The Vikings made 16 transactions in March, but there was one other move that didn’t show up on any official NFL list. And it was the most inspiring of them all.
Linebacker Cameron Smith, 24, who missed all of last season after undergoing open-heart surgery in August to repair a bicuspid aortic valve, was cleared to play in 2021. Smith got the news when he went to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where the surgery had been performed, to undergo a battery of tests.
“I went out to Philadelphia the beginning of March and did another follow up, another CAT scan, another echo(cardiogram) and when the surgeon looked at me, it was like I nailed it, crushed it, you’re good on our end,” Smith said. “When he said that, I felt like wow, what a great feeling.”
Smith returned to practice Monday for the start of organized team activities. That resulted in another great feeling for Smith, who was taken in the fifth round of the 2019 draft by the Vikings out of USC and played in five games as a rookie.
“It was interesting because leading up to this, I was unsure what the feeling was going to be like,” said Smith, 24, who also took part in practices Tuesday and Wednesday and will be back next Tuesday for the start of the second week of OTAs. “I was excited to feel that again, but when it came down to running out there, it felt like I hadn’t missed a beat. It just felt like almost home again.”
When Smith returned to the field, there was an outpouring of support.
“We prayed for Cam so much, and he’s back here now, and it’s a miracle,” running back Dalvin Cook said. “That’s God that he’s out there with us running around. I’m happy for him.”
Smith thanked Cook for the description of his comeback, though he wasn’t as dramatic.
“If he wants to call it a miracle, that’s all right,” Smith said. “But I think in my head I always knew I’d be back. I never believed anything other than that.”
Smith’s odyssey began last year just before the start of training camp when he tested positive for coronavirus and was placed on the Covid-19 list. During medical examinations, he underwent a number of additional tests.
Those tests revealed that Smith had been born with a heart defect that needed to be fixed. He announced in an Instagram post on Aug. 8 that he would undergo open-heart surgery and miss the 2020 season.
“I never felt like I had an issue, but I think how weird it it is to say Covid essentially saved my life,” Smith said of the examinations of his heart performed only because he had tested positive.
Smith said it was determined his condition was hereditary. He pointed to his grandfather on his mother’s side, who died of a heart attack at age 65.
Smith was placed on the Vikings’ reserve/non-football illness list for the 2020 season. After surgery, he returned to Minnesota and was around the team regularly for most of the season.
“It was huge for me to stay around the guys, because that’s what I really wanted to do,” Smith said. “I think I grew a lot last year throughout the entire experience. I kind of transitioned my role a little bit into being a supporter and being a guy that was pumping up my teammates. Through the end, that’s what kept me mentally sane.”
His teammates appreciated having him around. In December, they voted him the Vikings’ winner of the Ed Block Courage Award. Since 1984, that award has gone to a player on each NFL team who exemplifies commitment to the principles of sportsmanship and courage.
Throughout last last fall to start this year, Smith worked to keep in good shape, anticipating the moment he hoped to be cleared to play. He said his parents, John and Suzy Smith, always were supportive of him resuming his football career.
‘They’ve never been scared, never been worried,” Smith said. “They’ve seen my mindset on the whole thing. I remember having my first meeting with the cardiologist and her recommending that football was out of the question. I remember me calling my mom and her saying, ‘No, that’s not it. Football’s not done for you.’ ”
Determined to make a fresh start in 2021, Smith changed jersey numbers. Linebacker Nick Vigil, signed in March as a free agent, took Smith’s rookie number of 59 and Smith switched to 32 after the NFL in April made a change allowing linebackers to wear numbers from 1 to 39
“After (last) year was done, I had reached out to (equipment manager) Dennis (Ryan) and said I need a fresh start, I need a new number,” Smith said. “And when they brought in the number rule, I just looked at the best number available in my eyes. I felt like 32 was the one. It feels good. … It just feels like a new me, got a new heart, a new number. It’s a brand new me. It’s fun.”
Still, Smith knows challenges await him on the field. As a rookie in 2019, he spent much of the season on the practice squad, and there’s no guarantee he’ll be in line for a lot of playing time in 2021.
Holdover starters Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks will play just about every snap if they remain healthy. After that, there are a host of linebackers battling for the third starting spot and reserve roles. In addition to Smith, the group includes Vigil, Troy Dye, Ryan Connelly, Blake Lynch and rookie Chazz Surratt.
For now, though, more than a few Vikings players and coaches have paused during spring drills to show their appreciation for Smith’s return.
“It’s a great story,” offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak said. “I’m glad to see him back on the grass.”