Remember these promises that Will Smith kept as city formally mourns

Eric Adelson
·Columnist

NEW ORLEANS – Terrell Haynes planned a meeting for Friday at Kingsley House, the 120-year-old non-profit he helps run in this city's Garden District. He would bring in teens and young men from the area and speak to them about resolving differences and avoiding violence.

He had to postpone because Will Smith, one of Kingsley House's most admired contributors, was shot and killed on Saturday night. The memorial at the New Orleans Saints' team facility is Friday, the same day as the planned gathering at Kingsley House.

"Man, I tell you, it sucks," Haynes said before sighing in an empty room here Thursday. "This city."

Terrell Haynes lauded Will and Racquel Smith for their work with Kingsley House. (Y Sports)
Terrell Haynes lauded Will and Racquel Smith for their work with Kingsley House. (Y Sports)

Smith and his wife, Racquel, spent thousands of dollars every year on Christmas gifts for families, Haynes said. They also spent time. After his release by the Saints in 2014, Haynes thought his relationship with the Smiths would end. But he was reassured that New Orleans was Will Smith's home. He was going to stay.

"I hate that a good man who gave so much to his community lost his life," Haynes said. "It's rare to encounter men like Will who actually take action. And despite his setbacks, still be there for you."

It's a bitter irony that a rare leader has now become an example of how rare leaders truly are. One of his best friends, Zach Williams, remembered his last phone call with Smith, about what Smith hoped to do with an MBA – he was on track to earn the degree from the University of Miami this summer – and perhaps a law degree.

"He wanted his success to motivate," said Williams, who met Smith at Ohio State. "There's always going to be … before the tragic event, there was always nostalgia for New Orleans. He created memories there. He was revered in the community, beloved by the fans. He took pride in that stuff."

Williams remembers Smith as a creative thinker, at times a contrarian. "Always asking questions," he said. "Staying open." Williams now lives in Dallas, but he meshed with Smith right away because of their shared New York roots. Their conversations – whether in the dorms or over the phone – often drifted into substantive topics about big ideas and bigger challenges.

Smith was the kind of person who could talk to anyone. And he was the kind of person who a lot of people needed to hear.

"He was nimble in his thought process," Williams said. "It didn't matter if you were white, black, Asian. He truly valued relationships."

Will Smith was generous with his time and money, says two friends. (Courtesy of Kingsley House)
Will Smith was generous with his time and money, says two friends. (Courtesy of Kingsley House)

His life was not without turbulence. In 2011 Smith was charged with misdemeanor battery after a late-night argument with Racquel in Lafayette. The assistant district attorney said at the time that Racquel was never struck, yet Smith did dozens of hours of community service and the couple got counseling. He also wrote a letter of apology to the Lafayette police. The incident occurred before the Ray Rice era, and so it did not receive the scrutiny it would have today. But Smith's response to it could have been a model for the league's players to follow.

Now, with his loss, there are more pressing questions about what to do about violence, guns and how to build A better city that Smith himself was working to create.

"When I heard the gentlemen that killed Will was just as big, if not bigger," Haynes said, before raising his voice in frustration.

"Whatever happened to the old days? We get into a tussle, at the end of the day we're friends. We walk away. Today, everything has to be final. It shouldn't be that way."

Haynes' favorite memory of working with the Smiths came last December, when Racquel invited people over to the house to wrap presents for families in need. She made two kinds of gumbo, one with shrimp and crawfish, and the other with sausage. "It was off the chain," he laughed.

By the end of the day, there were enough presents to fill a giant room. Racquel insisted on getting whatever the families asked for, whether a television or pots and pans or towels. Some of the moms would burst into tears when they got a crib, or an extra set of bed sheets.

Haynes remembers sitting in the Smiths' house, still surprised that the family kept up their service long after the football player was let go in 2014.

"They pledged to support us in 2014," he said. "They pledged to support us in 2015."

(Courtesy of Kingsley House)
(Courtesy of Kingsley House)

His voice cracked.

"They pledged to support us in 2016."

He lowers his head.

Instead of a meeting for young men, there will be a visitation Friday at the Saints' facility. Both Haynes and Williams will be there, as well as former teammates and many from the community. Asked how he's coping with such a terrible week, Williams paused and said, "Honestly, I don't know.

"I just miss my brother."