News | Minnesota Vikings –

Happy Homecoming: Irv Smith, Jr.

Irv Smith, Jr., walked into his favorite restaurant in New Orleans, eagerly anticipating a dinner with his immediate family to celebrate a milestone weekend.

The Vikings rookie tight end was in his hometown and preparing for the first NFL game of his career, a preseason date with the Saints that also fell on his 21st birthday.

But when he walked into the restaurant, his father, a former first-round pick of the Saints, told him his mom and grandma were running late. Irv Smith, Sr., then led his son to a private room on the third floor of the Palace Café, telling him they'd just wait for the others to arrive.

Smith, Jr., had little idea what was in store for him.

"We go on the elevator, and I just thought there were two stories [in the restaurant]," he explained. "But we go to the third floor and I'm like, 'Where are we going?' I see this room, but I couldn't see anything in there, but they opened the door and everybody yelled, 'Surprise!'

"It was special. All birthdays are special, but I feel like your 21st is a big one," added the rookie who was taken aback by the 14 friends and family members, including his mom and grandma, in attendance. "Then with it being my first NFL game, having all that time together, especially in my home city, it's something special and something I'll never forget."

His mom, Rose Matamoros, added: "The fact that he's home in New Orleans and playing against the team his dad used to play for and he's turning 21 in his hometown … it's crazy how it all came together like this."

Smith, Jr., was born in New Orleans but moved to Phoenix soon after. He returned to the Big Easy for his high school years, where he was a prep star at Brother Martin High School.

The Smith family has a special connection to the city; the Saints selected Irv Smith, Sr., with the 20th overall pick in the 1993 NFL Draft after his standout career at Notre Dame.

The elder Smith's first preseason game also was in New Orleans, and at the same stadium (the Superdome), but 26 years before his son's debut.

The homecoming weekend was a big deal for the family that likes to say that New Orleans is all about family, food and football.

"Some people just think it's Bourbon Street and it's fun and all that," Smith, Jr., said. "But it also has a lot of culture, and it's something special. The people are so welcoming and open. It's a place like no other. It shaped me to the man I am."

The festive atmosphere of the city was on display on the night of April 26, when the Smith family had a crawfish boil with more than 50 pounds of the popular Southern food, and the Vikings picked Smith, Jr., with the 50th overall pick of the 2019 NFL Draft.

"His mom and his aunt, they all put on the event and did an amazing job. They really blessed him and blessed everybody that came," Smith, Sr., said. "We ate crawfish until we couldn't eat crawfish anymore.

Smith, Jr., may have a special connection to the Bayou, but the Land of 10,000 Lakes is where he is expected to make an impact in the Vikings offense.

A shifty mismatch in college, he recorded 58 receptions for 838 yards (14.4 yards per reception) and 10 touchdowns in 38 games for Alabama. He had 33 receptions that gained a first down or scored a touchdown in college.

In Minnesota, he will complement veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph and hopefully provide quarterback Kirk Cousins with another weapon in the passing game.

The tight end is known for his athleticism. He tied for the third-fastest time in the 40-yard dash (4.63 seconds) at the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine.

According to his mom, his athleticism goes back a long ways. While most kids were learning to walk around a year old, her son already was dribbling a basketball.

"I remember him getting his swimming lessons when he was 2 ½ and the swimming instructor was like, 'I've never seen anything like him.' By Day 2, he was diving off the diving board and swimming the length of the pool," Matamoros said. "And when his sister played basketball, he was the first kid on the court at halftime. He's 2 ½ years old, and he's shooting on a 10-foot basket and making them."

The 6-foot-2 tight end was 22 inches long when he was born.

"He was like an alien," Matamoros said with a laugh.

Smith, Jr., said he has just enjoyed the competition of athletics throughout his life, whether it was roller-skating in the street as a kid or helping the Crimson Tide win a national title in 2017.

He plans on bringing that same mentality to his new home in Minnesota, where Smith had another reason to celebrate on Sunday night. He caught a 3-yard touchdown pass from Sean Mannion to tie the game at 10 just before halftime. It was one of five receptions on the night.

"Each level of sports I've played — whether it was grade school, middle school, high school or college — I feel like I've progressed well, and I think I'll do that here, too. High school to college is a bigger [physical] jump because in high school, you're basically the top guy," said Smith, Jr. "But going to Alabama, going against the top players on my team at practice, it was tough. But once that's instilled in you, I feel like it prepared me. The jump from college to the NFL is more mental and more detailed-oriented.

"I just want to go out there and play fast on every play," he added. "I know if I can play fast, that I'm going to be confident I can go out there and make plays. If I can do that, then the sky is the limit."