This story appears in the Oct. 17, 2016 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Harrison Smith steers an orange-striped Cessna Skyhawk II through a headwind gusting upward of 20 knots from the northwest. As the four-seat, single-engine plane rises—1,000 feet, then 2,000—and the people and the buildings below get farther and farther away, this is where Smith is most comfortable.
Aside from the football field, of course.
An hour earlier, after a reporter went looking for Smith and entered the wrong office at Flying Cloud regional airport in Eden Prairie, Minn., a nonplussed woman behind the counter shrugged and asked, “Harrison who? … What team does he play for? I’ll see if my son knows him.”
The Vikings’ All-Pro free safety soon after ambled out of his 2002 Chevy Tahoe wearing black sweatpants, a gray long-sleeved thermal, dark-rimmed glasses and two-toned Nike Elites. Despite being the 2006 Gatorade High School Player of the Year in Tennessee, a four-year starter (and captain) at Notre Dame, a first-round NFL draft pick and now the best player on the best defense in the league, the 27-year-old Smith has managed to remain relatively unknown.
Considering his very conspicuous path on the field, his inconspicuous public profile and sparse digital footprint seem almost certainly intentional. There’s just enough of a paper trail on him to find out that he used to be afraid of flying and had earned his pilot’s license only three months ago. But his Twitter account consists of just three tweets this year. His most recent Instagram post was 15 months ago.
On the tarmac Smith introduces himself and asks his only passenger, “Are you sure you want to go through with this? The ride will be a little bumpy.” He carries himself with understated confidence. “You’re going to be terrified,” he says. “But it’ll be fine.”
For the next half hour Smith circles his plane—tail number N739BN, rented—going through his safety checklist. He climbs on top of the wings to examine the flaps and ailerons, he gauges the oil and fuel levels, cleans the windshield and inspects the landing gear. Inside the cockpit he reviews the emergency procedures—there’s a fire extinguisher, but we “should be O.K. without it”—scans his surroundings and yells, “Clear prop!” as if he were calling out instructions in the Minnesota secondary. The ground below slips away.
As he flies west toward Lake Minnetonka the ride is choppy, but Smith handles the wind deftly. He’s at ease, laughing and joking, saying things like, “Let’s take a steep turn—just to make you feel something.” The only complication during the hourlong flight: Both the pilot and passenger headsets have iPhone jacks, but it’s impossible to sync the two. In the end nobody is able to listen to Drake, who, it is mentioned, has been known to host NFL players at his house. “I have not been to Drake’s house,” Smith says. “I don’t think I make the cut on that one.”
Seven three niner bravo November, cleared to land on 28 left.
We’re coming in a little high, Smith notes, but better high than low. Fighting the wind with one hand on the wheel, the other on the throttle, he talks to himself through the descent.
Steady . . . lower . . . lower.
“There we go,” he says, as the plane smoothly touches down. “Oh, yeah.”
Later the NFL’s most anonymous star is asked how he’s stayed so far under the radar. “Maybe I’m too boring,” he says. “Or normal. Or maybe it’s more fun this way.”
General manager Rick Spielman paces his office in the Vikings’ Eden Prairie headquarters, stopping to knock on all the wood he can—desk, table, credenza—whenever something optimistic is said about his team. Sure, his starting QB, Teddy Bridgewater, went down with a gruesome knee injury two weeks before the season. Sure, his franchise back and starting left tackle went on IR the same day. But still, Minnesota is undefeated and looks every bit the part of a Super Bowl contender. Knock.
“That’s why I have so much wood in here,” Spielman jokes.
One of his first acts when he became GM in 2012 was trading up to select Smith with the 29th pick. He lauds the safety’s combination of intelligence, physicality and athleticism, a rare versatility that allows him to play both in the box and rove the secondary. At times Smith will position himself on the line of scrimmage, then drop back into coverage at the snap; other times, he’ll begin deep in the secondary and creep up to blitz or stop the run. It is Smith’s ability to be everywhere and do everything, Spielman notes, that is the fulcrum of the Vikings’ defensive scheme.
Spielman expresses mild disgust that it took until last year for Pro Football Focus’s top-rated safety of 2015 to make his first Pro Bowl (and as an injury replacement at that). When it is mentioned that in the NFL attention—and the ensuing accolades—often goes to those who seek it, Spielman laughs at the prospect of Smith attempting anything of the sort. “He just hits the hell out of you, makes plays, then packs up his suitcase and goes home,” the GM says. “All the ancillary things that come with it, he couldn’t give a rat’s ass about.”
Spielman recalls when he hired Mike Zimmer as his coach, in 2014, and the two men sat down to discuss what they would try to build. They talked about the type of players they wanted on the field, and the type of men they wanted off of it. “And as we came up with our ideal,” Spielman says, “we found we were describing Harrison Smith.”
Back in his office the GM picks up a silver Vikings pen, the same kind he gives to every rookie who signs a contract with Minnesota. This off-season, after Smith agreed to a new five-year, $51.3 million deal (which made him the NFL’s highest paid safety), Spielman proffered a new pen—but Smith -declined. Then Smith took out the same pen he’d been given four years earlier and used that. “He’s the only player ever to do that,” Spielman says. A month later, as the Vikings’ veterans drove to training camp in Mankato, Smith instead rode the bus with the rookies. That was another first for Spielman.
Andrew Sendejo offers this metaphor to explain why his fellow safety—who after big plays just brushes himself off and walks back to the huddle—doesn’t attract attention: When your car starts every morning, you don’t celebrate. You expect that to happen. That’s Smith. Excellence is simply routine for him. Two seasons ago the Vikings miked up Harrison for one game, hoping to get the kind of raw, honest audio that NFL Films often delivers. The result: “Just a lot of grunting,” says Spielman.
After one game last season a national radio station asked Minnesota’s p.r. staffers if they could corral one of their “high-level guys” for an interview. When the Vikings said Smith was on board, the station declined—he wasn’t high-level enough. Spielman shakes his head. “I guess he’s been our well-kept secret.”
The Harrison Smith origin story begins on the front lawn of his parents’ Knoxville home, with 13 aristocrat pear trees spread out in a line like yard markers. In third grade Harrison was faced with a choice: He could stay on the travel soccer team or begin his first year of tackle football. He picked soccer and instantly regretted it. He would often come home from soccer practice, put on a football uniform and helmet, head out to the front lawn and spin off of or smash himself into those 13 pear trees. “He knew after that,” says his father, Steven, “football was his passion.”
In eighth grade, having pivoted to football, Harrison sought out trainer Charles Petrone. Petrone had trained athletes in many sports (Chad Pennington, Todd Helton . . .), but his Wood Gym is, by design, impossible to notice unless you are looking for it. Inside there are no mirrors, assistants or computerized equipment. A garage door separates the weight room from the turf room, and the latter is not insulated. In winter the temperature can drop to 30°; in summer it may reach 120°. “I don’t need all the fancy stuff, the bells and whistles,” Petrone says, “and that’s Harrison’s kind of place. He’s a throwback.”
Harrison trained at the Wood Gym daily throughout his years at Knoxville Catholic High, despite pleas from his mother, Susan, to do other things—go to a school dance, go out with friends, get in some trouble. He gained 55 pounds and became a four-star recruit. He spurned offers from Alabama, Stanford, Auburn and Tennessee to attend Notre Dame, mostly because coach Charlie Weis promised him he could play safety; other schools wanted him to bulk up and move to linebacker.
Smith was quiet growing up. An early stutter gave him trepidation about public speaking. But his exterior shyness belied an intense inner confidence. Susan admits she didn’t even know he had a “mad desire” to play college football, or that he had the ability to do so until he began receiving scholarship offers. “I didn’t know it because he never said it,” she says. “He’d never draw attention to himself, so sometimes he’d go unnoticed.”
The stutter and the fear of public speaking have subsided, but Smith is still reluctant to talk about himself. Susan chides her son for not sharing more with her. He hosts various charity events, but Susan only knows that from reading about them online. When her son signed his contract in June, she heard about it from a stranger, on the street.
On a crisp late-September evening, Smith goes unbothered at a bustling Minneapolis restaurant. He orders his steak rare. To drink, an old-fashioned. Smith is well-spoken and candid, with an easy smile. He is, quite frankly, a marketing agent’s dream. But the celebrity side of the business has never appealed to him. All he’s ever wanted is to be a good football player. Not that he would turn down an endorsement opportunity if the right one arose. It would just feel unnatural to attempt to be someone he is not. When asked what his ideal sponsorship would be, he is stumped.
“Well, the one thing I love that is not a human,” he finally says, “is my ’02 Tahoe,” referencing the first car he ever got, used, 11 years ago. “It’s the perfect car for Minnesota—reliable, good in the snow. It’s been good to me so I try to be good to it.”
But he quickly points out that he would be endorsing the 2002 model, not the current version. Harrison Smith is a man out of his time.
Take Twitter. Bring up Smith’s lack of a social-media presence and he begins a discourse on the absence of privacy in this world, and not just for athletes. He points to a man at an adjacent table. Smith could Google him right now, he says, and figure out who the man’s friends are, where he works—it’s all just a click away. Also, Smith says, if he were posting photos and tweeting every time he was doing something fun, it would detract from the experience.
Smith understands that this hurts his marketability, but marketability has never been his goal. As he sees it, the Vikings are his employer, and the team just paid him a lot of money to play football, so that’s his focus. “I won’t say I don’t want people to talk about me,” Smith says, “because of course I want that. But I want them to talk about me as a good football player.”
When talking about football himself, Smith directs attention to his teammates. He quickly shuts down the notion that the Vikings’ flexible scheme would not work without him. Eventually he does confess to his belief that he is the best safety in the league, but even this he is only able to talk about in the second person. “You have to believe you are the best, before you even play a down,” he says. “You need that to play at a high level, whether it’s true or not.”
Smith still trains in the off-season at the Wood Gym, still brings Petrone a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee every morning. The thought of changing to one of the more high-profile gyms that NFL players frequent has never entered his mind. “I’m not in the cool circle,” he says. “And I don’t know how to get in it.” Nor does he care to.
So what does the NFL’s best-kept secret want the public to know about him? Smith shrugs. Then he smirks. There’s only one answer he can give.
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