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Cam Smith Shooting 1
Photographing Vikings Camp Helped Cam Smith See Life Through New Lens
By Lindsey Young Aug 30, 2023

The last time Cam Smith had stepped foot on the Vikings practice fields, he'd been wearing a white 32 practice jersey and football gloves.

He walked back onto that field last month, almost exactly two years later, this time in a black T-shirt and purple bucket hat, toting a camera.

It's fair to say Smith never saw his journey playing out this way.

He never thought he'd be drafted by the Vikings in 2019, then in 2020 learn he'd been living with a dangerous and previously undetected congenital heart defect. He never thought he'd battle back from open heart surgery, yet still retire from the game he loved at just 24 years old.

Smith still remembers the day he made a life-changing decision.

On Aug. 14, 2021, he suited up for the Vikings first preseason game against the Broncos – and his first game since undergoing a major operation.

"I had kind of walked into the game thinking, 'This is either going to be the greatest game of my life, or I'm going to retire,' " Smith recalled, adding that he'd prayed for a clear answer.

Less than a minute into the second quarter, Smith suffered a concussion. He went home later that night and told his girlfriend Trinity, "I think that's it. I think I'm done."

Cam Smith Vikings

Smith felt a "huge weight" lifted off his shoulders after uttering those words.

"For it to feel like that, I felt like it was just a sign," he said. "I kind of took a couple days to just walk around the facility knowing, 'This is my last time doing this.' "

Smith couldn't have known then that he'd actually be back in those same hallways thanks to a very different passion.

Now 26, Smith recently spent two-plus weeks in Minnesota, photographing former teammates – and many new faces – at Vikings Training Camp.

"That first Monday out at practice, I saw some people – Troy Dye, Garrett Bradbury, who was in the same draft class with me – and it was stop, talk, take a few photos," Smith laughed. "By the time I was done catching up and was just talking photos, practice was over.

"Being back in the environment, and not feeling like I've missed practice, missed being on the field, missed putting the pads on – because I haven't, at all," he continued, "I'm seeing and feeling, 'OK. Everything's good.' I'm happy with where I'm at, and I'm excited to keep pushing the bar."

Cam Smith Staircase

Escaping the shadows

It's taken a long time for Smith to feel that way, though.

Walking out of the facility in August 2021 was, as he describes it, the start of a "black hole" he'd spend two years fighting to escape.

He understands that it might be a feeling few resonate with, unless they've played professional athletics and had their career unexpectedly and dramatically cut short.

Smith struggled to find his identity outside of football. After all, he'd played the sport from the age of 6.

Vikings assistant defensive backs coach Michael Hutchings is a longtime friend of Smith, having played with him at USC before coaching him at the school for a season.

"It was tough for me to [see Cam going through that]," Hutchings said. "Knowing what kind of person he is, how much of a football junkie he is, and knowing it was snatched away at an unpredicted time. Very random and unexpected.

"So to have that taken away and then have to plan for life after football, post-football career, very suddenly – that's the part where I really felt for him," Hutchings added. "And knowing he had to transition, really, not under his own terms."

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Smith moved to Texas after retiring and worked in real estate. But he soon grew restless and again made a major change, purchasing and living out of a white conversion van. He and Trinity traveled for 8 months, hitting "pretty much every state west of the Mississippi" while Smith further developed his interest in outdoor photography.

But while he loved taking photos, Smith wasn't content. He wasn't happy.

"I never wanted to buy a van," he says, able to now chuckle at the memory. "But I think I was just craving experiences I'd missed out on playing football. I wanted to hunt and fish as much as I could because during football season, I couldn't do that.

"I was just craving freedom," he added.

Smith and Trinity left the van life behind and started laying down roots – both as a family and career-wise. In August 2022, Smith launched his own photography business, Omni Collective.

But as he continued to wrestle with his mental health, Smith began exchanging messages via Instagram with Vikings Team Photographer Andy Kenutis. The two had of course known each other in Minnesota, as Smith had sometimes been the subject of Kenutis' photos at practice and on game days, and Kenutis had become familiar with Smith's interest in photography.

It was the first time, though, that Kenutis really recognized Smith's creative ambition.

Cam Smith Fans Collage

"It was clear he wasn't just asking for a camera recommendation," Kenutis said. "He was interested in learning about photography and the intent behind it. It went beyond some of the typical, 'What lens should I use?' It was more than the technical side, and I'm not a technical photographer to begin with, so I resonated with him. A lot of our conversations were more philosophical in natural, more about our approach to the art of photography."

Kenutis and Smith conversed back and forth about creative process and their philosophies around photography, and Kenutis invited the former linebacker to spend time in Minnesota during the 2023 training camp.

"Walking into these doors again, it was almost symbolic of, 'Look how far I've come,' " Smith said. "If I would have done this a year ago, I think I would have crumbled. I don't think I would have been able to handle it – seeing people, talking to people. I don't think I would have been emotionally ready."

Smith spoke to his dad over the phone a few days after arriving in Minnesota and told him it felt "pretty huge" to have taken the step.

"I'm not sure how I would have felt if it would have been the same staff and all my former teammates, like E.K. (Eric Kendricks), Anthony [Barr]," he said. "It feels good to see some people who were around but not everybody. I think that was the hardest part through it all. … The guys who were on the team when I left were some of my favorite people I'd been around. It was tough. It hurt."

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For nearly two years, Smith had almost entirely avoided the game of football.

He went from studying film daily to not discussing, playing or watching the sport, save for a few Vikings games last season to keep up with Kendricks' success.

Smith assumed that being back around the game would be too painful. But when he finally faced it again, when he stepped onto the Vikings practice fields as a photographer instead of a linebacker, it hit him: a deep, painful and yet freeing realization.

"Football wasn't the issue. It was me," Smith said, his body noticeably relaxing as an almost tangible burden lightens. "I was the issue. I was unhealthy mentally, physically, emotionally. And taking football away only helped me realize that it never was the root problem. … I pushed something away thinking that was the reason, and I was going to be a totally new person. But I wasn't.

"Until I figured out it was me. 'It's you. You are the issue,' " Smith continued, speaking to himself. "Once realizing that, it's been healthy, and a lot of growth has progressed. And photography has been a big part of that.

"I think really committing to photography and owning my artist side … That's a crucial part of who I am that I neglected for so long," he added.

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Back in focus

Looking back, Smith wishes he would have allowed those two passions to coincide.

He believes that had he obliged his love of photography while playing football, he would have been emotionally and mentally healthier.

"I would have been able to release a lot of things from the game. And honestly, who knows what would have happened? Or if I would have ever retired," Smith said.

But it's not something he dwells on. Rather, Smith is thankful to be in a much better headspace and to be viewing football through an entirely different lens.

He's learned so much from Kenutis, whom he views as more of a lifestyle photographer – as Smith himself identifies – than a traditional sports photographer.

"What Andy thrives in is his ability to capture people in these organic moments and frame it in a very simple way. I think about some of the shots that he'd grab of Eric Kendricks lying on his back in this chaotic space, and he's just meditating or breathing or whatever. Those are the moments that I look for, as well," Smith said. "I like that, and I think that's where I've been really inspired by Andy – because of his ability to frame in unique ways or put together photos that you don't see a lot of.

"I've never thought of myself as an action photographer or sports photographer where they just sit with long lenses and fire away," Smith added. "I like the very intricate, personal shots. And I've looked to Andy for a lot of inspiration and growth and styling. Who I am, what I like. Because he's really good at what he does."

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Smith initially found himself taking photos mainly of former teammates or staff members he was familiar with: a pensive Dye sitting cross-legged after a grueling practice, Harrison Smith sprinting across the field, Danielle Hunter staring down a tackling dummy.

But after a few days, he challenged himself to move beyond his comfort zone to organically capture intimate moments and new faces.

He snapped a close-up of wide receiver K.J. Osborn, bowing his head in prayer for an injured teammate as beads of sweat slipped down his face, and first-round pick Jordan Addison poised to receive a pass.

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"I saw him get a lot more confident pretty quickly," Kenutis said. "By the end of it, he was getting up close and personal, and it showed in his photos. It's like a dance with the subject – giving people space but also playing with it – and I think he really found a good comfort zone.

"Your work tends to speak on what's inside you," Kenutis added. "So the things he probably felt himself as a player, he was able to capture."

Highlight reel

Some of Smith's favorite shots were taken at TCO Stadium for the Vikings first of two night practices, where players and fans alike were washed in warm, golden light.

But one favorite actually depicts Harrison Smith cloaked in a shadow at the top of the stairs, the white 22 on his practice jersey a sharp contrast to the rest of the photo's darkness.

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"It's very 'Hitman.' Very Harrison Smith," Smith explained. "You can't see his face. It's dark. I love the leading lines. I feel like the technique is what I wanted. It's so simple. … Those who know Harry – he doesn't speak, really. He's just out there working, and he hasn't declined in his performance after 11 seasons. In fact, he's arguably the best he's ever been."

Another photo, this one of Hunter aboard the team bus from outside the window, also relies on sharp contrast and shadows.

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"I like the frame within a frame. Danielle isn't a showy person. He's very quiet, he's very reserved – and yet he's also this larger-than-life, freak-of-nature athlete," Smith said. "So I like that you also can't see his face clearly. You can barely see the outline of who he is."

Smith captured various photos of Vikings phenom Justin Jefferson, whom he overlapped with in 2020 and 2021 before retiring.

In one, Jefferson stands isolated on the practice field against a bright sky backdrop.

"He almost looks like a giant," Smith said. "I think in some way that's showing, again, who he is in the football world. Who he is to fans. His head is in the clouds, in the sky, and it's like, 'This man is on top of the world.' "

And Smith especially loves one of Jefferson during night practice, a "pan" photo executed using slow shutter speed.

"I love how he's more in-focus. Sometimes in these types of photos, you only see a figure," he said. "I love these perspectives because it illustrates how fast they're really moving, in a way. … I'm sure Justin is going to look back and think, 'It was all a blur.' One day he's gonna be retired, and in this organization, he's going to be a Randy Moss figure – potentially the greatest of all time, the best to ever do it. Who knows?"

Cam Smith JJ Collage

Added Kenutis: "The way it was shot wide versus tight shot was a different approach, but it really isolated Justin and created that feeling of speed and time."

Smith edits the majority of his photos in black-and-white. Stylistically, it's something he's always been drawn to.

"I love this vintage feel it brings. The simplicity of it. It focuses more on the shot, the technique, the creative mindset and less on colors," he said. "I used to wonder, 'Will people like it?' And honestly, being here has made me realize, I don't really care anymore. My black and whites I love, and I'm excited to share them.

"If you're looking for perfection, it doesn't exist. … You want that acceptance from somebody else, but really, that [shouldn't be your priority]. If you don't like your own work and you're not enjoying it, you might as well not be an artist," Smith continued. "I want to keep doing unique things. It's hard to change the game in today's world. But as I've learned from Andy, simply being yourself – that can result in something [new]. Everybody's different. Just do your thing, let it come organically, and hopefully you make an impact."

Cam Smith Night Practice

Finding golden hour

For Smith, things truly have come full circle.

He never anticipated the amount of healing he'd find over two weeks of photographing Vikings Training Camp practices.

"At one point I would have said, 'I'm over the game of football. I'm done with it,' " Smith said. "But I do enjoy the game. And when watching those guys head out to practice, I don't feel any sort of jealousy or regret. I don't miss game day. That's not for me anymore.

"I think what I've gotten here, though, is that sense of being part of the team again. I got to be around these people, and that's enough for me," he added.

Being back in Minnesota answered a lot of questions for Smith.

"It's filled a lot of voids and provided a lot of closure. I was pushing this ex-football player away from me for so long, where even talking about football, talking about the new defensive schemes, I'm like, 'I don't even know football anymore.' That's how much I've pushed it away from me," he said. "But that's stupid. I don't want to be like that. I want to embrace the fact that I was a football player, and now I'm a photographer."

It's a restored joy impossible to ignore.

Cam Smith Troy Dye

"It's amazing to know that he's found this and how much he really enjoys photography," Dye said. "Also, seeing that he's able to intertwine his old and new passion is super cool, because there aren't many ways to stick around the game from an on-field aspect, to still be able to hear the sounds of the game and to be a part of the action. It's been so cool to see."

Dye and others who know Smith are not only proud he's tackled a new career but also that he's taken his well-being seriously – and been an example to others along the way.

Hutchings noted that discussing one's mental health is sometimes seen as "taboo," particularly among men, but that Smith has faced the challenges openly and honestly.

"I think it's stuff that everyone deals with. It just depends if they share it publicly or not. And he's been very adamant about helping guys, giving back and attacking it head-on," Hutchings said. "To see Cam come into his own, have a little bit more of acceptance of what happened and also [embracing] this next chapter of his life, it's exciting."

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Smith doesn't plan on putting down his camera anytime soon.

Though he doesn't plan to follow Kenutis' career path, Smith is continuing to soak up all he can from his newfound friend and mentor.

"Andy pushes himself every day, and I like that. Because the second you get complacent and are just content with what you have, I feel like that's when everything struggles and you're just not growing," Smith said. "He's introduced me to a lot of personal artist growth books that I'm eating up. That was something I loved about football – being a student of the game. Watching film and learning about how other people play. … Now I need to be more of a student of the game of photography and learn more about how to be an artist and how to let my creativity flow. That's something Andy and I have really dived into, and I've appreciated that."

Kenutis is humbled to have played a role in Smith's journey – and has likewise been inspired by the former Viking.

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"Having Cam here was a healing process for myself in a lot of ways, as well. It's helped me refocus," Kenutis said. "Watching him focus on this passion, finding what brought him joy and really homing in on that – and I was just a small part of this – was [encouraging]. When we first started messaging back and forth, it seemed like such a small thing … but it became so much more than that."

The photos posted on Smith's Instagram page represent so much more than increased comfort behind a camera. They're all about increased comfort in his own skin.

"For so long, I thought if I didn't have another career equivalent to football, I wasn't sure who I'd be. There are two avenues you can attempt: trying to find something that provides the same amount of passion, adrenaline and camaraderie vibe of being an athlete … or you find something that has the same elite status," Smith said. "And I initially struggled with that part. Because I'm not doing either of those.

"But I'm doing what I love," he added with a smile. "And I'm happy. This is the healthiest I've been in years. Life is healthy. Life is moving forward. Life is good."

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