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More than just following a Penn State football player’s fight with ALS

It’s still pretty startling when I think about it a few weeks later.

Steve Smith looked up from the hospital bed in his house and smiled. He cracked jokes through a voice-activated computer system. He switched TV channels moving only his eyes.

This was our day at the suburban Dallas home of the former Penn State fullback. Myself and Daily Record photographer Jason Plotkin were covering the Nittany Lions at the TicketCity Bowl in Texas and figured that the best story might be the one that had nothing to do with the team.

Steve Smith was somehow still alive after all these years.

And we had to see how.

Actually, this meeting and our story on New Year’s Day was only the most recent episode of a most improbable relationship that began in the spring of 2004.

I was poking around a Penn State message board back then when I found a note about how Smith, who had been out of the NFL for a few years, was battling Lou Gehrig’s disease.

We connected by phone and, coincidentally enough, he and his wife Chie were in the process of traveling back and forth from Texas to the Philadelphia area for his medical treatments.

And so I made the easy drive and spent the day with them at doctors’ offices and at their hotel room while they ate a takeout dinner.

Even then, Steve couldn’t walk on his own. He couldn’t feed himself.

Of course, Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as ALS, is a killer. No way around it. It eats away your body, piece by piece, while your mind remains sharp.

You are trapped.

By the time it suffocates the lungs, most patients are nearly dead or ready to give up.

Smith, as it turned out, would be much different.

And so our feature story in 2004 turned into a follow-up column about his perseverance. 

We traded phone calls and email over the next few years.

Even so, I was surprised in 2010 to learn how Steve was hanging in there and was able to communicate using a computer controlled by his eyes.

I wrote another column.

This past summer, his friends and Penn State family members were making big strides in raising awareness for his disease and raising funds to help pay his medical bills.

The world deserved to know that, too.

Then came that Penn State game in October when his 1986 national title team was honored in Beaver Stadium — an event Steve could not attend.

Only a few weeks later, everything came crashing down with the indictments in the child-sex-abuse scandal and Joe Paterno’s firing.

Penn State dropped so far in the bowl game pecking order that it ended up in Dallas, a surprise destination of sorts.

Which, in one of those wonderful turns of fate, led us to Steve and Chie Smith, once again.

We got to see their home and their son and all of their pets, including a stunning, green-eyed Bengal cat I wanted to take home with me.

We connected with a remarkable story source in person for the first time in more than seven years. If reaffirmed our belief that the best stories are often the ones without any other reporters around.

But this was more than that, too.

Chie gave us a hug.

Steve looked up and smiled.

I felt privileged to be able to tell their story, once again.