The first call hit Scott Shanle’s phone a little after midnight.
Shanle called Jonathan Vilma, breaking the news to him, and then the pair of former Saints linebackers tried to process the situation together. For a minute, they convinced themselves the news wasn’t true.
Then a second call came.
It was true. Former Saints defensive end Will Smith, a key member of the New Orleans team that won the Super Bowl in February 2010, had been shot and killed late Saturday night after a traffic mishap in the Lower Garden District, and his wife had been wounded.
“I was in disbelief, shock,” Shanle said. “So many different emotions.”
The news of Smith’s death hit the Saints organization, the city of New Orleans and the rest of the NFL hard Sunday morning.
Former and current Saints, other NFL players, several NFL teams and celebrity figures joined in an outpouring of emotion on social media.
“Shocked, crushed, & broken over this,” former teammate Scott Fujita posted on his Twitter account. “Please pray for the family of my friend & brother Will Smith. Tragic beyond words. Love you, Will.”
Reactions ranged from grief to anger, prompting franchise owners Tom and Gayle Benson, along with many former Saints and NFL stars with New Orleans ties, to condemn the violence in the city.
“We are devastated and saddened by Will’s tragic and preventable death due to a senseless act that will leave a lasting scar on our community forever,” the Bensons said in a statement released by the team. “Will was more than an exceptional football player, he was a father, a husband, a son, a brother and teammate to so many and an inspiration to countless more.”
The Saints organization then pledged its support to reducing violence in the city.
“These senseless killings in our city MUST STOP. Let’s all rally now in earnest in Will Smith’s honor and in his name to do something tangible,” team spokesman Greg Bensel said on his Twitter account. “The Bensons and the Saints have always been a safety net in our city to help, support and bail out — we will do our part in Will’s name. #91”
Smith, who spent 10 seasons in New Orleans, was one of the core members of a Saints team that rose to contention after Hurricane Katrina and won the franchise’s only Super Bowl after the 2009 season.
Drafted by New Orleans in 2004, Smith was an impressive all-around player, making the Pro Bowl in 2006 and serving as a team captain. Earlier this year, he was voted unanimously for enshrinement in the Saints Hall of Fame, news that would have been announced in May.
“When I got there in ’06, when a lot of us got there, he was one of the faces of the franchise,” Shanle said. “When you look at him and (former running back Deuce McAllister), when Coach Payton got there, those were the guys we were building around.”
But Smith’s legacy in New Orleans went far beyond the field. A native of Utica, New York, who played his college football at Ohio State, Smith stayed in New Orleans after his playing career ended in 2014, in part because he married a Louisiana native.
He tried to find a way to help those in need in his adopted city. He established the “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way” foundation to help at-risk children in Louisiana and New York, working with Kingsley House and becoming involved with Bridge House and Grace House, an alcoholism and drug addiction treatment center, where Smith sponsored an annual celebrity waiter fundraiser.
“He touched a lot of lives,” Kevin Gardere, Bridge House’s executive director of development, said. “He cared about guys and women that were coming through our program, knowing they needed a lot of assistance. Really, the people we treat are hopeless and helpless and many want to die, and Will and Racquel were always right there to help us.”
A community in shock put together an impromptu memorial for Smith on Sunday morning near the spot on Sophie Wright Place where the former Saint died a few hours earlier.
Black and gold balloons, one with Smith’s No. 91 on it, floated in the air. Flowers were spread on the ground. A Saints blanket was draped over a fence.
One by one, Saints fans stopped by the memorial Sunday, stopping briefly to take a picture or quietly reflect. One fan, William Smith, was wearing an old Smith jersey he initially bought because they shared the same name but that now has much more meaning to him.
“I’m from here, a huge Saints fan, obviously, and the ’09 season was hugely important for me and for the city,” Smith said. “People in this town typically don’t know so many defensive players, so I had mad respect for him. … I live nearby, a few blocks away, and I just wanted to see if anything was here.”
Fans kept adding to the memorial throughout the day, paying their respects by adding mementos in honor of one of the Saints’ best.
“Will was already one of the best defensive players in Saints history,” Shanle said. “And then you look at what he did off the field, in the community. I don’t think you’re going to run into anybody who has a bad word to say about Will Smith.”