RICHARDSON, Texas — She leaned in close to ask him a question.
One of the great Penn State football leaders looked up from his wheelchair. He cannot speak to his wife anymore.
The best he can do is move his eyes from side to side for, “No.”
A blink means, “Yes.”
Only the rhythmic whoosh of air from his breathing machine cut the quiet.
Finally, Steve Smith blinked. And then he smiled, slow and big.
The fullback and captain of Penn State’s last national championship team has not walked or talked on his own — has not been able to even hold his wife’s hand — in more than a decade.
“Superman,” as his Nittany Lion teammates once called him, cannot do anything for himself, despite an apparently clear mind.
Even more, he fights on after renouncing the sport that shaped his entire life.
A long battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease
Smith, 55, was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, nearly 20 years ago. The muscle-killing disease that once slammed him with devastating blows now steals what is left in bits.
And yet he remains positive and patient beyond reason. They are his greatest gifts. He lives each day for a cure, for his faith and his family, and for anyone he can possibly inspire.
Those who know him well, like some of the most dynamic football players the game has known, are still drawn to his home here in the Dallas suburbs. They visit because of everything Smith meant to them years ago.
And, maybe more, because of how he lives now.
“He was always about making sure everybody else was fine,” said Troy Cromwell, a former Penn State receiver and one of Smith’s best friends from college. “He’s still here because he wanted to see his kids grow up and go to college, to see them get married.
“He’s trying everything he can because he does it for everybody else. He’s always been there for everyone else.
“He’s still Superman in our eyes …”
The ultimate teammate, friend, teacher
Whenever Bo Jackson is in town he shows up without warning.
That’s how he always was with Steve. So, now, he walks into the living room unannounced, laughs large, kisses Smith on the head and tells him he loves him.
Perhaps the greatest two-sport athlete ever talks rapid-fire in a phone interview about one of the toughest men he knows. About the teammate he credits for much of his own success.
He says the friend he met with the Los Angeles Raiders grew into a brother.
So be it that fullbacks rarely receive first-class attention — if teams even have one around anymore. Smith embraced the most vicious position on the field anyway, his living made by full-power, head-first charges into oversized linemen and linebackers. He was a human battering ram blessed with unsuspecting speed and footwork.
“We owed him most of our success,” Jackson said of himself and Marcus Allen, another former Raider star and Heisman Trophy winner.
“Hell, we wouldn’t have had all the rushing yards we got. I’d say, ‘Smitty, just give us a six-inch gap for a quarter-of-a-second, we’ll do the rest.’ And Smitty would give us a two-foot hole” to run through.
“He laid his body on the line for me hundreds of times.”
Jackson, like the others, says it nearly breaks him to see Smith now. He tries to focus on the inner-strength to be gained.
“He never complains, never complained about his situation,” Jackson said. “I’m just glad God let him stay around as long as he has so I can go see him. … I want to do my part to make sure he’s not forgotten.”
Marcus Allen visits him here, too. So does Penn State’s Blair Thomas, a Heisman finalist and the No. 2 overall draft pick of the New York Jets.
Thomas dropped by the day before the Cotton Bowl against Memphis, accompanied by Cromwell and former Nittany Lion Chris Thorpe.
Smith’s ferocity and relentlessness as a player (“He would knock your head off, never seemed to get hurt. He could run through a wall.”), still leads him, they say.
“He has to have that drive in order to be here,” Thomas said. “A lot of people quit in life. They just give up. Steve is still mind-strong to be there for his family.”
Cromwell was as close to Smith as anyone, growing up 20 minutes apart in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. At Penn State, Smith made a point to watch over him.
“Steve was intense, he was intimidating and he was the ultimate protector for all of us who were younger,” Cromwell said. “He did it the right way. He went to class, made sure we went to class, he didn’t give anyone a break. He wasn’t afraid to call anyone out.”
Giving up on football
Now, even his eyes are failing.
They had surprisingly unlocked doors for him for so long. When he couldn’t move nearly anything else on his body, at least Smith could control a computer with his eye movements. He could quickly construct words, then sentences, that could be read or spoken by a mechanized voice.
That’s how he emailed football predictions to friends and “chatted” with his wife, often for hours at a time.
But over the past year, ALS’ continued progression has weakened even his eye muscles enough that the computer is too difficult to use.
Smith remains resolute. Thankfully, he can still watch TV, his favorite shows including “Good Morning America,” “Dr. Oz” and the “Young and the Restless,” which draws a laugh from his wife.
“That he’s just here,” is what she says is most important. “Even he if he doesn’t talk to me he still listens. No one cracks up at my joke like he does.”
Steve and Chie Smith met in Los Angeles when he played for the Raiders and she was a cheerleader. His care now revolves around her. She prepares his meals in blenders, which he ingests through a feeding tube. She shaves him and gives him breathing treatments.
She regularly packs up his portable life support equipment, loads him into the family van and drives them to the movies. She tends to the lovable ruckus of their home, three dogs, two cats and a bearded dragon, Puffina, who enjoys napping on Steve’s chest.
Caregivers help her move him from his wheelchair to his bed. They provide massages, stretching exercises and round-the-clock monitoring.
Chie Smith tears up some mornings when he gradually wakes and greets her with that smile.
She admits to not owning the strength or resolve to live like him.
Many with ALS die soon after their lungs cease to work on their own. But Smith willingly accepted a tracheostomy a dozen years ago, and now a machine breathes for him.
He lives this all amid an intriguing dichotomy: While football gave him his college education, a handsome living, lifelong friends, even his wife … he has sworn off the game.
He believes the countless violent collisions and head trauma caused his disease.
He’s found peace in separating football from the people who mean so much because of it.
The toughest part is not being able to fully express how he feels anymore. He could only look and listen when his Penn State teammates told one college story after another during their recent visit.
Smith may be frustrated at times but doesn’t appear depressed, ever, his wife said. That was never him.
He’s blessed to have always been able to live at home, around his wife and children. For as much as they fuel him, he inspires them.
Their daughter just earned her undergraduate degree and is becoming a respiratory therapist to help those like her father.
Their son works in finance. At Christmas, he and his wife announced they are expecting a baby in July.
Steve Smith will be a grandfather for the first time.
He could only smile with the news, though a smile so big and radiant that it speaks its joy.
His strength holds true in the stillness.
“I think he would say never give up, whatever your struggle may be,” his wife said. “To always continue to have hope and believe things will be better.
“Just that in itself can continue to carry you through …”