NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Former New Orleans Saints player Will Smith was shot and killed Saturday in what appeared to be a road rage incident that has shocked fans of the much-loved athlete.
Coroner Jeffrey C. Rouse said in an emailed statement that Smith died of “multiple gunshot wounds” after a traffic accident in the city’s Lower Garden District. The former defensive end was 34 years old.
Cardell Hayes, 28, was arrested on a charge of second-degree murder in Smith’s death, New Orleans Police Department spokesman Tyler Gamble said Sunday. Police said Hayes was the driver of a Humvee H2 that rear-ended Smith’s Mercedes G63 about 11:30 p.m. Saturday. A passenger in Hayes’ vehicle was questioned and released, he said.
Gamble said the investigation was continuing. 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.
Smith appeared to be the victim of a road rage accident.
The former defensive end was driving through an upscale part of the city 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.
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 and 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.