Former Vikings running back Robert Smith made a big impact on the field during his career, rushing for 6,818 yards and earning a trip to the 1998 and 2000 Pro Bowls. When he returned to Minnesota to watch his team take on Chicago, however, he made an impact in a completely different way.
Prior to the game, Smith joined a group of tailgating Vikings fans and helped raise roughly $3,000 that will go directly to the Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota. As a father, Smith says this specific charity hits close to home – even more so around the holidays.
"Any family that has to deal with disease is difficult, but when you're dealing with a young child and unfortunately a disease that can be—and often is—fatal, it's important to try to comfort those children and those families in whatever way you can," Smith said. "Especially now, having my own children, it's something that you can barely imagine having to go through yourself, [let alone] your child having to go through, so if you see somebody else that's going through it, there's this empathy you have for these people, and you want to try to help them in any way that you can."
The fundraiser was started by a group of fans who regularly tailgate and attend most Vikings games (home and away) together: Ryan Rhody, Seth Brittain, Lance Tetzlaff, Jason Feathers, Chris Holman and Mike Conlon. The group also facilitated a Toys for Tots drive at the Vikings-Seahawks game and a coat drive at the Vikings-Packers game.
The week before the game, Smith took to Facebook to auction off a signed photo of the four leading rushers in Vikings history, with all proceeds going to the Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota. Smith also explained he would be in Minnesota for the game and offered to take a fan out to dinner if he or she made a donation of $1,000. Rhody messaged Smith with an invite to tailgate; soon after, his friend bid on the photo and said he would rather Smith come to the tailgate event in lieu of dinner.
When the bid for the signed photo jumped to $1,500, Smith confirmed that he would attend the fundraiser tailgate either way. Quickly, Rhody came up with an idea to raise more money for the hospital.
"I brought up that tons of people would be asking [Smith] for pictures and autographs while he visited, and I asked if he could suggest that people donate money toward the hospital for getting an autograph or photo," Rhody explained. "I also said I would bring pizzas for everyone that was donating. He loved the idea and offered to bring football cards to autograph and hand out. He and I both shared it on Facebook, and it took off from there."
For Smith, it was a no-brainer to take part in the event to help raise funds. The former Viking said that cancer research and treatment specifically is very near and dear to his heart, and he also has a special connection with the hospital from his time as a player. While team visits were a positive experience, they were also a whirlwind of cameras, schedules and quick greetings.
"My last year [with the Vikings], I decided to do my own thing and just go in and sit with the family and the kids without cameras or anything like that – just be able to spend some time with them," Smith said. "I just started to learn more about what some of the kids go through and what the families go through. It's been important to me, and whenever I can and I get the time, I'll do something with the Children's Hospital or cancer research in general."
A large number of fans took part in the fundraiser, enjoying the opportunity to not only meet a legendary member of the Vikings but to support such a worthwhile cause, as well. Alex Kantner drove from Iowa to attend the game and join in the fundraiser.
"I think it's great. It's so nice to see him take the time out of his own life to show up and do something like this just to raise money for kids and interact with the fans," Kantner said. "So many people were really excited to meet him. I've been to a couple [autograph events for other athletes], but I've never been close enough or stayed long enough to see the excitement on each fan's face as they got to take a few pictures and talk to him for a bit."
Wearing a purple coat and a Vikings stocking hat, Smith arrived at the tailgate lot at 10:30 a.m. and stayed for a little over an hour. Smith enjoyed hanging out with fans, signing autographs and taking photos while collecting money for the hospital. The only time he took a break? When a personalized Mama's Pizza was dropped off, complete with pepperoni spelling out "26" for Smith's old jersey number.
"Having Smith there was huge," Rhody said. "He's one of the best Vikings in many fans' eyes and always known for being a nice guy, so a lot of people wanted to meet him."
Smith took in the experience and appreciated every minute of it, as well. As someone who did not identify as a dedicated sports fan growing up, Smith didn't resonate as much with the fandom experience during his time in the NFL.
"When I was a player, it wasn't really the kind of thing that I liked to do a whole lot; it kind of made you uncomfortable being in that environment sometimes, because you're just focused on what it is you're trying to do as a player, and you almost don't understand it," Smith said. "But now, being away from the game and being a fan myself in a sense, being in that environment and being able to share the excitement for the team, seeing the jerseys and all the different ways that people dress up, it's a craziness that's kind of fun to be a part of."