Like countless others in New Orleans, Will Smith shrieks in elation whenever he sees a member of the Saints defense drop an opposing quarterback behind the line of scrimmage. He screams angrily at his television whenever the team errs and surrenders a big play, prompting his wife to leave the room and his startled children to wonder what’s wrong with their father.
When the Saints aren’t playing, a calmer Smith helps his kids complete their homework. He drives them to activities such as catechism and cheerleading, and he’s shared doughnuts with them and their classmates at school.
This fall is the first one Smith has been able to be just a Saints fan, just a dad. If asked, he’ll acknowledge he’s enjoyed the extra time he’s spent with his wife, Racquel; their two sons, ages 4 and 8; and their daughter, 7.
But that extra time has caused him to realize he’s not ready to let the knee injury that prematurely ended his 10th season in the NFL and in New Orleans also cut short his career.
He hopes to one day rejoin and contribute to a Saints team that is 5-1 and in its off week.
“I want to be out there flying around and making plays,” Smith said. “I want to play until I don’t want to play anymore, until it becomes a burden or not very desirable for me.
“I’ll be back as long as the Saints want me back.”
Smith and his wife’s foundation, “Where’s There’s a Will There’s a Way,” hosted a luncheon Tuesday at the Hyatt Regency New Orleans to raise funds for Bridge House/Grace House, which provides substance abuse treatment to the homeless, indigent, uninsured and unemployed. While artists, musicians, politicians and others of local preeminence prepared to serve meals to event sponsors and ticket buyers, Smith stepped aside to speak about rehabbing his knee and the bittersweet experience of watching the surging Saints from afar.
Having switched from defensive end to outside linebacker as the Saints installed defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s scheme this preseason, Smith tore an anterior cruciate ligament in an exhibition against the Houston Texans in August.
Smith recalled thinking his injury wasn’t serious. After all, he managed to walk off the field on his own.
An MRI soon revealed the ACL tear, and the Saints placed their first-round draft pick from 2004 on injured reserve. After sitting out five games his entire Saints career, two of which involved testing positive for a banned weight-loss supplement, Smith needed to undergo surgery and miss all of the 2013 season.
“I didn’t really know how to take it in,” said Smith, who isn’t yet sure precisely when he’ll fully heal. “I figured that life is a struggle, and you have good struggles, and you have bad struggles — and this is one of the bad struggles.”
Smith underwent surgery and began rehabbing in Pensacola, Fla. His children and wife remain in New Orleans; but every weekend, either he visits his family or they travel to see him.
Smith has handled being a typical dad well, and there have been funny moments as he tries to keep track of the Saints like a normal Who Dat.
For example, against the New England Patriots on Sunday, Smith turned off the TV in a victorious mood when Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis intercepted Tom Brady late in the fourth quarter with New Orleans leading by four points. He learned Brady subsequently vanquished the Saints with a last-second touchdown pass only because his shocked friends flooded his phone with text messages asking, “What just happened?”
Other games, “He’s talking to the screen, and he’s like, ‘Argh!’” when he’s frustrated, Racquel Smith said. “When they get a sack, he’s jumping up and down. ... The kids are like, ‘What’s going on? What’s going on with daddy?’”
However, despite the family bonding time and humor, Smith admitted he dislikes being away from his team.
Smith, who helped the Saints forge past the challenges posed by Hurricane Katrina and then tallied 13 sacks the year they won Super Bowl XLIV, is confident he and other veterans who were injured before the start of the season would be valuable to Ryan’s unit if healthy.
“The way those (active) guys have played and the ... addition of those guys who’ve been hurt just make the team that much better,” said Smith, who’s kept in touch with coaches and players by phone. “I don’t think we would’ve hindered anything — if anything, we would (be) a lot ... better.”
But Smith added it was exhilarating to see younger defensive linemen and linebackers blossom in his absence.
Smith made it a point to praise the man he expected to compete with for a starting spot, outside linebacker Junior Galette.
Galette, in his fourth year with the Saints, has three of the Saints’ 21 sacks and is tied for second on the team. He is No. 2 for New Orleans in quarterback hurries with 16 and first in quarterback hits with six.
“I know a lot of young guys who are very talented ... wanted to get out on the field and make plays and be successful,” Smith said. “I’m happy for them to get out there and get the opportunity.”
Racquel Smith can vouch for that.
“He’s proud of what they’re doing,” she said about her husband.