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New Orleans mourns slain former player, team leader Smith

AP

People across Louisiana sought 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 a deadly act of road rage.

Smith, 34, arrived in New Orleans in 2004 as a No. 1 draft pick and played with such passion 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 Super Bowl 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.”

Police said Cardell Hayes, a former semi-pro football player, rear-ended Smith’s Mercedes G63 with his Humvee H2, pushing Smith’s big, blocky SUV into a Chevrolet Impala carrying Smith’s acquaintances, before Hayes opened fire.

A defense attorney for Hayes, John Fuller, said 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.

News of Smith’s death was hard on many who had closely followed his 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 postseason 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 said 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.”