A fullback is one of the most demanding positions in football. Without the glory and glitz of the running back position, a fullback often symbolizes the physical presence of an offense. On a running play, a fullback is a one on one battle, full speed into a hole locating a target, usually a linebacker, a position that symbolizes the physical presence of a defense. Steve Smith was the definition of a fullback.
With a college football career playing for the Penn State Nittany Lions, and as a team captain for Penn State’s 1986 National Championship team and 9 years in the NFL, playing for the Raiders and the Seattle Seahawks, Steve sacrificed his body for the game, his team and his running back. He didn’t play during the times of a single back offense that you may see now. When he played the running game was built around a talented running back and a powerful blocking fullback. If a running back got 30 carries, that meant a fullback was the lead blocker, 30 times, fearlessly meeting opposition straight on, looking to crack open a hole for his running back.
That’s why it is no secret that the relationship between a fullback and a running back is like none other on the football field. A quarterback and a wide receiver rely on chemistry, timing and a mutual understanding of the playbook, a left tackle and a quarterback also work on timing, and a trust that a quarterback’s blindside will always be protected. These examples and other relationships, all pale in comparison to the bond of a fullback and running back.
Today, Steve Smith continues to meet opposition head on, now his opponent is Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), sometimes called Lou Gehrig’s disease. This time, he has a lead blocker, his wife Chie Smith. A Raiderette for life, she was once cheering on the sideline, now she calls the plays, standing side by side with Steve as a team, battling ALS. She exemplifies the power of love, faith and an indescribable strength to keep everything moving forward. The Smith team is an inspiration and a reminder that with love and will, you can keep fighting the good fight. It is indeed a privilege for Varsity Club to have the opportunity to talk with Steve and Chie Smith.
VC: How long have you two been married? Tell me when you first knew you met the love of your life?
Steve: The way I knew that she was the one for me, is when I lost my desire for other women.
Chie: Steve and I have been married for almost 23 years. Steve started laughing when I asked him the second part of your question! I said, “Hey, what’s so funny”! For me, I would say I knew Steve was the one within a month of dating.
VC: When did you first notice that there was something different with Steve’s health?
Steve: It was about one and a half years before my diagnosis, I could not turn
my wrist totally when shaving, I started getting cramps in feet, and Jazmin would be laying on my chest and asking why my bicep was twitching.
Chie: The first time I noticed a difference with Steve’s health was shortly after we moved to Texas in June ’02. We went out for a run and I noticed Steve was running very stiffly and jerky. I thought he was playing around. He thought he was just feeling out of shape. We continued running and Steve said he felt very stiff in his legs. He decided to see an orthopedist a couple of weeks later to have his symptoms checked out. It was then determined that Steve needed to see a Neurologist for further testing. Within a couple of weeks, he was diagnosed with ALS.
VC: How young were your kids and how did they react when they found out about the diagnosis?
Steve: Dante felt like he knew something was wrong because I could not do everything like before and he asked if it was hereditary. Jazmin was more subdued. At the time, Dante and Jazmin were waiting for me to be healed.
Chie: Our children were in middle school at the time of Steve’s diagnosis. Jazmin was in 5th grade and Dante 7th. Steve wasn’t ready to tell them until Christmas break. He needed time to come to terms with the diagnosis and figure out how to explain this without leaving them feeling that this was the end. When we sat them down and told them, they were understanding but not sure what the diagnosis meant. For us, the decision we came to was to let them know that Steve was diagnosed with a muscular disease that could affect his strength and stamina. Steve did not want to say that he had a disease that has no cure and that he would die from it. We felt it was too much to process for them and wanted to just let them know we would continue to enjoy our life to the fullest and not to be scared if they saw Steve having problems with walking. Because ALS is a progressive disease, we felt it was better to explain Steve’s illness as we experienced the stages so as not to overwhelm them with too much info. As Steve slowly lost his ability to walk, talk and eat they took it in stride. Our life remained as normal as possible in every way as we adjusted to each stage of the illness.
VC: What is the one thing you learned most about yourself since this battle against ALS?
Steve: The one thing that I have always known about myself is that I will fight till I win. No matter who the fight is against.
Chie: For me, that I am a lot stronger than I thought I was and that I now know I’m fully capable of taking care of anything that is thrown at me. I don’t have the fear I had initially and I feel empowered as a woman that I can take care of my family and husband. I wanted Steve to feel he could depend on me and that it was my turn now to be the caretaker of our family.
VC: What were your biggest fears about the diagnosis?
Steve: My biggest fear was that I would not get to do everything that I still
need to do. Until I realized that I am in the ultimate control of everything that happens in my life.
Chie: Initially it was how long we would have with Steve. I felt an urgency to want to be prepared for what could be the inevitable. Sell the cars and buy a wheelchair van, have the house remodeled to accommodate his needs as his illness progressed. But Steve wasn’t ready for any of this. He had a completely different mind set. He decided to face this disease as if nothing would happen to him. He still felt invincible so to speak. It was very difficult because as I saw his symptoms progress he seemed almost in a state of denial. What I have learned is that he needed to be in a mental state that he could cope with it personally and I needed to respect that and give him time to work through each stage at his own pace, not mine.
VC: What do you want people to know about ALS?
Steve: I want everybody to know that being diagnosed with ALS is not a death sentence, like the doctors want you to believe. It is the beginning of fighting for your life.
Chie: That it’s a disease that doesn’t have to mean the end of everything, it doesn’t end what you hoped and dreamed for yourself and for your family. I always felt like we had such a blessed life but it wasn’t until Steve became ill that I really learned what true love meant and that it’s not about just yourself and your own family but also how you cope with something like this, can change and help the lives of others as well. I wanted to give hope to other families going through this that you can still laugh, love and enjoy life to the fullest. I want to leave a legacy of pride and determination for our children that you never give up on your loved ones and that life is not about material value but making morally right decisions and making a contribution to society and leaving their own legacy for their children. Last but not least, never give up on hope and miracles.
VC: What is a normal family day?
Chie: I usually wake up around 7am. Feed the dogs and cats, clean the litter boxes and let the dogs out for a bit to run around outside. Steve may or may not be awake. If he is, I get him ready for the day by suctioning his trachea as often as needed and then get his legs situated where he is comfortable. I help him go to the bathroom, wash his face, shave if needed and brush his teeth. At 10am, I give him a breathing treatment for 45 minutes. This is done twice a day, 7 days a week. I then make him his morning meal and give him his medication. By 12pm, Steve’s caregiver Barbara arrives and gives Steve a bath. Barbara stays until 6pm so I take this time to go to the gym for an hour then run errands. I’m back by 4pm so that I can help Barbara with Steve’s bathroom needs (requires 2 people). A few days a week we also move him to a special chair to get him out of the bed. Then I try and catch up on emails, make dinner for the kids, take care of bills or take the dogs out for a walk. The time goes by very quickly and before I know it, it’s 6pm. I then feed Steve his early evening meal and give him his second breathing treatment. Steve receives his last meal and medications at 10pm and then I get him ready for bed. Steve usually falls asleep around 11:30pm. I sleep next to him on the couch since his hospital bed is set up in our family room. I will get up at least twice during the early morning hours to suction Steve’s trachea and help him with bathroom needs. Then we do it all over again.
VC: Let’s focus on the game you love. Is it tough to watch football? What is the biggest difference you see in today’s football?
Steve: It’s not tough at all. I was a football fan long before I ever played. The biggest difference that I notice is the elimination of the fullbacks.
VC: What do you miss most about football?
Steve: I miss the games, not the practices so much. I just really miss being around the guys.
VC: Who was the favorite coach you played for?
Steve: Joe Paterno was the hardest and best coach that I ever played for.
VC: What comes to mind when you think about your Penn State 1986 National Championship team?
Steve: I am very proud of what we did at Penn State. It shows you how everything can work out when the players work hard and the coach is smart. Nobody interferes with the chemistry of the natural order of the team.
VC: And lastly, what can you say about love?
Steve: For me, the love of my family keeps me going to be cured. Love of things that I still need to do with my family and for me.
Chie: That I feel a profound sense of gratitude that I was able to meet and marry a wonderful man. That true love is real if you give it all you’ve got and your partner does too. When the going get’s tough, you get tough and see it through together. I feel if my life ended tomorrow, I got to experience the epitome of love. I can rest in peace knowing, I left a legacy of love to our children, Dante and Jazmin.
To support Steve Smith visit, www.stevesmithfund.org and www.facebook.com/The-Steve-Smith-Fund