Calling it a ‘new beginning,’ Vikings’ Irv Smith back from injury that sidelined him for 2021 season

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When Vikings tight end Irv Smith Jr. walked into Tattoos by Nathan in New York last month, he knew what he wanted — something that would represent his return to football after missing all of last season with a knee injury.

When Smith emerged, he had a tattoo of a butterfly on the front of his neck.

“It’s like a new beginning,” he said Wednesday of his new tattoo — and his football career. “All the things I’ve done in my past, I still reflect on, but I’m excited for the future and what the future holds for myself, the team, the offense. … The butterfly (is) kind of like a rebirth.”

Smith also got a tattoo on the right side of his neck of his mother, Patricia, and one on his left hand of the Incredible Hulk. So it was a productive visit.

“Shoutout to Nathan, Tattoos by Nathan,” he said.

On Wednesday, Smith, limited in spring drills, was a full participant in the first practice of training camp at the TCO Performance Center in Eagan. It came 11 months after he suffered a torn meniscus in the Aug. 27 preseason finale at Kansas City and underwent season-ending surgery Sept. 1.

First-year Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell gave Smith “a ton of credit” on Tuesday for the way he worked himself back into shape during the long rehabilitation period. Smith, who remained in Minnesota throughout the offseason for his rehab, spoke Wednesday about how good it feels to be fully healthy.

“I missed the game of football, so it’s just a blessing to be back out here and healthy,” said Smith, a second-round draft choice in 2019.

Big things were expected from Smith going into last season after the Vikings released longtime veteran starter Kyle Rudolph to make him the No. 1 tight end. But when Smith got hurt, Tyler Conklin went from third string in 2020 to the starting lineup in 2021, catching 61 passes.

In the offseason, Conklin signed a three-year, $21 million contract with the New York Jets, leaving Smith as the projected starter once again. In his first two seasons with the Vikings, Smith caught 66 passes for 676 yards, and he’s now expected to play a big role in O’Connell’s wide-open offense.

“He’s done an amazing of job of how he wants to use us,” Smith said of the former Los Angeles Rams offense coordinator. “In L.A., they did a lot of great things with the tight end, Tyler Higbee. He made a lot of plays and stuff. … This camp will be cool because he gets to see what I can do, and he’ll be able to see how he can implement me in different ways.”

Smith vowed before Wednesday’s practice that he doesn’t “want to have any drops all camp” and that his goal is to “score every time.” Then he went out on the first day of practice and had no drops and caught a touchdown pass, snagging a short throw from Kirk Cousins on the far left side of the end zone.

“Man, Irv looked good,” receiver K.J. Osborn said. “It was good to have him back in the huddle out there. Kirk noticed him, too. It’s good to have him out here making the plays.”

Wide receiver Justin Jefferson is also thrilled to have Smith back.

“Definitely missed him last year,” Jefferson said. “He had a hell of a training camp last year to start us off, so definitely excited to have him back on the team. He’s gonna be a big part of our team.”

While he was out last season, Smith watched home games from a suite at U.S. Bank Stadium, and said he it was interesting to “feel the energy” from the fans. But of course he wanted “to be on the field, for sure.”

Smith, though, never sulked. And he’s determined to look at some positive aspects that came from sitting out the season.

“I feel like I got faster, honestly, through this process, just giving my whole body a reset,” he said.

Now, Smith has the butterfly tattoo to remind him of his new beginning. And he wants to draw inspiration from his other new tattoos.

“I got the Hulk on my hand right here, so we about to smash on folks,” he said.

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