The yellow tape. The flashing lights. Spotlights from overhead, illuminating three vehicles stopped in the middle of a darkened road, parked one after another, waiting to go to their unknown, altered destination.
The scene carried an air of surrealness. The men in police uniforms gathered and milled about the cars, with a handful of cameras focused on them from various angles. The scene looked staged.
Passersby, who hadn’t been following the news, stopped to ask those gathered behind the yellow tape which movie was shooting a scene in the Lower Garden District early Sunday morning.
What they didn’t know was that an act of violence, initially labeled as the possible result of a road-rage incident raising to unconscionable levels, left the lifeless body of former New Orleans Saints defensive end Will Smith slouched over the steering wheel of the vehicle in the middle of that tragic caravan. His wife, Racquel, was hospitalized after taking two bullets to the leg.
“A wife becomes a widow over an argument?” former Saints guard Mike McGlynn wrote on Twitter. “Three children lose their daddy over nothing!”
Something led to Smith being shot multiple times at the intersection of Sophie B. Wright Place and Felicity Street late Saturday night. Whether it was the result of road rage or something else will come to light in the coming days and weeks. What we do know is that Smith was much more than a victim of a crime.
He overcame tough odds as a youth to land a scholarship at Ohio State University. He was a first-round draft pick of the Saints who became one of the faces and leaders of the franchise’s Super Bowl era playing defensive end. He was husband to Racquel and father of William, Wynter and Lisa.
His 34 years left an impact on many. His departure is doing the same.
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In the iconic photos of Tracy Porter’s touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts that helped propel New Orleans to its first Super Bowl title after the 2009 season, you’ll see many players trailing behind the cornerback as he runs toward the end zone.
There’s Malcolm Jenkins to the left. You might see Scott Shanle, Sedrick Ellis and Scott Fujita running behind with their arms outstretched. Depending on the angle, you’ll also see a collection of other players, all in different states of sprinting, celebration and joy.
You won’t see Smith in many of those photos. It’s not because he wasn’t trucking down the field to celebrate the biggest moment in franchise history. He’s tucked away, out of frame, after rushing to lay the block on quarterback Peyton Manning that sprung Porter for the touchdown.
From the way many remembered and described Smith, that seems fitting.
By all accounts, Smith was never one to seek the spotlight or draw attention to himself. He was said to be a quiet and humble man, though most of his interviews were accompanied by a sly smile. He cared deeply about his craft and let his work on the field speak for him.
It’s always been that way. Paul Filletti, who coached Smith at Proctor High School in Utica, New York, remembers meeting Smith when he was a shy 12-year-old and watching him develop into the man he became.
He’ll remember how Smith never sought the spotlight and always gave back to his hometown. He’ll remember how much pride he brought the city by winning a national championship at Ohio State and then the Super Bowl with the Saints. And he’ll remember how Smith hosted the Utica Observer-Dispatch newspaper’s All-Mowhawk Valley football team banquet nearly every year.
Smith was scheduled to host the event again this week.
“Besides his athletic achievements, we’re very proud of the man, father, husband and friend he was,” Filletti said. “He never forgot where he came from and always looked to give back to this community.”
Smith always looked for ways to help others. He ran a foundation, named “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way,” that worked to motivate, education and provide opportunities for women and youths.
He focused many of his efforts on Utica and New Orleans but got involved in relief efforts in Haiti after an earthquake left the country devastated in 2010.
Utica is where Smith started to become a man. He lived in Queens until he was 4 years old, when his mother died of breast cancer. He and his sister moved to Utica to live with grandmother Nancy Smith, who raised the children.
Smith’s grandmother was a strict woman who worked to keep him focused. During a 2004 interview with The Advocate after he was drafted, Smith said the circumstances of his youth led him to focus on sports.
“When I moved, that’s when I got involved with playing sports,” he said. “There was just as much crime there as in New York City, so I stayed away from that stuff and focused on sports.”
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Even if he never sought it out, the spotlight had a way of finding Smith. It found him in Utica, where he was named a high school All-American. It found him at Ohio State, where he was one of the best defensive ends in the country. And it found him time and again in New Orleans.
Just last month, Smith became a unanimous choice for the Saints Hall of Fame. The news was to be announced in the summer. Smith was made aware of the honor, but his life ended before he could enjoy the ceremony.
His contributions won’t soon be forgotten. In a decade with the Saints, he started 120 games, recorded 67.5 sacks and made the Pro Bowl in 2006. He was considered the leader of the locker room and was someone whom coach Sean Payton leaned on to help keep things in order.
His statistics were impressive, but Smith’s former teammates think he could have put up even better numbers if he didn’t care about the team so much.
“You would have never known that he was that important piece of the franchise, because he was probably one of the most selfless people I played with,” Shanle said. “Will would do anything to our defense. ... People look at Will’s numbers and talk about the sacks, and I think a lot of it was (that) he wasn’t selfish. He didn’t rush the passer every time to try and get a sack and forget about the run. He played total team defense and played the run as well as he played the pass, and those are things that didn’t go unnoticed by guys — especially me as a linebacker.”
Shanle described Smith as being a cornerstone of the franchise, a word general manager Mickey Loomis also used when discussing the defensive end.
“Will came to New Orleans 12 years ago and quickly developed both on the field as a player and off the field as a leader to become one of the cornerstones of a team that would go on to win a Super Bowl,” Loomis said in a statement released by the team.
Smith was the same type of presence at Ohio State. He excelled on the field, earning first-team All-America honors and serving as a captain in 2003.
“He had a great sense of humor, was fun to be around in the locker room, making guys laugh. He just had that everything factor: stud on the field, great teammate, obviously so respected that the team chose him to be a captain,” former Ohio State quarterback Craig Krenzel told the Columbus Dispatch. “It was an honor to be his teammate, an honor to be his friend. It was an honor to serve as co-captain with him.”
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On Sunday morning, all that remained at the scene of the crime were a couple of marks on the road. If it weren’t for some balloons and flowers that had been placed on the sidewalk near where Smith was shot, there would be little evidence that anything had happened there.
Throughout the morning, members of the Saints and players from around the NFL continued to post tributes to Smith on social media, sharing their shock and disbelief.
They were struggling to make sense of it. It felt pointless.
“Those people don’t understand the type of person they took away, not just from his family, but the community and people in general,” Jermon Bushrod, a former Saints tackle and current member of the Miami Dolphins, said in a radio interview. “They hurt some people.”