Late on a Saturday night, on April 9, 2016, in the city in which Will Smith had ascended to the highest plateaus in his professional career, New Orleans, after an evening spent with friends celebrating hi impending college graduation, Will Smith’s life ended in a flurry of gunfire following a traffic incident involving Smith and Cardell Hayes. Reportedly the second of two separate incidents culminated in words being exchanged, Hayes producing a handgun, and killing Smith, as well as injuring Smith’s wife Racquel. Hayes was arrested on the scene and charged with second degree murder.
Perhaps the cruelest of ironies is that Smith’s life came to an end in the city where he had seen the ultimate success as a professional football player. As a member of the 2009 New Orleans Saints that captured the Super Bowl XLIV title over the Peyton Manning-led Indianapolis Colts. And as the starting defensive end on that incredible defense, Smith was treated as a conquering hero.
Born on this country’s 205th birthday, July 4, 1981, in Queens, New York, and growing up in Utica, Smith was a standout player at Proctor High School. At Proctor, Smith was a USA TODAY All-American, and was rated the best defensive line prospect in the state.
Smith celebrates against Minnesota. (Photo credit: USA TODAY Sports)
Smith would go on to be a four-year letterman at Ohio State University, from 2000-2003. As a junior at OSU, Smith’s Buckeyes won the BCS National Championship, as well as being named All-American as a senior.
In 2004, Smith was the 18th overall pick by the New Orleans Saints in the NFL Draft. Registering 16 sacks in his first two seasons, Smith would be named starter opposite Charles Grant for the 2006 season. And he made the most of the opportunity.
In his first season as a full-time starter, Smith became not only the leader the defensive line, but quickly became of the most respected defensive ends in the league. In a season in which the Saints would progress to the NFC Championship game under first year head coach Sean Payton, Smith would be voted to the Pro Bowl. In his first four seasons, Smith would register 33.5 sacks.
Under new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in 2009, Smith added a career-high 13 sacks, 49 tackles, three forced fumbles, and one interception, as the Saints went on to capture the Super Bowl title.
Smith follows Tracy Porter to the end zone and to the Saints’ first title. (Photo credit: AP)
In May of 2012, Smith was suspended by the league for his alleged role in the BountyGate. The suspension was ultimately overturned by former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, and Smith started all 16 games of the 2012 season.
In 2013, as the Saints brought in new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, Smith was slated to be moved to outside linebacker in the new 3-4 scheme. But in their third preseason game against the Houston Texans. This would be the final appearance in a Saints uniform for Smith, as his torn ACL meant he was lost for the season. And on February 12 of the following year, Smith would be released by the team.
Will Smith would go on to be signed in 2014 by the New England Patriots, but released prior to playing a game for them.
In the decade that he spent with the Saints, Smith firmly established himself as not only a team leader and great player, but he was very well respected in the city as well. That is why in the aftermath of April 9, 2016, the death of Will Smith was considered to be a heavy blow to this city, state, and all fans of this team.
Friends, family and fans honor Smith. (Photo credit: USA TODAY Sports)
Smith was a player, a husband, a father, a leader. Though the fate of Smith’s killer is yet to be determined, there is no amount of justice that can be exacted in this situation that can ever bridge the gap, or bring back the man that Smith was. And as Saints fans all that we are left with now beyond all the questions surrounding how he died, are the memories of the way that he lived.
We lived out our greatest desires as fans of this team through he and that 2009 roster.
“Pigs have flown, hell has frozen over, and the Saints are going to the Super Bowl!!”
My most enduring memory of Will Smith came from that Super Bowl game vs the Colts. When Tracy Porter made the game-clenching pick-6, Smith as a part of the convoy escorting him in, ended up isolated on Peyton Manning. And as Smith dropped Peyton, the Saints dropped the Colts…to become champions of the world. Even now, as the memory plays out in my head, it never fails yet to give me chills.
I hope that we all remember Will Smith for the player, the father, the leader…
…and the MAN that he was. May he ever be.