Just before midnight on the night of April 9 last, Will Raymond Smith and his wife Racquel were returning home from a meal at their favourite sushi restaurant in the Lower Garden District of New Orleans.
Smith, a recently retired defensive end for the New Orleans Saints was driving a Mercedes SUV when he made an innocuous contact with the back bumper of a ‘Hummer 2’ that had stopped at a red light ahead of him.
Smith immediately drove away from the scene but was pursued by the other driver who in turn drove his Hummer into the back of Smith’s car at a stop light several blocks later. The two drivers angrily confronted each other in the street while Racquel stood between them, attempting to talk peace into a couple of irate men on the brink of war.
What happened next is uncontested. Will Smith was shot once in the chest, seven times in the back and died where he fell. His wife, wounded in both legs, managed to crawl across a pavement to safety, bleeding heavily, pleading for help.
When the police arrived at the scene four minutes later Cardell Hayes was waiting for them, ready to surrender. Hayes, once himself a promising high school football star and still playing semi-pro, openly declared himself the shooter. He was also an extra in the movie 22 Jump Street. Nicknamed “Bear,” Hayes was playing for the Gridiron Developmental Football League as recently as last year. He claimed he acted in self-defence and has since been charged with the second-degree murder of Smith and the attempted murder of Racquel.
Appropriately for a future ‘All-American’ college star, Will Smith was born on the fourth of July 1981 in New York. Raised in the city of Utica, he was always a gifted athlete and after an outstanding high school football career, he joined Ohio State University on a scholarship where he became an integral part of the famed Buckeyes team that won the National College championship in 2002.
Chosen by the New Orleans Saints as a first round pick in the 2004 draft he made an immediate impact for his new club, terrorising opposing quarterbacks, leading the defensive line. Before too long he had become and established pro bowler and bagged a $70 million contract. By the time he helped drive the Saints to their first and only Superbowl title in the 2009 season, Will Smith was firmly established among the elite of the NFL and was genuinely beloved by the fans in his adopted city.
It is hard to overestimate the emotional importance of that Superbowl triumph to New Orleans, just four years after the brutal devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Their home, the Louisiana Super Dome, suffered extensive damage in the storm yet still became an enduring TV image as a sanctuary to many of the storms poorest victims. The following season the Saints played away from home during the repairs, the team fell apart and their record was a dismal 3-13.
But Will Smith stayed loyal, stuck with the programme and was one of the few players from the pre-hurricane era still around to pick up a Super Bowl ring. His commitment to both the team and the rebounding city both as a footballer and as a generous philanthropist brought him even deeper respect from the citizens of New Orleans. His death was a stunning blow to the city and Saints owner, Tom Benson, summed it up. “We are devastated and saddened by Will’s tragic and preventable death due to a senseless act that will leave a scar on our community forever. Will was more than an exceptional football player.
“He was a father, a husband, a son, a brother and team-mate to so many and an inspiration to countless more.”
However, always in America there is another story hiding behind the white picket fences and the story of Will Smith is no different. He thrived in a sport in a constant battle to preserve its reputation among a drip-feed of tales of criminality, drug abuse, and domestic violence. Two years ago Ravens running back Ray Rice was banished after being filmed pulverising his wife in an elevator. Patriots tight end, Aaron Hernandez gets life for a 2014 murder.
Smith too walked in this world. In 2010 he was arrested outside a Louisiana nightclub and charged with public intoxication and domestic battery. A year later, he was caught up in the NFL’s infamous ‘star caps’ scandal — the widespread use of a diuretic containing bumetanide, a known masking agent for steroids. He received a two-game ban and was docked two weeks wages for the violation.
Bigger trouble came a year later. ‘Bountygate’ was the brainchild of the Saints Defensive coordinator, Greg Williams. He encouraged his players to pool their cash, which was then ‘bountied’ to any player who inflicted damage on certain named opponents. When the scheme was exposed Smith was identified as an enthusiastic participant and received a four-game suspension.
Will Smith was the 32nd person killed in New Orleans this year, which statistically makes this the fourth most dangerous city in North America. Most of the victims are poor and black, living anonymous lives on the edges of criminality and their normal epitaph is 20 seconds on the TV news or a small paragraph in the local paper. The trial of Cardell Hayes will be different, sub-OJ admittedly, but still a national event. Moreover, Hayes’ lawyer, John Fuller, is starting to ask some uncomfortable questions about what really happened that night.
For instance, one of Smith’s sushi companions was his old friend and ex-New Orleans cop, Billy Ceravolo. In 2005, Ceravolo was one of six police officers involved in the shooting death of Hayes’ father, not far from the scene of Smith’s killing and had arrived back at the crime scene even before the police. An unusual coincidence.
Then there is that loaded 9mm gun only later found in Smith’s car when Fuller asserts that he has a witness that puts the gun in Smith’s hand during the encounter. However police said ballistic evidence showed Smith’s handgun was not fired. The answers to these questions, played out on national television, will help form the enduring legacy of Will Smith. Was he targeted? Did he draw his gun first? Was there evidence tampering?
Meanwhile Saints fans openly wept as his memorial service, aware that the man the mourned while a Saint, was no angel. One of them remarked: “In some ways I feel worse about this than Katrina. It’s a physical assault on the spirit of the city. The violence of it.”