NEW ORLEANS – People across Louisiana were trying Monday to process the news that one of the Saints’ much-loved players, former defensive end Will Smith, was shot in the back Saturday night in what police called an act of deadly road-rage.
Smith, 34, arrived in New Orleans in 2004 as a No. 1 draft pick and played with such passion and power that he quickly became a defensive captain. Off the field, he won hearts in his adopted city, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and rejuvenated when the Saints won the Superbowl in 2009.
“I am telling you that this man loved the city of New Orleans,” said Terrell Haynes, who got to know Smith and his wife Racquel through their work with Kingsley House, an organization helping underprivileged families and kids. “That’s the part that is really disheartening, that this man loved this city.”
READ MORE: Former Saints defensive end Will Smith shot and killed
Police said Cardell Hayes, a former semi-pro football player, rear-ended Smith’s Mercedes G63 with his Humvee H2, pushing it into a Chevrolet Impala carrying Smith’s acquaintances, before Hayes opened fire.
A defence attorney for Hayes, John Fuller, says there’s more to the story: He said Hayes himself had been rear-ended moments earlier by a hit-and-run driver, and called 911 to describe the car he was following before he ran into the back of Smith’s Mercedes. It remains unclear whether the car he was pursuing was the Mercedes, the Impala or some other unrelated car.
The two men — both big and imposing — then angrily confronted each other on Felicity Street shortly before midnight. Moments later, witnesses heard gunfire. Smith was killed by bullets in his back and torso. His wife was wounded in the leg.
WATCH: Police comment on possible link in shooting death of former NFLer Will Smith
Police arrived soon thereafter, handcuffing Hayes. As paramedics wheeled Racquel Smith away on a stretcher, her husband’s lifeless arm could be seen above his steering wheel, his body slumped partially outside his car.
Hayes, 28, was being held on $1 million bond after police arrested him on a charge of second-degree murder. He was in court again Monday as arrangements were made for a new lawyer to eventually replace Fuller, who will soon begin work as a temporary judge. Prosecutors now have 60 days to decide how to proceed.
Fuller insisted outside court Monday that Hayes will be vindicated once the full story emerges. Someone “besides my client” was behaving in a threatening manner, he said.
“My client has been pilloried, convicted and tried,” he added, complaining about media coverage.
Questions remain about what exactly transpired that night. Police haven’t released the accounts of Racquel Smith, the passengers in the other cars, nor any other witnesses. A police spokesman, Tyler Gamble, said he had no immediate information about the 911 call.
The news was hard to stomach for people who had closely followed Smith’s career.
The Queens, New York native came to New Orleans from Ohio State where he was on the 2002 national championship team, and quickly became a team leader, Saints’ play-by-play announcer Jim Henderson said Monday.
“He played with great leverage and such great passion and such incredible power that he was there for you day after day after day, game after game,” Henderson said.
Smith created his share of football highlights, particularly in the 2009 run to the Super Bowl, when he had 13 regular-season sacks — fifth best in the NFL that year. His post-season play included an interception of a Kurt Warner pass in a Saints playoff victory over the Arizona Cardinals.
“He might do a little fist-bump or he might take a look at his bicep after a sack. But he wasn’t one to gloat on individual statistics. He was a team leader,” Henderson said.
Smith was preparing for his second season when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, southeast Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2005. That season was dismal for the Saints. The Superdome, initially a refuge for thousands of people whose homes were submerged, was badly damaged. Forced to play the entire season on the road, they went 3-13, and some speculated the team might never return.
Local radio broadcaster and talk show host Eric Asher says Smith became a locker room leader after the storm, convincing others that the 2006 season under new coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees was about more than getting more wins on the field.
“He had been in New Orleans before the storm. He’d dealt with the aftermath of the storm. He understood that football was really secondary here — this was about uplifting the entire region,” Asher said. “He was always a guy who was a leader on and off the field for this team.”
Those ties endured after Smith retired from football. He continued to live in suburban Kenner with his wife and three children, coaching his son Wynter’s football team while studying for a Masters’ in Business Administration at the University of Miami.
The Smiths also hosted a yearly Christmas party and dinner, giving presents to families in need.
Smith’s career was not without controversy. He was at the centre of the NFL’s bounty probe in 2012, his last regular season. The league concluded that he and fellow defensive captain Jonathan Vilma helped run a locker-room pool paying cash bonuses for heavy and even injurious hits.
Smith successfully appealed a four-game suspension, though Payton was suspended the entire 2012 season.
In 2011, Smith served a two-game suspension for using a weight-loss diuretic banned by the league for masking steroid use. And before that season began, Smith was indicted on misdemeanour charges of domestic abuse battery and public intoxication after officers saw him grab his wife’s hair in an argument.
Those charges were dismissed at his wife’s request after Smith went through counselling and performed community service. He also Smith also wrote a letter of apology to the Lafayette Police Department, a prosecutor said.
Funeral arrangements have not yet been made public.