NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Former New Orleans Saints player Will Smith was shot and killed in what appeared to be a road rage incident, city police said Sunday. The death shocked fans of the much-loved athlete.
Investigators don’t have any evidence so far that the shooting was “anything other than this accident … that turned violent,” Police Superintendent Michael Harrison said Sunday afternoon.
There’s no indication that Smith, 34, and the man accused of killing him knew each other or that Cardell Hayes, 28, targeted Smith, he said at a brief news conference.
Harrison said Hayes waited for police to show up and was arrested on a charge of second-degree murder in Smith’s death. Hayes was the driver of a Humvee H2 that rear-ended Smith’s Mercedes G63 about 11:30 p.m. Saturday, police said.
Online court records show Hayes pleaded guilty in 2014 to one count each of possessing an illegal weapon and possessing drug paraphernalia.
Saints’ owner Tom Benson and family released a statement mourning the loss of a player who had been their No. 1 draft pick in 2004.
“The Saints family is hurting and devastated as it has lost a member too young and too soon,” the statement said.
The Smith family released a statement through a public relations firm.
“On behalf of the Smith family, we are thankful for the outpouring of support and prayers. We ask that you continue to respect the family’s privacy as they grieve the loss of a devoted husband, father and friend,” the statement read.
The former defensive end was driving through an upscale neighborhood called the Lower Garden District when his car was rear-ended and pushed into a Chevrolet Impala occupied by two acquaintances of Smith’s, police said. The acquaintances were not injured.
Police said Smith and Hayes argued and Hayes pulled out a gun, shooting Smith and Smith’s wife. Racquel Smith, 33, was hit in the leg and taken to a hospital; Smith died at the scene.
Harrison would not say whether Hayes claimed self-defense. “I would not want to say anything that might compromise our investigation or weaken our case,” he said.
Asked whether Hayes showed any signs of mental illness, Harrison said police could not make medical diagnoses.
Hayes sued the New Orleans Police Department and six officers after police killed his father in 2005.
Harrison confirmed that one of those officers dined with Smith on Saturday night, but said he could not say whether that had anything to do with the crash and shooting. The former officer, William Ceravolo, was not among those present at the time of the crash, police spokesman Tyler Gamble said.
Police settled the lawsuit in 2011. The settlement is confidential, said attorney Ike Spears, who represented Hayes in that suit.
The Saints Hall of Fame said Sunday that Smith was unanimously elected last month, and a formal announcement and induction will be scheduled later.
“Will was a superb player for the Saints for nine seasons, an integral part of a team that played for the NFC championship in 2006 and won a Super Bowl in 2009,” said the statement emailed for Hall of Fame President Ken Trahan.
Smith’s death shocked football fans across the Crescent City, where the former end was a loved and respected figure both on and off the field, and elsewhere. Tributes poured in. NBA star LeBron James and NFL Commissioner Roger Godell issued statements expressing sympathy for Smith’s wife and children.
“So sad man. Good dude he was man!” James said via Twitter.
Smith, a native of Queens, New York, played for Ohio State’s 2002 national championship team. He graduated from the school in 2005 with a degree in criminology.
In a statement, the school said Smith was “the leader of a defensive line and a defense” that powered the team to the championship, and that the Ohio State athletics family had “lost one of its best.”
Smith was a first-round draft choice by New Orleans in 2004. He led the Saints with a career-high 13 sacks in 2009, when the club won its only Super Bowl. Smith’s career sack total ranks fourth in Saints history. He had 457 career tackles, 20 forced fumbles, seven fumble recoveries and two interceptions.
He last played in an NFL regular season game in 2012, finishing his career with 67 ½ sacks.
During the 2013 preseason, a knee injury forced him onto injured reserve. He was signed in the 2014 offseason by New England but did not make the Patriots’ regular season roster.
Smith was defensive captain for much of his career, but it was also that leadership role that landed him at the center of the NFL’s bounty probe in 2012. The league concluded that Smith and fellow defensive captain Jonathan Vilma helped run a locker-room pool that paid cash bonuses for heavy and even injurious hits.
Smith was initially suspended four games by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, but Smith and three other implicated players successfully appealed their suspensions and were never compelled to miss games, even as Saints coach Sean Payton was suspended the entire 2012 season.
A year earlier, however, Smith did have to serve a two-game suspension that stemmed from findings back in 2008 that he and several other NFL players had used a weight-loss product called StarCaps, which contained a diuretic that had been banned by the league because it was known to mask steroid use. That suspension was enforced after legal challenges the spanned several seasons.
Off the field, Smith took an active role in trying to improve the lives of children in New Orleans. He established a foundation called, Where There’s A Will, There’s A Way, in 2007. Its stated mission is “to motivate, educate and provide opportunities for women and children.”
After football, he settled in Louisiana, his wife’s native state. His shooting came during the weekend of the French Quarter festival, a popular festival featuring local music and food.
Smith leaves behind his wife and three children.
Correspondent Rebecca Santana contributed to this story from New Orleans.