It was August 2008 at Notre Dame, and Smith was a redshirt freshman linebacker and Rudolph a freshman tight end. In their first practice in pads, Smith, trying to show his toughness, got in an extra lick on Rudolph.
“I was trying to overcompensate by, like, being scrappy because I wasn’t really big enough to be a linebacker, and I hit Rudy,” Smith said. “I kind of like slapped him or something after the play. Then we started shoving or whatever, and it became a full-on, kind of like a little brawl within the team.”
Did that lead to any animosity between the two players moving forward? Not exactly.
“The whole team comes flying out to get in the middle of it, and Harry and I just kind of went back to the huddle, and we were like, ‘All right, on to the next play,’ ” Rudolph said. “We still joke about it. … We may have started off our relationship on the field with a fight but we became friends.”
Now in their ninth season together on the Vikings, they are the best of buddies.
Counting their 2008-10 stint together in South Bend, Ind., the two have been teammates for 12 of the past 13 seasons. The only season during that stretch they weren’t was in 2011, when Smith played his redshirt senior season at Notre Dame after moving to safety and Rudolph had left for the NFL for Minnesota with a year of eligibility remaining.
When the Vikings play at Indianapolis on Sunday, the two will play their second game in Indiana since leaving Notre Dame. The first was in 2012 when Smith was a rookie safety and Rudolph was a second-year tight end. The Colts beat the Vikings 23-20 at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Rudolph went on that season to make his first Pro Bowl and was selected for a second one in 2017. Smith has made five straight Pro Bowls.
They are both captains this season. Rudolph, 30, is in his fourth season in that role; Smith, 31, is a captain for the first time.
“They were great leaders both on and off the field and they ended up being obviously our best players at offense and defense,’’ said Brian Kelly, who took over as Notre Dame’s coach in 2010 and had Rudolph for one season and Smith for two. “Here’s the guys that now are all-pro and captains in the NFL. … If you had asked me then would it surprise me? I would say no.”
What is surprising to Rudolph and Smith is that they have been teammates for so long. They are the Vikings’ longest-tenured players, and the only two remaining on the 53-man roster from when Leslie Frazier was the head coach in 2013. Mike Zimmer took over in 2014.
“I don’t think either of us would have ever thought we’d have gone on to play the next nine years together and be playing 12 out of 13 years together,” Rudolph said.
Not that either is complaining. With Smith often having covered Rudolph in practices, they each credit the other for helping them become top-notch pros.
Off the field, the two regularly meet for activities. That lately has included playing a lot of golf. They also go out together on Rudolph’s boat, and Rudolph said Smith is quite the wakeboarder.
“They have a great relationship,” said wide receiver Adam Thielen, who joined the Vikings as a rookie on the practice squad in 2013 and made the active roster in 2014. “It’s fun to be around those guys. …. They’ve got some great stories because they’ve been here forever, they’ve been teammates forever.”
The friendship has extended to their families. Rudolph’s wife Jordan is a former Notre Dame cheerleader whom Smith also knew in college. Smith’s fiancée is Madison Bankston.
Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph and safety Harrison Smith were teammates at Notre Dame from 2008-10. They are shown before a Nov. 4, 2017, Notre Dame home game against Wake Forest. From left to right are Rudolph; his wife, Jordan Rudolph; Smith’s fiancée, Madison Bankston; and Smith. Courtesy of Smith family
“Obviously, Harry and I are extremely close, but my wife and his fiancée are very close as well,” Rudolph said. “They play tennis together twice a week.”
The players’ parents know each other. Smith’s parents, who live in Knoxville, Tenn., are Steven and Susan Smith. Rudolph’s parents, who live in Cincinnati, are Dan and Jamie Rudolph.
“We’ve known (Rudolph’s) family since the Notre Dame days,” said Steven Smith. “We used to tailgate together before games.”
When Smith was a Vikings rookie, his parents came to visit on New Year’s Eve. They stayed at the Eden Prairie home that Kyle and Jordan then rented, and Smith also was a tenant.
After Smith was taken with the No. 29 pick in the 2012 draft, he looked for somewhere to live near Winter Park in Eden Prairie, where the Vikings trained before moving to the TCO Performance Center in Eagan in 2018. When Smith didn’t find a place to his liking, Rudolph, who had been taken in the second round in 2011, made an offer.
“We were like, ‘If you want to live with us, you’re welcome to and you’ve got the whole setup in the basement,”’ Rudolph said.
The basement had a bedroom, bathroom and a half kitchen. Smith jumped at the offer for what Rudolph said was “minimal” rent.
“It worked out pretty good,” Smith said. “I had a sweet setup. It’s not like I was in some dungeon in the basement; I had pretty much a full house down there. And one of the things I remember most was the postgame. Win or lose, it was nice to kind of chill and run back things and how he saw the game and I saw the game.”
Smith fondly recalled Thursdays being “turkey-burger night,” referring to the meal Jordan would cook each week. Rudolph said having Smith live in the home provided “one of the more enjoyable seasons” he’s had with the Vikings.
The two even found some humor that season after both were knocked out of a Week 12 game at Chicago with concussions.
“I remember sitting in the training room at Soldier Field and Harry was already in the locker room because he got his earlier in the game,” Rudolph said. “I got mine in the fourth quarter. And they looked at us, and they asked, ‘When you get to the Twin Cities, do you have somebody to take care of you?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, I live with Harrison.’ And they’re like, ‘He’s sitting on the table next to you. He’s got a concussion, too.’ ”
As it turned out, Jordan Rudolph was able to look after the two — and neither missed the following week’s game at Green Bay.
Kyle and Jordan have three small children, so Rudolph has been more busy in recent years. But the two have found time this year to play golf. Rudolph long has been a golf fanatic, and Smith recently picked it up.
“It’s solid,” Rudolph said of Smith’s game. “He gets after it. He definitely takes his hacks, but that’s pretty much any football player that’s a golfer. My golf game is not very good, so we’re out there more to have a good time than to go low.”
While Smith admits he sometimes takes his “lumps” in golf, he vows to keep practicing so he can “have some good rounds in the future” with Rudolph. Both are under contract past this season, but in the NFL, nothing is guaranteed — one reason Smith said he’s been fortunate to have been Rudolph’s teammate for so long.
“This type of thing doesn’t happen very often in pro sports, and in a way I think I’ve probably taken it for granted just because Rudy’s always been there,” Smith said. “Being able to be around him over the years has definitely improved my career and made me a much better player. Not only from the practices and things like that, but just from living with him for my first NFL year and from going to different events here and there and learning what that means for the community and stuff like that.”
Rudolph, who is active with the University of Minnesota Children’s Hospital, has been named the Vikings Community Man of the Year for three straight seasons. On the field, he ranks second in Vikings history for tight ends in receptions (425) and yards (4,154) and is first in touchdowns (47).
“We practice against each other all the time,” Rudolph said. “It’s always a great gauge going against Harrison because I know if I can beat him and defeat him in coverage, I like my chances against any safety in this game because in my opinion, he’s the best in the NFL.”
And to think that 12 years ago, when Smith covered Rudolph for one of the first times, a fight ensued.
“We still joke about it today, that (we) need to fight more in training camp,” Rudolph with a laugh. “Like if we want a day off or something, just getting tossed out of practice, we could go back to our roots and get in another fight.”