CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The microphones had scattered. Harrison Smith, after one of the best games of what might prove to be a Hall of Fame career, was still standing next to a large hamper, in the strange way that sport so often juxtaposes the regal and the mundane.
Smith had just won an NFL game with a handful of pivotal plays. His reward: shower in what amounts to a middle-class gym, dress in an old locker room crowded with strangers and stand next to a bin of sweaty clothes while answering questions.
He was shirtless, bearing the fruits of his labors — a strawberry-colored cut on his face and welts looking like blueberries and raspberries scattered about his torso.
Smith is the Vikings' oldest star. Danielle Hunter, the Vikings' other tenured defensive standout, walked over, put his arm around Smith's shoulders and told a visitor, "This man is a beast. And he has always been a beast."
On Sunday, Smith recorded three of the Vikings' five sacks and two of their eight tackles for losses in their 21-13 victory over Carolina at Bank of America Stadium. With one of his many well-timed blitzes, he forced a fumble that teammate D.J. Wonnum returned 51 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter, giving the Vikings their first lead.
"That's what we expect out of him," Vikings safety Camryn Bynum said. "He's a Hall of Famer. Greatest safety of all time."
In 2022, Vikings defensive coordinator Ed Donatell used Smith as his safety net, playing him deep to prevent big plays.
In 2023, Brian Flores, Donatell's successor, has employed Smith all over the field. On Sunday, he frequently sent Smith crashing in from the edge of the pocket on rookie quarterback Bryce Young. The result: Smith spent so much time in the Panthers' backfield that he will be required to pay North Carolina state taxes.
The Panthers managed six offensive points and 3.4 yards per play.
"On a couple of those plays, I was the free guy," Smith said. "If your number is called, make a play. That's what we've been talking about the last few weeks. We've had opportunities and haven't made the plays."
Smith's statistics testify to the change of defensive philosophies. In 2022, he had one forced fumble, one tackle for loss and zero sacks, with five interceptions.
Through four games in 2023, he has two forced fumbles, two tackles for losses and three sacks, with no interceptions.
"As an individual, my mindset is a little more aggressive," Smith said of his role in the current defense. "That's a little more of what I've done most of my career. But that's not to say what we did last year doesn't work. A lot of teams around the league do what we did last year. And I learned a ton last year, in a lot of different areas. It's not wrong or right. It's what you make work.''
When Smith entered the league, he vowed to use his helmet to inflict as much damage on opponents as possible. At 34, he's using his head more conventionally. He has sought out coach Kevin O'Connell and General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah to talk about their jobs and their vision for the franchise.
"What did I learn last year?" he said. "I would say, from the top, it was culture and how real that is. But also, like, what quarterbacks are reading, what they're going off and how they'll react to what you show them. I'm still learning from KO. I talk to Kwesi a lot, about personnel stuff. It's not a way I've thought before. As an older player, you kind of wise up to how to build a roster, stuff like that.
"I remember talking to Ed about being a better man and a better husband and a better player. So I've got a ton of love for Ed."
Hunter didn't hide his affection for Smith. "This is what he does," Hunter said. "He prepares. He knows the game plan. He's someone you can count on. And we need him."