MANKATO – Throughout his college career at Notre Dame and into his early years in Minnesota, star Vikings safety Harrison Smith felt a gripping anxiety whenever he flew to games on official team charters.
So two winters ago, after taking a puddle-jumper to Thief River Falls, Minn., to make an appearance at the Vikings’ Arctic Blast event, Smith decided there was no better way to get over his fear than to learn how to fly a plane himself.
“I was actually always scared of it, flying on the team plane. It was something I thought I should learn more about, and in the process I actually started flying and enjoyed it,” Smith said Monday while signing autographs for dozens of fans in Mankato. “It’s just another thing to stretch your brain a little bit.”
In March of 2015, Smith started going over to ground school at Flying Cloud Airport in Eden Prairie to start the process of becoming a licensed pilot.
“He didn’t even call,” Trever Rossini, the owner of Inflight Pilot Training, said in a phone interview. “He just showed up on our ground school list.”
Rossini said applicants must complete at least 40 hours of in-air training, with different benchmarks to be cleared along the way before taking the final test. They include a written test, a thorough medical exam and a night-flying session.
“You learn something every time you go up — stalling the plane, learning how to taxi around and talk on the radios, stuff like that,” Smith said.
Eventually, in June of 2015, Smith was ready to take his first solo flight.
“The time that’s the craziest is when you’re just by yourself in the plane for the first time,” the 27-year-old said. “I think it was after my second takeoff and landing that I realized, ‘Hey, I’m the only one in here.’ But it’s nothing wild. It’s just making sure you do everything you’re taught.”
In late June of this year, after 65 hours in the air, Smith was ready to attempt the final hurdle before acquiring a pilot’s license by strapping in with an instructor for his “check ride,” the aerial version of a final driver’s exam.
Rossini said he aced it on the first try.
Smith, a Tennessee native, said he will only fly planes when he is in Minnesota. And he vowed to remain out of the cockpit until the offseason because he wants to continue to focus on football during the NFL season.
Last season, the versatile safety was named to his first Pro Bowl, albeit as an injury replacement, after recording 66 tackles, two interceptions and 1.5 sacks in 13 games. He returned one of those interceptions for a touchdown, giving him a franchise-record four pick-sixes in only four NFL seasons.
In June, Smith signed a five-year, $51.25 million extension that made him the NFL’s highest-paid safety. He was surpassed on Tuesday by Tyrann Mathieu, who could get $62.5 million over five years from the Arizona Cardinals.
After cashing in with $28.6 million guaranteed in his megadeal, Smith has enough money to buy a whole fleet of planes. But the frugal safety who still drives a 2002 Chevy Tahoe is renting planes for now. He said he will consider splurging on a plane — and will buy a new car — eventually.
Smith said his new contract does not include any specific language preventing him from flying planes. General Manager Rick Spielman, asked through a spokesman if the Vikings had an issue with Smith piloting, declined to comment.
“I think I’m doing everything within the rules and I’m responsible. Nothing competes with football at all. When it’s time to play football, I don’t mess around,” Smith said passionately. “A lot of guys do things in the offseason — hunting, fishing, whatever. That just happens to be what I’m into.”
He doesn’t think it’s a big deal, but of course he is aware of the risks up there.
“You have to be on your ‘A’ game every time. There’s no do-overs,” he said.
His close friends on the team, which include safety Andrew Sendejo and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, already are lining up to be his wingman next offseason.
But would Sendejo — who coincidentally began training to get his helicopter pilot’s license this past offseason and plans to resume that training following the season — get into a plane with a different Vikings player in the cockpit?
“Uhhh … no, not necessarily,” said Sendejo, who started every game in 2015.
Sendejo, perhaps the team’s biggest thrill-seeker, nodded understandingly when he was told that Smith learned how to fly, in part, due to his earlier anxiety.
“It comes back to the old cliché about conquering your fears,” he said. “He was probably like … ‘I’m just going to go learn how to do it myself.’ ”
Flying planes is only a hobby for Smith now. The fifth-year safety hopes to have a long football career, one that includes at least one Lombardi Trophy.
But might we someday see the 6-2, 215-pound human sledgehammer standing outside the cockpit when we board a commercial airline flight?
“I doubt it,” Smith said with a laugh. “But I have a great deal of respect for the people who take care of us in the air.”