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The Rookie

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The Rookie

The last time I saw Robert Smith, he was riding around downtown Minneapolis in a white stretch limousine with one of his teammates, his brother, and that night's gaggle of adoring women. Shuttling all evening between the city's hot nightspots, just hours after a hard-fought win over the rival Green Bay Packers, Smith and his entourage were receiving VIP treatment. Smith, the envy of thousands, floated through the Minneapolis clubs like a god among men. People stared and whispered as their handsome and beloved Vikings running back walked by. "There goes Robert Smith, they'd say. "He's headed for the Pro Bowl this year.

Smith, aglow with the natural magnetism of an athlete in his prime, was whisked through crowded bars on his way to private rooms upstairs, where he and his friends and teammates laughed, drank and enjoyed life.

Five years later, the scene is decidedly different. Instead of battling notorious headhunters like defensive backs John Lynch and Darren Woodson, Smith, 33, is staring down a different opponent: the bunny hill. And he's scared.

Forbidden to ski by the terms of his NFL contracts, Smith, a self-described speed freak, always wanted to learn, however. So five years into his unusually early retirement from professional sports, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound superstar is about to go through the humbling process of being a beginner. But is he really ready to look like one?[NEXT "Pregame Jitters"]Pregame Jitters

Three weeks before we're scheduled to fly out to Utah, my cell phone rings.

"What size skis are you putting me on? Smith asks, somewhat suspiciously.

"I don't know, maybe 165s or 170s, something like that. Why?

"Because the guys down here at the radio station said 'If she puts you on anything longer than 200s, it's a set-up. She's just trying to embarrass you.'

"No, Robert. This isn't a prank, I promise you.

"They also said I'd be glad—when I have my first yard sale—that I'm learning out West, because the snow's softer. It's 'yard sale,' right?

He is clearly entertained by the term and goes on to show off his knowledge, albeit slim, of skiing lingo. The bulk of it comes from a favorite South Park episode, the one where the ski instructor keeps telling the kids: "If you french fry when you're supposed to pizza, you're not going to have a good time.

Robert's laughing hard now, but it's pretty obvious he's also a little nervous about the coming adventure.

"That's good advice, Robert, I say. "Remember that one.

"I hear the bindings are a lot safer for your knees now, too.

"Yes, Robert.

"So what do I need to bring?

Robert spent eight years with the Minnesota Vikings as their franchise running back. He's a two-time NFL Pro Bowler, the Vikes' all-time leading rusher and holder of the highest average yards per touchdown carry (27.2) in the history of the NFL. At the age of 29, he walked away from the game after his best season ever, because he still could. Walk, that is. Something he hopes to do for a long time. We met during one of his numerous visits to the Vail, Colo., office of orthopedist-to-the-stars Dr. Richard Steadman.

Now Robert has agreed to a two-day ski trip, with me as his instructor and Jennifer, his fiancée, for moral support. I've chosen Deer Valley, a place where luxury abounds and a former pro athlete will feel at home. After checking in to our slopeside condos on Friday night, we agree to reconvene the next morning for our first chalk-talk over breakfast.

But when morning comes, it's foggy and damp. Great, I think, he's not going to be able to tell the difference between the Wasatch Mountain Range and Lambeau Field. I worry that the guest of honor will have no interest in getting out of bed. And I wouldn't blame him. But then I remember football is a game played in even the worst weather. This isn't some sissy baseball player I'm dealing with. Sure enough, Robert appears, breakfast in hand, indifferent to the rough condions outside. Between bites of french toast he says: "OK, so what do I need to know?

Suddenly, I'm Bill Parcells, conjuring up a pre-game speech. Inspire, but don't over-coach, I think to myself. I go basic.

"Skiing's all about your knees and ankles, I say. "Ninety-five percent of the movement happens from your waist down. Upper body stays quiet; legs do all the work. But first you need to get comfortable just sliding around on the snow. Then we can get more technical.

We skip team prayer and go suit up. [NEXT "1st and 10"]1st and 10

A lot of people think of first down as a freebie. If it doesn't work out, so what: You've got three more. But that first play can also set the tone for the entire series of downs, so it's better to pay some respect to the moment.

We buy a neoprene sleeve for his right knee and a pair of goggles, then head to the rental shop. He is subjected to a seemingly endless stream of questions—height, weight, address, phone number, where are you staying, what size foot do you have...

I sense his frustration and discomfort. He's shifting his feet a lot, and it's hot standing around in there. Even I'm starting to sweat and panic. Surely this is already far more of a hassle than grabbing the football and heading out onto the field. It finally occurs to me why I'm feeling anxious. I'm not just worried about Robert's experience on the hill today. I'm feeling responsible for the entire sport of skiing. As if this is the chance for skiing to prove its worth to the zillion-dollar industry of mass-market pro sports.In other words, everybody loves football players. But will this football player love skiing?

He starts down the rental-shop assembly line. I cringe as I watch him cram his size-13 feet into his first pair of ski boots. At this point, I'm certain he's going to look at me and just walk out the door.

He gets up, looks down, flexes a few times and wonders how on earth these things are going to help him perform. In football, all of his freedom came from his feet, ankles and hips, he says. "Those are now precisely the areas that are locked up in these casts on my feet. He shuffles to the ski counter for yet another fit routine. It's a slow process, and at this point, even I'm starting to hate skiing.Finally, we get all his gear set up. Afraid that trying to walk up the stairs in the plastic anchors on his feet is going to push him over the edge for good, I send him ahead and put our shoes in a locker.

We meet up outside. "How'd the stairs go?

"Fine, why?

"Oh, good. Never mind.

I hand him his lift ticket and a wicket.

"So what do I do here? he says.

"What?

"How does this work?

This from the man they used to call "the smartest guy in the NFL? OK, OK—not fair. I wouldn't exactly know what to do with a pair of shoulder pads and a blocking sled. I show him how it works, and sure enough, he puts it front and center on his jacket's main zipper—just like we all used to in elementary school—and grins like he just got a brand new Radio Flyer for Christmas. I, of course, encourage him to keep it there so he can add more tickets from all of the other places he will ski. And then we head over to the slopes. [NEXT "2nd and 7"]2nd and 7

Time to dig in and make something happen. It's important to show strength here, or your opponent will smell blood. As we crunch onto the snow—my playing field for the past 30 years, his for the past two minutes—it occurs to me that, aside from the ticket and a slight goggle gap, he is actually pulling off the look surprisingly well. Maybe there's something to be said for natural athleticism.

Robert clicks into his skis and experiments with the slippery surface under his feet. It's a far cry from the security of cleats digging into the grass. I think one thing: freedom. He thinks another: groin injury. Understandable for a guy who's had four knee surgeries, three elbow surgeries and a double hernia operation.

Before I can say anything else, we're headed for the lift, and soon enough, we're pushing off at the top. We're skiing, sort of. As I expect, he is remarkably stable on his skis. All I have to say is "basic athletic stance, and he snaps into position, as if ready to hit the deck and give me 50. As he follows me down, I don't say much. I just exaggerate the weighting and unweighting of my skis from turn to turn and hope he does the same.

He's clearly determined not to fall, and he doesn't. The first run. But then he relaxes a bit and leans into a turn with his right shoulder. It's like a freight train veering off-track in slow motion. He's going down, and I can't watch. Imagine: a man previously cheered and worshipped by stadiums full of people because of his courage, grace and speed, now crumpled before me in an undignified tangle of limbs and equipment.

I realize the stakes today are higher than I had originally thought. My first worry was simply, "Will this great athlete share my love for this sport, and will he even be able to do it? But right here in front of me it's clear: I could lose more than just a potential ski enthusiast; I could lose a hero. The image of No. 26 breaking free from the line of scrimmage, hitting his stride and practically levitating into the end zone was one I wanted to hold on to. I guess what I'm wondering now is: Who will get over this faster—him or me?

I summon the strength to turn and assess the mess, but he's already getting back up, remarkably unfazed by the spill. I suppose if anyone is used to falling down in public, it's a football player. Granted, he was usually taken down by 250-pound strong safeties. And the 6-year-olds on the Snowflake lift aren't spitting beer and hurling insults at him. So in some ways, this is easy.

He wipes off the snow, straightens his goggles and points his skis downhill again.Today is about repetition, letting him feel his way through different situations, focusing on a couple of things—like not rotating—and getting comfortable on his skis. So we head to the Magic Carpet. Here we meet Christine, a 6-year-old who's enjoying her first day on skis, and an older man, Cliff, who's clearly struggling much more than Robert in his first attempt at skiing, but who seems more appreciative of the experience. He's 68.

"It's beautiful out here, Cliff says. "Just beautiful.

Score one for skiing, I think to myself.

Where else can a 6-year-old, a former Pro Bowler and a retiree meet on common ground in the great outdoors?

At least that's what I'm hoping Robert is thinking as we head down the hill. He's already more than comfortable on his skis, and I can see him assessing the results of every movement. He's still rotating with his right shoulder, I think because he doesn't completely trust his right knee. I keep telling him that if he keeps his shoulder back, more pressure will build up in his leg, and therefore his ski, throughout the turn. He gets it. Sometimes. But after three hours of practicing his "pizza in near-whiteout conditions, Robert's tired and ready for lunch.[NEXT "Time Out"]Time Out

It's the perfect time to hit the bathroom, take a load off, analyze the first half and strategize for the next one.

In the lodge, Robert removes his hat and coat. His shirt is drenched with sweat. He's been working harder than he's let on. When he returns up from the bathroom he looks at me and says, "Now I know what you meant about the stairs. Going up was fine, but going down in these boots is ridiculous.

It's not easy being green.

Over sandwiches, soup and turkey chili we discuss the events of the morning. Robert's tough to read. I think he's enjoying it, but how much enjoyment can there really be in snowplowing on the beginner hill? He wants more information; he wants to get good at this; he wants to feel what it's like to make a turn like the one Bode Miller is making in the framed picture on the wall behind n.

Before I can say anything else, we're headed for the lift, and soon enough, we're pushing off at the top. We're skiing, sort of. As I expect, he is remarkably stable on his skis. All I have to say is "basic athletic stance, and he snaps into position, as if ready to hit the deck and give me 50. As he follows me down, I don't say much. I just exaggerate the weighting and unweighting of my skis from turn to turn and hope he does the same.

He's clearly determined not to fall, and he doesn't. The first run. But then he relaxes a bit and leans into a turn with his right shoulder. It's like a freight train veering off-track in slow motion. He's going down, and I can't watch. Imagine: a man previously cheered and worshipped by stadiums full of people because of his courage, grace and speed, now crumpled before me in an undignified tangle of limbs and equipment.

I realize the stakes today are higher than I had originally thought. My first worry was simply, "Will this great athlete share my love for this sport, and will he even be able to do it? But right here in front of me it's clear: I could lose more than just a potential ski enthusiast; I could lose a hero. The image of No. 26 breaking free from the line of scrimmage, hitting his stride and practically levitating into the end zone was one I wanted to hold on to. I guess what I'm wondering now is: Who will get over this faster—him or me?

I summon the strength to turn and assess the mess, but he's already getting back up, remarkably unfazed by the spill. I suppose if anyone is used to falling down in public, it's a football player. Granted, he was usually taken down by 250-pound strong safeties. And the 6-year-olds on the Snowflake lift aren't spitting beer and hurling insults at him. So in some ways, this is easy.

He wipes off the snow, straightens his goggles and points his skis downhill again.Today is about repetition, letting him feel his way through different situations, focusing on a couple of things—like not rotating—and getting comfortable on his skis. So we head to the Magic Carpet. Here we meet Christine, a 6-year-old who's enjoying her first day on skis, and an older man, Cliff, who's clearly struggling much more than Robert in his first attempt at skiing, but who seems more appreciative of the experience. He's 68.

"It's beautiful out here, Cliff says. "Just beautiful.

Score one for skiing, I think to myself.

Where else can a 6-year-old, a former Pro Bowler and a retiree meet on common ground in the great outdoors?

At least that's what I'm hoping Robert is thinking as we head down the hill. He's already more than comfortable on his skis, and I can see him assessing the results of every movement. He's still rotating with his right shoulder, I think because he doesn't completely trust his right knee. I keep telling him that if he keeps his shoulder back, more pressure will build up in his leg, and therefore his ski, throughout the turn. He gets it. Sometimes. But after three hours of practicing his "pizza in near-whiteout conditions, Robert's tired and ready for lunch.[NEXT "Time Out"]Time Out

It's the perfect time to hit the bathroom, take a load off, analyze the first half and strategize for the next one.

In the lodge, Robert removes his hat and coat. His shirt is drenched with sweat. He's been working harder than he's let on. When he returns up from the bathroom he looks at me and says, "Now I know what you meant about the stairs. Going up was fine, but going down in these boots is ridiculous.

It's not easy being green.

Over sandwiches, soup and turkey chili we discuss the events of the morning. Robert's tough to read. I think he's enjoying it, but how much enjoyment can there really be in snowplowing on the beginner hill? He wants more information; he wants to get good at this; he wants to feel what it's like to make a turn like the one Bode Miller is making in the framed picture on the wall behind us—flying at high speed, completely laid out at a seemingly impossible angle.

"How does he do that? Robert wonders aloud.

"That's what everyone wants to know, I reply with a chuckle.

But Robert's used to being the one people say that about. He has always been the one in the picture, doing things others can only dream about. "You see ski racing on TV and you think about speed and that level of control. They make it look so easy, you think, 'Hell, I'm just going to go out there and do it.' And of course, it's not like that, he says. "The hills look a lot steeper when you stand on top of them. Not only that, but you have to learn to be able to stand on skis before you can even ski.

Clearly he's more in tune to the challenges of a live opponent than an inanimate one. But another day on the mountain might change that. We decide to call it a day.[NEXT "3rd and 4"]3rd and 4

Time to put it together, or else your opponent will shut you down for good. The pressure is building, but nobody wants to punt.

It's a blue-sky day in the Wasatch. This is the skiing I want him to experience. He feels good—not too sore from the previous day—and I decide after one more warm-up run on Wide West that it's time to go to the summit. Yesterday, I feared Jennifer's presence might make the learning process more stressful for Robert, so she skied mostly on her own. But it's clear by now that Robert doesn't have his ego wrapped up in this, so I've encouraged her to come with us today.

As the three of us head for the top, Robert's eyes are popping out of his head, watching skiers speed down the much steeper run underneath us. I try out the football analogy I've come up with to make him stop rotating.

"When you're running with the ball, I say tentatively, "and you plant your outside foot to change direction quickly, your shoulders stay square, right? Because that makes it harder for someone to knock you down. That's exactly what you have to do here.

"I guess that makes sense, he says. "They used to tell us, 'Don't cut off your inside leg.' It's the same idea.

I'm so proud of myself I almost fall out of the chairlift.

"Where are you taking me? he says. "We're not going down anything this steep, right?

We choose Ontario, a gentle, winding green run from the top. And he's loving it. The view, the sun, the effortless speed—the freedom of it all. But damn it—he's still rotating.

I feel like a broken record. I'm running out of drills and things to say. "Keep your shoulder back, drive your knee forward, upper body faces down the hill, blah blah.... What's worse, I feel like he wants to throttle me at this point, so I lay off a bit.

Let him rotate. It's been a good morning, if not exactly a third-down conversion.[NEXT "4th and 1"]4th and 1

This is when all the clichés come out. It's all on the line, do or die, the longest yard, backs against the wall....Basically, there's no way we're punting.

Why am I so wrapped up in the outcome of this? Robert's perfectly happy sliding down Ontario, not falling, rotating away and enjoying the wind on his face. I'm the one getting frustrated, trying to stress the importance of technique. I'm starting to realize how much I care that he wins, so that I can feel like I've taught him well, and so he can appreciate all the challenges and joys of skiing. In learning merely how not to fall, he has found his equilibrium. I haven't. At least not yet.

"Isn't technique important in playing football? I ask.

"It really comes into play more when you're dealing with an opponent, he says. "You're usually giving up weight on the people that you're blocking so you need to utilize technique. You have to get your body in certain leverage positions.

Eureka. A tougher trail, like a bigger opponent, will force him to do the right thing. I'll let the mountain teach him.

Halfway down Ontario I veer right toward lower Birdseye. A blue run.

"I'm not going down thaat, he says.

"Yes you are. You can do it, Robert. Trust me.

"No way. Is it really steep?

It's hard for me to understand how someone who has stepped onto an NFL playing field and battled 'roid-raged linebackers can possibly be afraid of this.

"You're going down Birdseye, I say.

We push off.

He's clenched-up from head to toe the entire way down, and every time his right shoulder dives in, he feels himself losing control. I think he gets it, but I'm too afraid to ask. He makes it to the bottom, exhausted but without much trouble. He doesn't seem particularly triumphant or thrilled, just relieved. And he wants to go back to Ontario, where he's comfortable. I guess that's a running back's mentality for you: three yards and a cloud of dust. Maybe a wide receiver would have been more interested in the "Hail Mary approach. You know, head straight for the top of the double-black and see what happens.

We finish out the day with some cruisers and head home. [NEXT "Moving the Chains"]Moving the Chains

For different reasons, we both consider the experience a victory. Me, because I got Robert to face the challenge. Robert, because he's come through it without any injuries. But there's a common denominator. While I struggled all weekend to find parallels between skiing and football that would resonate with Robert, in the end he made the most important connection himself.

"My favorite part is those high-speed areas, he says, "where you feel a sense of freedom and a little bit of speed. When you break free—when you're just running free and not worried about getting smacked.

Exactly. No lines, no boundaries, no moving obstacles; the pace of the game is yours to choose, as are the challenges. That type of freedom, so rare and hard-won in a football game, abounds on the ski hill. It's everywhere you look, anytime you want it.

"You don't ever go play football for a weekend, he adds. "You don't have a relaxing type of environment. No matter how you're playing football, you're always playing at an intense level. Skiing's a blast. I'm excited to get back out there.

Now that's my hero.

December 2005flying at high speed, completely laid out at a seemingly impossible angle.

"How does he do that? Robert wonders aloud.

"That's what everyone wants to know, I reply with a chuckle.

But Robert's used to being the one people say that about. He has always been the one in the picture, doing things others can only dream about. "You see ski racing on TV and you think about speed and that level of control. They make it look so easy, you think, 'Hell, I'm just going to go out there and do it.' And of course, it's not like that, he says. "The hills look a lot steeper when you stand on top of them. Not only that, but you have to learn to be able to stand on skis before you can even ski.

Clearly he's more in tune to the challenges of a live opponent than an inanimate one. But another day on the mountain might change that. We decide to call it a day.[NEXT "3rd and 4"]3rd and 4

Time to put it together, or else your opponent will shut you down for good. The pressure is building, but nobody wants to punt.

It's a blue-sky day in the Wasatch. This is the skiing I want him to experience. He feels good—not too sore from the previous day—and I decide after one more warm-up run on Wide West that it's time to go to the summit. Yesterday, I feared Jennifer's presence might make the learning process more stressful for Robert, so she skied mostly on her own. But it's clear by now that Robert doesn't have his ego wrapped up in this, so I've encouraged her to come with us today.

As the three of us head for the top, Robert's eyes are popping out of his head, watching skiers speed down the much steeper run underneath us. I try out the football analogy I've come up with to make him stop rotating.

"When you're running with the ball, I say tentatively, "and you plant your outside foot to change direction quickly, your shoulders stay square, right? Because that makes it harder for someone to knock you down. That's exactly what you have to do here.

"I guess that makes sense, he says. "They used to tell us, 'Don't cut off your inside leg.' It's the same idea.

I'm so proud of myself I almost fall out of the chairlift.

"Where are you taking me? he says. "We're not going down anything this steep, right?

We choose Ontario, a gentle, winding green run from the top. And he's loving it. The view, the sun, the effortless speed—the freedom of it all. But damn it—he's still rotating.

I feel like a broken record. I'm running out of drills and things to say. "Keep your shoulder back, drive your knee forward, upper body faces down the hill, blah blah.... What's worse, I feel like he wants to throttle me at this point, so I lay off a bit.

Let him rotate. It's been a good morning, if not exactly a third-down conversion.[NEXT "4th and 1"]4th and 1

This is when all the clichés come out. It's all on the line, do or die, the longest yard, backs against the wall....Basically, there's no way we're punting.

Why am I so wrapped up in the outcome of this? Robert's perfectly happy sliding down Ontario, not falling, rotating away and enjoying the wind on his face. I'm the one getting frustrated, trying to stress the importance of technique. I'm starting to realize how much I care that he wins, so that I can feel like I've taught him well, and so he can appreciate all the challenges and joys of skiing. In learning merely how not to fall, he has found his equilibrium. I haven't. At least not yet.

"Isn't technique important in playing football? I ask.

"It really comes into play more when you're dealing with an opponent, he says. "You're usually giving up weight on the people that you're blocking so you need to utilize technique. You have to get your body in certain leverage positions.

Eureka. A tougher trail, like a bigger opponent, will force him to do the right thing. I'll let the mountain teach him.

Halfway down Ontario I veer right toward lower Birdseye. A blue run.

"I'm not going down that, he says.

"Yes you are. You can do it, Robert. Trust me.

"No way. Is it really steep?

It's hard for me to understand how someone who has stepped onto an NFL playing field and battled 'roid-raged linebackers can possibly be afraid of this.

"You're going down Birdseye, I say.

We push off.

He's clenched-up from head to toe the entire way down, and every time his right shoulder dives in, he feels himself losing control. I think he gets it, but I'm too afraid to ask. He makes it to the bottom, exhausted but without much trouble. He doesn't seem particularly triumphant or thrilled, just relieved. And he wants to go back to Ontario, where he's comfortable. I guess that's a running back's mentality for you: three yards and a cloud of dust. Maybe a wide receiver would have been more interested in the "Hail Mary approach. You know, head straight for the top of the double-black and see what happens.

We finish out the day with some cruisers and head home. [NEXT "Moving the Chains"]Moving the Chains

For different reasons, we both consider the experience a victory. Me, because I got Robert to face the challenge. Robert, because he's come through it without any injuries. But there's a common denominator. While I struggled all weekend to find parallels between skiing and football that would resonate with Robert, in the end he made the most important connection himself.

"My favorite part is those high-speed areas, he says, "where you feel a sense of freedom and a little bit of speed. When you break free—when you're just running free and not worried about getting smacked.

Exactly. No lines, no boundaries, no moving obstacles; the pace of the game is yours to choose, as are the challenges. That type of freedom, so rare and hard-won in a football game, abounds on the ski hill. It's everywhere you look, anytime you want it.

"You don't ever go play football for a weekend, he adds. "You don't have a relaxing type of environment. No matter how you're playing football, you're always playing at an intense level. Skiing's a blast. I'm excited to get back out there.

Now that's my hero.

December 2005down that, he says.

"Yes you are. You can do it, Robert. Trust me.

"No way. Is it really steep?

It's hard for me to understand how someone who has stepped onto an NFL playing field and battled 'roid-raged linebackers can possibly be afraid of this.

"You're going down Birdseye, I say.

We push off.

He's clenched-up from head to toe the entire way down, and every time his right shoulder dives in, he feels himself losing control. I think he gets it, but I'm too afraid to ask. He makes it to the bottom, exhausted but without much trouble. He doesn't seem particularly triumphant or thrilled, just relieved. And he wants to go back to Ontario, where he's comfortable. I guess that's a running back's mentality for you: three yards and a cloud of dust. Maybe a wide receiver would have been more interested in the "Hail Mary approach. You know, head straight for the top of the double-black and see what happens.

We finish out the day with some cruisers and head home. [NEXT "Moving the Chains"]Moving the Chains

For different reasons, we both consider the experience a victory. Me, because I got Robert to face the challenge. Robert, because he's come through it without any injuries. But there's a common denominator. While I struggled all weekend to find parallels between skiing and football that would resonate with Robert, in the end he made the most important connection himself.

"My favorite part is those high-speed areas, he says, "where you feel a sense of freedom and a little bit of speed. When you break free—when you're just running free and not worried about getting smacked.

Exactly. No lines, no boundaries, no moving obstacles; the pace of the game is yours to choose, as are the challenges. That type of freedom, so rare and hard-won in a football game, abounds on the ski hill. It's everywhere you look, anytime you want it.

"You don't ever go play football for a weekend, he adds. "You don't have a relaxing type of environment. No matter how you're playing football, you're always playing at an intense level. Skiing's a blast. I'm excited to get back out there.

Now that's my hero.

December 2005

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