UNIVERSITY PARK - The next time you watch highlights of Penn State's 1986 football team, D.J. Dozier wants you to pay special attention.
"Go back and look. Every time there's a big play, No. 33 is there, helping the guy up, congratulating him,'' said Dozier, the Nittany Lions' leading rusher that year. "I know every time I made a decent play, he was always the guy helping me up.''
Steve Smith still is helping to pull others up.
As Penn State's second national championship team was honored at halftime of the Nittany Lions' 13-3 victory over Iowa before 103,497 at a sunny Beaver Stadium, one former player was conspicuously absent - Smith.
Since 2002, Smith has been battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease. ALS is a mysterious nerve disorder of the brain and spinal chord that causes those afflicted to lose control of voluntary muscle movement. It has no known cure and is often fatal, with a mortality rate of 75 percent in the first five years.
Unable to walk or speak, Smith is confined to his home in Texas. The former Nittany Lion captain and fullback's presence, however, was felt palpably at his college alma mater through his teammates.
Supporting Steve Smith
Friends and family of former Penn State fullback Steve Smith, who has been afflicted with Lou Gehrig's disease, recently started a website to collect donations and give out information. Those wishing to contribute should visit www.stevesmithfund.org.
Donations can also be made by calling 1-800-242-0335 or texting "STEVE'' followed by a space with a pledge amount followed by another space and the donor's name to 95495.
"In most cases like this where Steve goes through this kind of ordeal, people around them help to keep their spirits up,'' said Dozier, who stood in for Smith as an honorary captain for the coin flip on Saturday. "In this case, it's just the opposite. Steve is the one leading. He's the one fighting. He's the one saying he's going to beat this.''
"He's a strong-willed person. He's always been a leader. He's an awesome guy,'' teammate Dave Clark said.
Clark was Smith's college roommate and still calls Smith his best friend. He remembered Smith first telling him about some of his usual symptoms a decade ago.
"He told me, 'Dave, I'm losing my balance,' or that his feet felt like sponges when he'd walk,'' Clark said. "He thought it was Lyme disease or something like that.''
Unfortunately, as more tests were run and more symptoms appeared, it became clear that Smith was facing a much tougher opponent than Lyme disease or the Miami Hurricane team of Vinnie Testaverde, Michael Irvin and Jerome Brown that Penn State upset in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl for the national title.
Smith had a solid NFL career with the Raiders and Seahawks. The news of one of their most powerful members being struck with an ailment that turned his very muscles against him staggered his fellow Lion alums, who knew Smith as a fun-loving man who always put the team first when the game started.
Some of them, like Dozier, had never even heard of ALS before.
"I don't know that any of us understand this sickness that he had. It's sort of random, and it's serious,'' Tim Johnson said. "It showed us that we're all susceptible. It gives us all a perspective on what's important, what's valuable, what should be priority. But for the grace of God, that could be any of us.''
Smith's battle also helped bring some old teammates together and even created camaraderie where it hadn't existed before. All-American linebacker Shane Conlan admitted he really wasn't close to Smith in college and being a hard-headed, physical player like Smith made them even bigger rivals as pro opponents.
Along with Dozier and quarterback John Shaffer, though, Conlan, who learned of Smith's plight on HBO's "Real Sports,'' has been among those at the forefront of organizing fundraisers for Smith and bringing awareness to ALS.
"Once I saw that, it was so scary,'' Conlan said. "I was like, 'let's do everything we can for Steve, because he was a great leader, a great man and a great player.'''
Smith's fight hit home with Conlan, too. Although heredity has been the lone factor so far in predicting who might contract ALS, there have been studies that have linked concussions to the disease, too.
Conlan, who had several concussions during his playing career, wouldn't even let his wife watch the television show about Smith for fear it would worry her.
"I've had a few. More than him,'' Conlan said.
While Smith himself couldn't be at Beaver Stadium on Saturday, several members of his family were on hand. The night before, Nittany Lion coach Joe Paterno got a chance to speak to Smith's mother and recall his recruitment of her son out of DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville, Md.
"She said, 'I want to know what kind of an education he's going to get.' I reminded her, 'if it wasn't for you, I wouldn't have gotten him,''' Paterno said. "Steve was a great kid. He was a credit to his teammates and a good football player.''
Smith is watched over by his wife, Chie, and children, Dante, 21, and Jazmin, 20, at their Richardson, Texas home. Smith is able to communicate through the use of an advanced computer that allows him to write through eye motion.
Taking after his mother, who beat breast cancer, Smith continues to fight, inspire and beat the odds.
"He doesn't let it affect him. He keeps on being Steve,'' Clark said. "He's upbeat about beating this, and I believe he will.''