Cameron Smith has met and conquered many a milestone since Aug. 24 when the then-23-year-old Vikings linebacker underwent successful open heart surgery to repair a birth defect that would have gone undetected if not for COVID-19 testing when the Vikings reported for training camp last July.
"Cameron has the surgery on a Monday in Philadelphia, and he gets out the following Sunday," said John Smith, Cameron's father. "We're leaving the hospital and I say, 'So what's the first thing you want to do? Go get something to eat? Go to a nice restaurant?'"
"Cameron says, 'No, I want to go to the Rocky steps and jog to the top,'" John said. "I said, 'OK, let's go!' I parked the car at the bottom of the steps, and he got out."
Did he reach the top?
"Within 30 seconds," John said. "I'm like, 'This kid is really going for it.'"
The latest hurdle to be cleared came May 24 when Smith hit the practice field for the start of the Vikings' organized team activities.
"We prayed for Cam so much, and he's back here now and it's a miracle," teammate Dalvin Cook said. "That's God that he's out there with us running around."
Cam's reaction to Cook's reaction?
"If he wants to call it a miracle, that's all right," Smith said, "but I think in my head I always knew I'd be back. I never believed anything other than that."
OTAs are conducted without pads, and contact is minimal, but lining up in 11-on-11 drills nine months to the day after open heart surgery was another one of those milestone moments. Two days later, during a practice open to the media, Smith spent part of the team drills working with the first team while starting middle linebacker Eric Kendricks was rested.
"Leading up to [OTAs] I was unsure what the feeling was going to be like," Smith said. "I was excited to feel that again, but when it came down to it running out there, it felt like I hadn't missed a beat. It just felt like almost home again. Like I felt like walking in to work like it was a regular thing."
'COVID … saved my life'
Smith's journey since last July has been anything but a regular thing.
His initial COVID-19 test came back presumptive positive, which wasn't definitive enough to trigger the protocol for a cardiac work-up. But his other test for COVID-19 antibodies came back positive, meaning he had contracted the virus at some point and would require a closer look at his heart.
Those tests revealed a bicuspid aortic valve defect. Smith was told his heart was three times its normal size. Initially, Smith asked if doctors could monitor the situation without doing surgery.
"They said there's no monitoring something like that," Smith said last November. "It wouldn't be, 'Oh, man, get me to the hospital.' It would be sudden death. There would be no saving you. COVID essentially saved my life."
Smith spent most of last season with the Vikings, attending every practice and meeting while doing light conditioning and leg work. He traveled back to Sacramento to spend the holidays with his family and start full-body training with Billy White, a high school friend who owns and operates U Functional Training in Roseville, Calif.
"Christmas Eve, Cameron pulled into my driveway," his father said. "And that next week he started working out six days a week, sometimes twice a day, until he left to go back to Minnesota in late April.
"Overnight, within the first three weeks, he had already added a good 10-plus pounds of muscle. He said he felt good. It's incredible. He's a very driven young man. By March, when he had his last checkup, things were going so well in his recovery that we didn't even talk about it anymore."
Dr. Joseph Bavaria, one of the country's leading aortic valve specialists, performed the surgery at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital.
"When he looked at me [in March], it was like, 'I nailed it, crushed it, you're good on our end,'" Smith said. "It's easy to have doubts in your mind, but I never doubted it. I knew when I was going there, I'm not expecting to hear anything other than I'm ready to [play football]. Wow, what a great feeling."
Still chasing his dream
Dad believes some divine intervention led his son to Dr. Bavaria.
When Smith's story hit the news last July, former Eagles long snapper Jon Dorenbos reached out to Vikings head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman. Dorenbos' 11-year career ended in 2017 when he suffered an aortic aneurysm.
"I never even met Jon, but he called me," Sugarman said last November. "Jon had a very similar condition and wanted to reach out to Cam because he had such a successful surgery. Jon did so much research on the top heart surgeons in the country for this condition. He just felt obligated to share that information."
It changed Smith's life. And gave him the possibility of a long NFL career.
"Had Cameron not been exposed to Jon, I don't think you'd see Cameron in a football uniform today," John Smith said. "The other doctors who looked at it first said it's a for-sure valve replacement. And that definitely would have ended Cameron's career, and his whole life would be a lot different. He'd be on blood thinners and all that."
Instead, Smith is still chasing his dream while gearing up to compete for a spot on the Vikings' 53-man roster as a backup linebacker and badly needed boost on special teams.
"The way they put him back together, I think he'll be stronger than he was before," John said. "Initially, he'll wear some extra, lightweight protection on his chest. But I don't think anybody's going to need to take it easy on him."
Smith used to wear No. 59. But after last season, he reached out to equipment manager Dennis Ryan. He wanted a new number for his fresh start. Smith looked at his options and picked a No. 32, which he's never worn before.
"It just feels like a new me," he said. "Got a new heart, a new number, it's a brand-new me. It's fun."
John hopes to be in Cincinnati watching that new number make a tackle when the Vikings open the season on Sept. 12.
"If things open up and fans are allowed in, I'll definitely be there," he said. "From where I was after that first call — 'Hey, Dad, I got to have open heart surgery' — to where we are today, there is no way I'm going to be sitting at home when Cameron gets back on the field."