Harrison Smith slips out from behind a swing set at the Jimmy Lee Recreation Center in St. Paul, set to surprise the North Area Titans 14-and-under football team, and immediately locks eyes with Jay.
“What’s up?” Smith says as he shakes hands with the 13-year-old boy. “I told you I’d come and see you.”
“Jay” is Javionte Jackson, a seventh-grader Smith met through his work with Big Brothers Big Sisters Twin Cities. They’ve connected several times through the program, and Smith has taken a liking to Jackson’s confidence. This summer, when Jackson caught a touchdown pass over Smith during one of the events the safety hosted at Vikings training camp, he turned back to let the All-Pro hear about it.
“He told me he’s going to come take my number, take my spot,” Smith said with a laugh. “There’s always somebody coming for you.”
The day somebody nudges Smith off the Vikings roster is going to arrive eventually, and he knows it. As a rookie, he saw Antoine Winfield get released after having perhaps the best year of his career at age 35. Other veterans have paraded out the door as well: Kevin Williams, Jared Allen, Chad Greenway, Brian Robison and now Terence Newman, who retired at age 40 this fall and joined the Vikings coaching staff.
Smith is already in his seventh season. He will be 30 the day before Super Bowl LIII — a fact that made Newman shake his head in disbelief Friday. But as the safety continues to fashion a career that could have him on a Hall of Fame trajectory, he’s driven by an approach that leaves little room for half measures.
His decision to go to ground school in the spring of 2015, in an attempt to get over his fear of flying, led to Smith obtaining his pilot’s license and spending time in the air each offseason. His offseason training regimen in his hometown of Knoxville, Tenn., used to include sparring with his close friend, Raiders tight end Lee Smith — until “we were just beating each other up every time.
“We did it a few too many times, and his wife was like, ‘Maybe y’all should just chill out. You’re taking too many plays off your careers,’ Smith said. “Even though we were beating each other up, we really did enjoy it. In a sick way, we had a lot of fun.”
Smith’s Tesla stands out in a Vikings parking lot full of big SUVs and sports cars. His work with Big Brothers Big Sisters, which dates to his time at Notre Dame, includes a series of events and an annual fundraising campaign that brought in more than $41,000 last year. He’s met Jackson four times through his mentor, Matt Jennissen, but Smith said he “floats” in different roles with the organization, since he wouldn’t want his Vikings schedule to interfere with his ability to pour into a one-on-one mentoring relationship.
Even in social visits, Newman said, Smith’s tablet is nearby, with film of an upcoming opponent.
“I’ve been to his house when I was playing with him, and he’s just on his iPad, watching film,” Newman said. “Go to the cold tub, he’s on his iPad, watching film. He’s a guy that’s just hungry to get better, hungry for knowledge. You can see it any time you watch him play, or any time you watch him practice. He studies just as hard as he plays.”
‘I want to play as long as I can’
The gold standard for safeties in Mike Zimmer’s mind has long been Darren Woodson, the five-time Cowboys Pro Bowler who earned All-Pro honors during each of Zimmer’s first three seasons coaching defensive backs in Dallas.
Newman was a rookie when Woodson was in his final year with the Cowboys, and serves as something of a link between Woodson and Smith. While Woodson might have been faster, able to line up against slot receivers in an era where the position was still in its nascency, Smith gets more work as a pass rusher, having already matched Woodson’s career total with 11 sacks.
“You don’t point to anything to say there’s a weakness,” Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “He’s a good blitzer, he’s a good tackler, he’s good in his disguises. He can play the deep middle, he can play a good quarters safety. … The longer now that he’s played, he’s just started to own his craft more and more. Much like a quarterback who’s been in the same system for years, as [quarterbacks] coach [Kevin] Stefanski has said, you start to know where the bones are buried. You start to know the way teams are trying to beat you, and you’ve seen it before. You’re not going to get fooled as easily.”
As a young player, Smith said, studying an opponent could be like “drinking from a fire hose.” Now he knows what can help him on game day, and what might be too extraneous to apply in a fast-paced environment.
While Smith criticized the NFL’s new rules this summer, saying the demands were too far-fetched for defensive players to meet in real time, he also said he wanted to evolve with the game as it asked defenders to refine their techniques. As Newman pointed out, Smith hasn’t been flagged for illegal contact yet this season.
“Harrison’s a leader on this team, and he conducts himself as that,” Newman said. “He’s not a very vocal guy, and he doesn’t say a whole lot. He’s a leader in terms of going out and doing what you’re supposed to do, knowing how you’re supposed to do it. I’ve never heard him complain in my life. In terms of being a consummate professional, he’s the way you embody that, and Darren Woodson was the exact same way.”
Woodson retired at age 34 after missing a season following herniated disc surgery; Newman played until the eve of his 40th birthday. How long does Smith want to do it?
“I want to play as long as I can,” Smith said. “I don’t have like some number in my mind. I just want to play until they tell me I’m not good any more.”
Leaning into adversity
If Smith were more active on social media, he might have heard such criticism after the Vikings dropped two games in four days to fall to 1-2-1.
As the Vikings return to the site of their 38-7 NFC Championship Game loss — during which Smith was among the players beaten for long touchdowns against the Eagles — they’re contending with defensive issues they’ve rarely faced under Zimmer.
Smith said he’s watched the NFC title game enough to be removed from its sting. At this point, it’s useful data, no different than the first four games of this season. Smith sees no point in hiding from it.
“I remember losing at the high school playoff games,” he said. “I remember plays in those games, college games, Little League games. I’m always going to remember those things, because that’s what makes you the player that you are. That’s what makes me who I am — my past experiences, wins, losses, good plays, bad plays. I’ll always carry those with me. You’ve got to be able to compartmentalize it.”
As he walked across the youth fields last Saturday — two days after the Vikings’ 38-31 loss to the Rams — Smith poked fun at himself and deadpanned, “Might be able to learn something today.”
That, in many ways, has been the safety’s approach as a pro. As he nears what might be the midpoint of his time in the NFL, he doesn’t figure to change.
“It’s the only way I know how to do things,” Smith said. “I don’t want anything to ever come close to the game that I get to play, because it’s such a short amount of time that we get to play this game, at this level, and I don’t want to take that for granted.”