It was pretty apparent something was off when I woke up Sunday morning with a text from my childhood best friend that read, “Please tell me you are seeing this.” It was 7:42 a.m.—I wasn’t seeing much beyond the back of my eyelids. By 8:15 my mom sent me a single link from New Orleans’ local news site, nola.com. The headline read, “Ex-Saint Will Smith Shot to Death in New Orleans, Coroner Confirms.”

I'm from a small city in upstate New York, Utica. Despite having a lot of pride from being raised there, I know I have just as much pride having made it out. The median family income barely touches $40,000 a year. The unfortunate reality is it typically rounds out the top 10 most dangerous places in the state, according to violent crime rate. Will Smith and I both graduated from Thomas R. Proctor High School, the only public high school in a city of about 62,000 people. Senseless acts of violence are nothing new to anyone that has spent time in Utica. We just like to believe it’ll be different once you’re out. 

Image via Stanley Theater

I was in eighth grade practicing with the varsity track team. Will was a senior on the track team that year, following his final football and basketball seasons as a Raider, and was heading to Ohio State to play football for the Buckeyes. It was here, among friends and teammates, I got to meet and see Will prep for his future in his final weeks of high school. Inspiring for sure, but I can’t go without mentioning the good spirit and fun those guys had and would continue to have well after everyone grew up. Years later, I remember sitting in the dining hall when I was a freshman in college waiting to see where he’d get drafted after four successful years and a national championship with the Buckeyes. The Saints made him their first round pick, selecting him 18th in the 2004 draft. He’d really made it out. He was going to the NFL and bringing a lot of new fans to the Saints with him.

During the summer following college, one of my former coaches approached me about a project he was working on. He’d been one of Will's football coaches as well, and they were initiating his non-profit organization, Where There’s A Will There’s A Way. It was 2007, the year the Saints accepted an ESPY for Best Moment upon returning to the Superdome following Hurricane Katrina, and only two years before they would go on to become Super Bowl XLIV champs. Will was starting to annually bring a squad of professional football players to Utica to give the kids in the city a football camp/combine experience at the high school for free. We collected sponsorships to make sure every kid got to have their day at camp comped, an opportunity few otherwise would have been able to afford. Will had already been a hometown hero for nearly a decade at that point, but the camp solidified his love for Utica and the city's love for Will. 

Will always greeted me with a warm smile, a big hug, a playful threat to text my ex, and a big brother warning to behave out there.

In the following years, when I worked at a casino in upstate New York, Will and a combination of our friends from high school and his NFL teammates would always come through when he was in town. His beautiful family stayed in NOLA after Will was no longer on the Saints, but he never forgot where he was from. Later, when I’d moved to Miami for a few years, we’d cross paths occasionally when he was in town visiting his former Saints’ teammate Jonathan Vilma. Even then, as big as he was, Will always greeted me with a warm smile, a big hug, a playful threat to text my ex, and a big brother warning to behave out there. 

I don’t have the words to properly express my condolences to his wife, Rockie, and their three children, nor do I have the words to console our friend who texted me remembering the first time he took a flight was to see Will in New Orleans. I dropped him off at the airport that day and told him everything would be fine. And even if that’s not always the case, I do know one thing—legacies don’t die, and coming from where Will comes from, success stories as great as his are few and far between. Will Smith will never be forgotten. 

Rest in peace, Will. You’ll always be our biggest hometown hero.