: (laughs) I wanted to be the next Michael Jordan. Basketball is my first love and I was playing basketball, and the football coach said you know, you’re a pretty good athlete. Why don’t you come play football? So I went out my freshman year and played football and got moved up to varsity.
I quit when December came, cause that’s when hoops season starts. I said I’m done, I’m gonna play hoops. And they’re like what’s wrong, why are you doing this? And then my sophomore year I didn’t even play football. I said I’m going to concentrate on basketball.
They talked me into playing again my junior year, I made All-State, and then my senior year the colleges came around. And I went to a small division II school. I was only 205 pounds when I got there.
JC: At Northern Colorado?
Aaron: Yeah, playing defensive end at 205 lbs (laughs).
JC: Bro, I played Linebacker in college at 215! (laugh) I know you were in the weight room from day one.
Aaron: Yeah, I think I slept in the weight room one night (laughs). I ended up red-shirting my freshmen year. So I played a long time in college. By the end of my fifth year I was 6’5”/298.
JC: Getting drafted seemed like it took that long too didn’t it?
Aaron: You know that’s an interesting story too. Here I am, I’m...think I’m going to be a first day, draft pick. And uh, you know, the Pittsburgh Steelers called me on the first day in the third round. And they’re like you know, Aaron, we’re going to see, whether we’re going to go offense or defense. And uh so I’m sitting on the phone, and they’re like all right, we’ll call you right back and hang up the phone.
This is the last pick in the third round. And next thing I know I see the scroll on ESPN—Pittsburgh Steelers draft Amos Zereoue, Running Back, West Virginia. I was crushed. I mean that was another moment I cried. I mean I cried. I was distraught.
JC: So you feel like the Steelers left you high and dry, and you have to sleep on it until the following day. Then during the fourth round the phone rings again.
Aaron: Well the next day they (Steelers) called me, they said we’re going to take you. I’m like I’ll believe it when I see it. You know, and uh they draft me, and then, you know, I was ecstatic.
JC: You ended up being drafted by the Steelers. In 11 years you have been to the Pro Bowl and won two Super Bowls. What has the experience been like for you?
Aaron: Unbelievable. I mean, working for the Steelers and the Rooneys, is like no other place. I mean they treat you as a person. In some places they treat you like you’re property, like you’re just an investment. They treat you as a person first and foremost here. They give you the ability to express yourself and your faith, um, and do it in an environment that’s comfortable for everybody else, I can’t say enough.
JC: How much does being a Pittsburgh Steeler mean to you?
Aaron: I will retire a Steeler. When they’re done with me here, I will retire a Steeler. That’s how much respect I have for this organization.
JC: Last question. Looking back on everything, what do you think of the way things have ended up?
Aaron: Now that I am grown up, I know the Lord had a plan. I wouldn't change anything now. You know, where I'm at, who I am, it's made me who I am. You don't see that at the time, but in the end it's all worth it.
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