When Harrison Smith stepped into the burning building, the lack of visibility caught him off guard.
He carefully maneuvered his way through different rooms, sticking close to the rest of his team as smoke billowed all around the group.
But fortunately, Smith was not in a real emergency situation. Rather, the Vikings safety was participating in the 3rd Annual Firefighters Challenge, hosted by actor and producer Denis Leary.
"It was a controlled setting, and we knew that everything was going to be fine," Smith said. "The firefighters were there with us the whole way, but it was a little insight into their daily lives."
The all-day event took place in New York City in May and raised money for The Leary Firefighters Foundation.
Smith joined his cousin, actress Elaine Hendrix – perhaps best-known for her portrayal of Meredith Blake in the 1998 rendition of The Parent Trap – at the event. Hendrix is a close friend of Leary's and consistently supports the foundation, which Leary created in 2000 after six firefighters – including a cousin and a high school classmate – were killed while combatting a warehouse fire in Massachusetts.
Leary created and starred in the critically acclaimed series Rescue Me (2004-11), which revolves around the daily drama associated with being a firefighter in post-9/11 New York, and his foundation directly supports many of those "real-life" heroes who responded to the horrific tragedy at the World Trade Center.
"Unfortunately, many of the FDNY members who survived that day are now dying from cancers related to spending time searching through the rubble at Ground Zero for several months after the attacks," Leary said. "So, we continue to lose firefighters to that horrific tragedy – some of whom have donated their time and energy to help the Foundation over the years.
"One of our board members is FDNY Battalion Chief David Morkal – who survived that day, as well," Leary added. "We are always aware of 9/11. Every single day of the year."
Hendrix and Smith echoed Leary's sentiments about honoring the gravity of Sept. 11 and today's 18-year anniversary.
The cousins recalled the exact locations they were when hearing of the news – Smith having been in a seventh-grade classroom in Knoxville, Tennessee, while Hendrix was working on a show in San Diego and received an early morning call from a friend.
"I immediately turned on the TV, saw what was happening, and over the next couple of days, some of the cast, we kept trying to go to blood banks to donate blood over our lunchtimes, and the lines were so long that we didn't come close to getting in," Hendrix recalled. "It was just this weird, surreal, helpless feeling … But then, to see everyone coming together, it was like, 'Wow.' It was just this crazy mix of emotions."
Smith reflected on that day and said he knows how terrible the events were but didn't fully understand "the magnitude of it all at the time."
The willingness of Smith and Hendrix to participate in the Firefighters Challenge speaks volumes to Leary, who continues to be moved not only by the widespread support for his foundation – which is championed by multiple celebrities, including firefighters-turned-actors Steve Buscemi and Bobby Burke – but by its impact within New York City and beyond.
"It all makes a difference in each city and town we are able to help," Leary added. "It all saves lives on some level – the lives of firefighters and the lives of the people they rescue."
Hendrix initially was motivated to support the foundation by her friendship with Leary. Now, however, she shares an energy for the cause.
"When you get in and really learn how much firefighters do and what they do and what they have to learn, when you gain that much of an appreciation, you can't help but become passionate about it," Hendrix said. "Now I always tell Denis, 'Whatever you need me to do, I'm there.'
"I can't not help. I love it," Hendrix added.
A family affair
Hendrix called it a "no-brainer" to include Smith, saying the two grew up in a close-knit family that emphasized making a difference.
"We were just raised that way," Hendrix said. "You help. That's just what you do."
Having had a schedule conflict in 2018, Smith was grateful for the opportunity to participate in this year's fundraiser. Other attendees included fellow celebrity guest and Food Network star Rachael Ray, former NFL center Nick Mangold, as well as members of the Army and corporate groups.
Smith and the others completed five different challenge stations that included the controlled structure fire, repelling down the side of a five-story building and a simulated emergency set-up in a mock subway system. He learned that straddling the fire hose while entering a burning building enables firefighters to find their way back to the entrance in case of poor visibility or disorientation. Additionally, he was taught the importance of "sweeping" the floor while spraying to avoid the pooling and flow-back of dangerously hot water.
He was honored to share the experience with Hendrix, his eldest cousin, who has attended several Vikings games, including this year's first preseason game in New Orleans, and consistently supports Smith in his endeavors despite a busy schedule of her own.
Hendrix's willingness to pull her hair back and suit up in firefighter equipment didn't surprise Smith.
"She's just kind of all for everything. She's going to go do it," Smith said. "She has a huge heart, and I'm just glad she invited me. It was really cool to be a part of it."
From football to firefighting
Leary thanked Hendrix for bringing Smith "into the fold" of the foundation's efforts.
"He could not have been a nicer guy," Leary said. "Not only that, but he geared up and went into every single training mission, too – like he'd been doing it every day for the past 15 years."
It isn't uncommon for former and current NFL players to participate in the annual event, but Leary was particularly struck by Smith's eagerness and comfort level.
"Harrison came out [of the Room of Fire] with a smile and a question: 'Can I go back in?' Nick Mangold even walked away impressed by Harrison," Leary said. "He'd be a natural firefighter."
Leary called the cousins a "dream team"; after the event, he texted Hendrix that he continued to get positive comments about "Hendrix and Harrison."
The actress can't help but chuckle at the attention – and T-shirt-worthy nickname – the duo received.
"It's hilarious because Harrison thinks that I've got this celebrity status, I think that he's got this celebrity status," she said. "And yet, we never get away from, 'Well, that's my cousin. That's just my cousin.' "
A mile in their boots
During the experience, Smith spent time getting to know the firefighters on hand – many of whom had volunteered their day off – and learning a little about their world. Among those he spoke with, a few had been part of the rescue efforts on 9/11.
"We talked about it. I didn't want to pry or anything, you know? It's tough memories," Smith said. "But I talked to those guys and learned what they went through – how they counted on one another and just dove in to help others. I just thanked them for that."
He and Hendrix both most appreciated literally stepping into the firefighters' boots for a day.
"We didn't even scratch the surface of what they do, but just to get such an up-close and personal connection with them and what they do, that's my favorite part," Hendrix said. "Harrison and I grew up in a close family, so we're close. Then you step into this firefighter world, and they may not be blood-related, but they are very much a family. And they are very close."
Smith also was drawn to the camaraderie between the firefighters and likened it to the brotherhood of the Vikings locker room.
"They have fun with each other. You can tell, just the way they get along with each other, they trust each other. They have a lot of fun when it's appropriate," Smith said. "There were some similarities between the locker room and their firehouse. You could just tell the chemistry. They rib each other about a lot of stuff and have their own little jokes."
A handful of die-hard Giants or Jets fans aimed some friendly trash talk in Smith's direction, but he also was pleasantly surprised to connect with a couple of Vikings fans. One firefighter, Anthony Cordaro, is a New York native but has been following the Vikings since the Purple People Eaters era.
"It was cool to meet those fans and talk to them about football and their experiences as firemen," Smith said. "All the firefighters there were amazing. They wanted everyone to experience everything. You didn't have to do anything if it made you uncomfortable, but they were there. … They were all just great, great people."
Honoring the real heroes
Nearly 20 years after 9/11, a day spent with the New York City Fire Department gave the cousins a unique and humbling perspective on the firefighters who risk their lives every day in order to protect and save others.
Hendrix struggled to find words adequate to describe her feelings.
"After a while, when I talk about this, when I'm around them, we use words like 'incredible,' and we use words like 'heroes,' " Hendrix said. "But when you really, truly wrap your mind around what they're doing, even those words seem to pale in comparison."
Smith understands that fans of all ages look up to him as an NFL player but is uncomfortable with the idea of professional athletes being somebody's hero.
"I think it's an easy thing for some people to point to and for us as football players to think we're super tough, we run into each other," Smith said. "Some people talk about it in the context of a 'battle,' stuff like that, and I've always just thought that was really silly. Because it's just not. I appreciate the chess aspect of the football, and it's obviously physical, but at the end of the day, it's a fun game.
"A lot of kids look at us because it's easy," Smith continued. "We're on a bigger platform, it's easy to see us every day, but those guys are showing up to work every day and clocking in and putting it on the line. I have a great appreciation for that."
On today's anniversary of Sept. 11, Smith hopes his experience with the FDNY helps to raise awareness and admiration for firefighters who served then and now.
"Obviously, 9/11 is the big one that everyone remembers, but any day could be the day that those guys dive into really dangerous situations to save others," Smith said. "So being able to just show up and interact with them, I think it grows your appreciation for what these guys – men and women – do in their day-to-day lives.
"Any morning could be the start of what will be the toughest day for them," he added. "So the fact that they go in know that, sign up for that and train for it, it's a big deal."
Visit learyfirefightersfoundation.org to learn more about the cause and how you can support.
By: Lindsey Young