- Ben Goessling, ESPN Staff Writer
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The Vikings brought their all-Mall of America Field team together for Sunday's game, to honor the group at halftime of the penultimate game at the stadium. For one member of the team, though, it was a chance to check up on one of his former protégés.
Tim Irwin, who played tackle for the Vikings from 1981-93, now lives in his native Knoxville, Tenn., where he is the juvenile court judge for Knox County. Irwin also helped found the Catholic Youth Football League in Knoxville, which created teams for faith-based schools that didn't field their own football teams. In the first year of the program, as coach of the Sacred Heart Eagles, Irwin coached a 13-year-old safety named Harrison Smith.
"I had sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, so I had to really be careful," Irwin said. "Actually, one day, when I wasn't at practice, somebody wasn't so careful, and he ran over somebody and broke their leg. I had to really watch Harrison. He was a strong guy."
Smith, who is a rising star in his second year for the Vikings, dabbled at linebacker and running back for Irwin, too -- "I had to teach him to stick his foot in the ground and go north-south. He wanted to dance like he was a ballerina or something," Irwin said -- but it was easy to tell early on that Smith's calling would be as a safety.
Irwin's middle son, Conor, was a year younger than Smith, and the two played three years of high school together before going on to separate college programs -- Smith to Notre Dame, the younger Irwin to Duke. That gave Tim Irwin a unique window into Harrison's development into a first-round draft pick.
"He's a great player," Irwin said. "It's been fun to watch him in high school and college. The first year I coached him, we won the county championship. I thought, 'I can do this coaching stuff.' But Harrison Smiths don't come along every day."
Irwin's appearance on Sunday happened to coincide with Smith's return from injured reserve, so he got to watch Smith make eight tackles in his first game in more than two months. He still attends church with Harrison Smith's parents and coached his younger brother Stuart, who also played safety.
"We're part of the same community," Irwin said. "We live about four miles from them, so I still see a lot of them."