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End of the Line

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When the Steelers drafted Aaron Smith in 1999, Three Rivers Stadium was still standing, Bill Cowher was still coaching and Smith’s body was still strong and sturdy.

Sadly, nothing lasts forever and so it is with Smith.

Smith is back on the injured reserve list, this time with a neck injury, and at the age of 35, this could be the end for one of the best defensive linemen in Steelers history. He has ended four of the past five seasons on IR, and during the one where he remained healthy, the Steelers won the Super Bowl.

Coincidence? Probably not.

Smith wasn’t a great pass rusher later in his career (although he had eight sacks in 2001), so he didn’t get the headlines or the SportsCenter highlights. That wasn’t his role, but he was an outstanding run stuffer throughout his career, occupying blockers and allowing others—linebackers, mostly—to get the tackles and the notoriety.

Sports Illustrated named Smith to its All-Decade team for the 2000s, but he played in only one Pro Bowl.

That paradox is as unexplained as how Smith landed on the Steelers’ roster in the first place.

He was ignored by most colleges when he graduated from high school, but he became a Division II All-American at Northern Colorado when former director of football operations Tom Donahoe took a chance on him in the fourth round of the '99 draft.

A year later, Smith started a streak of seven consecutive seasons when he didn’t miss a game.

Finally, in 2007, Smith’s body began to betray him when he missed time with a knee injury and a torn biceps.
photo by Chuck LeClaire
He played in only 11 games the past two seasons with arm injuries. Then, he hurt his foot against the Houston Texans on Oct. 2 before a neck problem surfaced. Eventually, he will need surgery.

Smith is disappointed about how his 13-year career is ending, and he wants nothing more than to play a 14th season.

Nonetheless, the Steelers have prepared for the end of Smith’s career by choosing defensive linemen Ziggy Hood and Cam Heyward in first round of two of the past three drafts. Hood, the new starter at left defensive end, said he will dedicate the rest of his season to Smith.

The Steelers always have been smart enough to anticipate the end of a star player’s career.

Kevin Greene out. Jason Gildon in.

Dermontti Dawson out. Jeff Hartings in.

Tommy Maddox out. Ben Roethlisberger in.

Willie Parker out. Rashard Mendenhall in.

It's too early to tell if Hood can be as stout as Smith, but even if he gets remotely close, that may be enough to keep up the grand tradition of great Steelers run defense.

Since Smith became a regular member of the defense in 2000, the Steelers have finished first, second or third in run defense every year except three. When Smith was at his best in ’01,’02 and ’04, no team in the NFL was better at stopping the run.

One of the exceptions is this season. The Steelers were 11th after six games.

The reality is that Smith won’t be around to help the defense, but he set an example that will part of the team's legacy for years.

"If you worked up the chances of me being here now," Smith told me nine years ago when he signed his first big contract extension, "I bet a lot of people wouldn't take the odds. There are guys out there more talented than me. I just come out to work every day and work hard, and good things happen when you work hard.”

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