Joe McKnight

Then New York Jets rookie Joe McKnight stretches during rookie mini-camp, in 2010. The Kenner native was shot and killed in Terrytown Thursday afternoon during an apparent road-rage incident. 

Mel Evans

The news of Joe McKnight's shooting death hit the New Orleans Saints' locker room hard. 

For some of the Saints, McKnight was a legendary figure — a high school star whose highlights they watched during class in high school.

McKnight's death also hit home for a team that has seen two former NFL players gunned down in their home city in less than a year.

"Dude, I feel like we just (need) to slow down," safety Jairus Byrd said. "Let’s be more mature. We’ve come to a time now where it’s like, ‘Let’s talk things out,’ that’s not cool. You don’t need to shoot a gun to prove that you’re in control or, ‘I win.’ "

McKnight, a Kenner native who became a national sensation during his days at John Curtis, was shot and killed by Ronald Gasser at a busy Terrytown intersection Thursday. On April 9, former Saints defensive end Will Smith was shot and killed by Cardell Hayes after a traffic dispute between the two in the Lower Garden District. Both events turned a brighter spotlight nationally on gun violence in New Orleans.

Byrd admitted that the two events have made him more cautious about spending time out in the city. 

"Honestly, I’m kind of like a hermit: I just kind of keep to myself and like hang out, unless I’m with these guys and we’ll go out every now and then," Byrd said. "But honestly, I hear about that stuff all the time, and ... it becomes like you’re more aware when you do go out. Or if my brother stays with me and he goes out and has a good time, it’s like I’m more worried for him. Because you never know. Over just like stupid stuff, you know what I mean? ... It’s just crazy. People just be shooting over anything. You could step on someone’s shoe and they’re ready to like … it’s crazy."

Beyond the killings of McKnight and Smith, the Saints have found themselves dealing with the issues of police brutality and racial inequality, problems that prompted New Orleans to hold hands with the Atlanta Falcons after the national anthem before their Monday night game earlier this year.

"Man, the only thing we can do is come together," running back Mark Ingram said. "I feel like these incidents bring a lot of division at times. I don’t know why. What’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong, no matter color or the situation. But at the end of the day, we all need to come together, care about one another, love one another. That’s what I’ve said before, and I think ultimately, until we all care about each other and treat each other how we want to be treated, nothing’s going to change."

The Saints were going through practice when Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand held his news conference Friday, so most were still working off their initial impressions when reporters interviewed them in the locker room. A few Saints were not happy with the decision to release Gasser without charges.

"You don't get released after you just shot somebody to death," safety Kenny Vaccaro said. "And then you're back on the street? What if it happens again? It has nothing to do with race — white and black, brown, purple — regardless, somebody that just did that shouldn't be on the street. At least have them in custody. You don't have to be in handcuffs, but at least have them until you figure out what's going on."

Saints coach Sean Payton called McKnight's killing "tragic," but he did not know the former USC, New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs standout. 

His players were shocked by the news. 

"You don’t want to hear anybody get murdered, but especially someone that I’ve followed since high school, someone who I was in class in high school pulling up highlight films, watching him," Ingram said. "It’s a shame, and it’s unnecessary to lose a good guy and for no reason really."

Follow Joel A. Erickson on Twitter, @JoelAErickson.