Strolling around the Superdome on Monday, Vikings quarterback Gus Frerotte ran into Emmitt Smith, the NFL's all-time leading rusher and now a TV analyst.

They talked about the previous Monday night, when Pittsburgh and Baltimore bludgeoned each other in a brutal display of felononious-assault football and Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis broke Rashard Mendenhall's shoulder with a head-on tackle.

"He was saying, 'I can't believe the hitting that's going on,'" Frerotte said. "He said, 'It's just amazing, I can't believe I actually played in this game, and how violent and ferocious and how fast these guys run, and how people just throw their bodies.'"

Then Frerotte played in a game every bit as violent. During the Vikings' 30-27 victory over New Orleans on Monday, there were a half-dozen hits on which a defender or blocker left his feet, turning his body into a missile that caused the receiver of the blow to fly through the air himself.

This is the modern NFL -- a new breed of players moving with more speed and ferocity than ever.

Frerotte took one hit that forced him to leave the game to "evaluate" himself, and his willingness to play when team trainers were trying to examine him further might have won the game, and won over his locker room.

Before Frerotte started taking shots to the head and sternum, Vikings linebacker Erin Henderson got blindsided by a block while chasing Reggie Bush on a punt return. Henderson's feet flipped high in the air and he landed on his back. Then he got up and chased futilely after Bush. This week, Henderson has spent a lot of time in the team's training room.

On another play, Saints tight end Billy Miller caught a short pass and sprinted downfield. Vikings cornerback Cedric Griffin vectored over from the sideline, launched himself, and flattened Miller, who remained prone for minutes while Griffin paced, worried, 20 yards away.

Griffin applauded when Miller rose and left the field. "I always want to make a big hit, but at the same time, when a player goes down, I want to apologize to him," Griffin said. "I got a chance to apologize once he got back into the game, and he welcomed that. I'm sorry for it."

He'll do it again -- level an opponent, then apologize -- if he can. Griffin received a six-pack of Grape Crush soda from the Vikings coaching staff for the Vikings' biggest hit of the week.

"My wife worries about me all the time," Griffin said. "She told me when I first got into the league that she thought I was a crazy animal out there, running around, running into other guys, not caring about my body. But I told her that's what I do and I love to do it."

Studies have found that NFL players enjoy a far shorter life expectancy than the general population. It's not a cliché: Football players give their lives to play the game.

Doctors have compared the trauma caused by violent football collisions to the effects of car wrecks. For football players, the car wrecks are weekly, voluntary and, if you ask Vikings coach Brad Childress, necessary.

"Football's a violent game," Childress said. "You want guys who play it violently, who sell out, who have no regard for their bodies, that can pull the trigger.

"Watch Antoine Winfield on a sweep. He typically is going low and taking on a guy who is 150 pounds bigger than he is. You better not hesitate. You better be able to let it go. That's what you look for in football players."

Which is why coaching is so important in football. Aside from game plans and philosophies, coaches have to persuade their players to endanger their health for the good of a team that will have no use for them if they are seriously injured.

In the fourth quarter on Monday night, Frerotte decided to stand in the pocket and take hits to his head and torso to buy enough time to make the downfield throws that won the game. Whether conciously or subconciously, Frerotte chose to take hits that could injure him or shorten his life in exchange for a chance to win a game.

"There's not a lot of time as a quarterback anymore," Frerotte said. "There's no time to stand back there and take 12 hitches and get rid of the ball. ... It's a crazy game. I think the guys are getting bigger, faster and stronger."

Frerotte and Griffin said they were still sore from their collisions. "I'm a little weary," Griffin said. "But my body is recovering. I'm going to be better by Sunday."

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. •