"So awful about Will. Just tragic and senseless. Are you OK?" was the text that I woke up to on Sunday morning from a close friend and colleague. Immediately I knew it was about former New Orleans Saints DE, Will Smith. And my heart dropped hoping that it wasn't what I thought. But it was. Will Smith was shot and killed in his beloved city of New Orleans right next to his wife Rockie who was also shot wailing "Please God help him" as the paramedics took her away on a stretcher.
The first headlines were "multiple gunshots in a traffic dispute." In the coming days, weeks and months I am sure there will be so much said in the media about the investigation and what the New Orleans Police Department find. Seems like the gentleman who shot Will and his wife Rockie stayed at the scene and has already been charged and that will be part of the closure that is needed.
For this very, very deep loss however, the City of New Orleans and more devastating, the family, friends and Will's beloved wife and children will never fully recover. The loss is too huge for so many reasons. Will was a pillar of strength for the city and the entire community for the past 12 years since arriving.
When you personally know the athlete who has been shot and killed, the headlines become all that more piercing when you read them. I represented Will as his publicist for his first 5 years in the NFL before leaving personal PR around 2010. And like so many of my other clients, Will was so special. More special than most though. He walked the walk and talked the talk. He called out those who did not and expected the best from everyone around him. He had the wisdom of someone three times his age and was always looking to better himself.
The sting of the loss is deep when you know the person behind what the media covers. Everything you're reading about Will and the work he and his wife Rockie have done in the New Orleans community for over a decade is really what they were about. Together, they were pillars of the New Orleans community and their own families and they welcomed that with open arms.
Will wanted that responsibility to give back and be a leading voice almost automatically when Hurricane Katrina hit and the team, city and community were looking for that calm in the storm and the "everything is going to be okay, we will come back stronger" sentiment to hold onto. Will was that rock and welcomed that role. That is why this loss is so much larger than the NFL.
The flooding of memories of stories we did together from the Diving with Sharks in Hawaii for ESPN, Cooking with Emeril Lagasse for Sports Illustrated and walking barefoot on the grounds of the Super Dome before it was open in 2007 with Fox Sports...these are everlasting. The times when the cameras were off were even better.
He was deeply philosophical and loved to be a citizen of the world traveling outside of the U.S. whenever he could. We would spend hours on the phone talking about every topic under the sun. He was passionate and committed about it all.
My best memory by far though was his wedding with Rockie in June of 2008. There must have been 400-500 people in attendance and they made sure every single person had the best time, ate well and were all up dancing the entire night. They were just natural, warm leaders of New Orleans.
My heart truly breaks for Rockie and for their children. There is nothing that can repair the damage that has been done but to honor the man that Will Smith was by continuing his great work that he lived by every single day and to try to channel his leadership in your own way.