Harrison Smith made a long, slow walk off the field, up the tunnel and into the Vikings locker room Sunday.
The rookie safety knew he messed up by putting his hands on a game official and felt terrible about it.
“It was just stupid for me to be involved,” Smith said afterward. “I just got kind of caught up in the heat of the moment, and you can never touch the officials. They have a hard enough job as it is, and to make it harder on them is just stupid and is something I don’t ever want to do from this point on.”
Smith was ejected in the second quarter of a 30-7 victory over the Tennessee Titans at Mall of America Field after he pushed back judge Steve Freeman after an interception by Antoine Winfield.
Smith and several Titans players were jawing at each other at the end of the play. Freeman pushed Smith backward to separate him, and Smith responded by pushing Freeman aside.
“He grabbed the official when the official was trying to separate them and pushed the official to the side,” referee Jeff Triplette told a pool reporter. “That’s an automatic ejection.”
Asked if Freeman was too aggressive in trying to separate Smith, Triplette said, “(Freeman) was just trying to separate (Smith) from the huddle, and he can’t be shoving him aside.”
Smith didn’t argue that point. He took full responsibility and understands that additional punishment — a hefty fine and/or suspension — is likely. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was in attendance, so he got a bird-eye’s view of the incident.
“I’m going to take whatever they give me,” Smith said. “I should never have been there.”
Smith’s contrition sounded genuine. He apologized to Freeman on the field and to his team in the locker room. He also apologized to Vikings fans, calling his actions “unacceptable.”
“I talked to Coach (Leslie) Frazier and he said, ‘Obviously, a stupid play,’ ” Smith said. “He just said, ‘Learn from it, just continue to grow from it and just don’t let it happen again.’ ”
Hopefully, Smith doesn’t allow that momentary lapse in judgment to cause him to lose his aggressiveness and tough-as-nails persona because he’s brought an attitude and edge to the secondary. The Vikings raved about Smith’s football smarts and field awareness after drafting him in the first round. They also found a safety who displays a mean streak. That’s a good thing — as long as it doesn’t hurt his team — and something long overdue from that position.
The Vikings have lacked a safety who punishes receivers over the middle. Someone who is willing to swoop in and belt ball carriers. Someone who might actually make opponents take notice and give them something to think about as they study film that week.
Smith has played only five NFL games and already has earned a reputation for being salty. He nearly fought Percy Harvin the second week of training camp. He drew a $21,000 fine for an unnecessary-roughness penalty against San Diego in the preseason after the league ruled he struck a defenseless player in the head and neck area. He jarred the ball loose from Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson in the end zone last week on a blow to the gut.
Smith made two nice plays Sunday before his ejection. On the Titans’ second possession, he read a underneath route by Kendall Wright perfectly and popped him on third down. Smith recovered a fumble later in the first quarter.
His day ended not long after that, though, which put the Vikings in a pickle because they had only two healthy safeties left available. Starter Mistral Raymond is still sidelined because of a dislocated ankle, and backup Andrew Sendejo also was inactive (ankle). Robert Blanton replaced Smith and held up fine, but the Vikings will be in a bind if Smith is suspended this week.
“We have to learn from that, and it’s just not smart,” Frazier said. “Not smart football.”
Smith knew that as soon as it happened. There’s a difference between being physical and foolish, and he crossed that line. The rookie is an emotional player who doesn’t shy away from contact, but he won’t make that mistake again.