Former Saints lineman Will Smith's hometown mourns: 'He was our crown jewel'

Will Smith's football career began in Utica, N.Y. (Photo: Chris Graythen, Getty Images)

Will Smith’s football career began in Utica, N.Y. (Photo: Chris Graythen, Getty Images)

Will Smith was scheduled to come home to Utica, N.Y., this week.

The annual Where There’s A Will, There’s A Way Foundation dinner was planned for Thursday night to honor the best high school football players in the region, and on Friday, he was going to present a golden football to his alma mater, Proctor High, as part of the NFL’s Super Bowl High School Honor Roll.

Instead, Smith’s former coaches, friends and the Central New York community awoke Sunday to the news that Smith, 34, had been shot and killed overnight in New Orleans.

“Will still has some close friends in the city here and my phone started ringing at 2:30 in the morning,” Smith’s high school coach, Paul Filletti, told USA TODAY Sports on Sunday.  “They shared the information with me. It’s one’s those things that you’re hoping it’s some kind of prank or they have it wrong.

“We’re all so sad that he’s been taken from us at such a young age. We’ve coached a lot of kids over the last 20 years and we’re proud of a lot of them, but he was our crown jewel. Every kid in the inner city of Utica wanted to be Will Smith.”

RELATED: Ex-teammates, NFL react to Will Smith’s death

Smith graduated from Proctor in 2000 and was named all-state at defensive end and tight end before moving on to Ohio State. He was inducted into the Greater Utica Sports Hall of Fame in 2007. He was born in Queens but moved upstate and lived with his grandmother during his junior high and high school years.

“She really raised him and she did great job,” said Jerry Fiorini, who an assistant when Smith was at Proctor and then spent 14 years as head coach. “She was very instrumental in his life.”

Smith was just learning the game in junior high when he received some simple advice from Filletti: Find the guy with the ball and try to take it away from him.

“He was in the eighth grade and he was playing a team that ran a counter play,” Filletti recalled. “They kept gaining a lot of yards because they were running at him. I said to him, ‘Will, the next time they run that play, close that gap down and make the tackle.’ They ran it again, he makes the tackle for a loss. I looked at our junior high coach and said, ‘All we have to do is tell him what to do and he can do it.

“So, I said, ‘The next time they run it, take the ball from the guy and run for a touchdown.’ That’s exactly what happened. That was his breakout moment for us. From that point on, we tried to cultivate him as much as possible.”

By his junior year, Smith’s recruitment took off, Fiorini said, in part because he was playing on the same defensive line as Penny Semaia, who would go on to play at Pitt and currently is the school’s senior associate athlete director for student life. With the opposition poised at times to stop Semaia, the opportunity presented itself for Smith.

“His talent just came through,” Semaia said. “You could tell from the first impression he made. He always had a presence about him that would make anybody do a double take.  I’ll never forget, one of my high school big brothers, Clint Hammett — who taught me so much — he told me, ‘Will’s going to be next.’ He was really so head and shoulders above everybody we competed against and played with.

“Just being able to watch the sheer competitiveness of him really stands out to me. One time in particular, we were playing West Genesee and he and I were both on the D-line. I made it into the backfield, but he made it into the backfield first. He grabs the quarterback and spins him around like a carousel, like he was just a toy. You could see the passion in Will’s eyes and the fierceness in the way he competed.”

Suddenly, Ohio State coach John Cooper, Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer, Miami’s Butch Davis, Tennessee’s Phil Fulmer and others were in Utica.

“We’ve never had that kind of kid at Proctor High School that the major coaches were coming in day after day,” Fiorini said. “I was sitting in the office and they were coming in one after another. It was the first time we’d experienced that. They were lining up at the door.

“With Coach Cooper, he came to a basketball game and he offered a scholarship right after he saw him basketball. Will fell in love with Ohio State the minute he went out there.”

Smith had multiple scholarship offers, even though he might not have passed the eye test off the field.

“He didn’t really look the part,” Fiorini said. “He wore glasses. He was tall but only about 190 pounds. You wouldn’t even know he was a football player.”

Smith became the second Proctor football player drafted in recent times following defensive lineman Ernest Jones, a third-round pick from Oregon in 1994.

Drafted by the New Orlean Saints in 2004, Smith wanted to figure out how to help others from his hometown know a similar path was possible. That led to the formation of his foundation.

“I used to run these little football camps for the kids in the city,” Fiorini said. “When he went to the NFL, he told me, ‘I want to bring attention to the high school football players in this area. They don’t get enough attention. I want to have a dinner with them honoring their accomplishments.’”

Smith had not missed one of those dinners and made sure college coaches or other speakers attended. Money from the event is used to run football camps and had been using for combine testing for players so they could send results to colleges.

“Everyone wants to talk about his accomplishments on the football field, but we’re most proud of  the man, the husband and father he’s become,” Filletti said. “Will was a great kid. He deserves recognition for the outstanding person he was along with the great player that he was.

“Will helped put Utica on the football map. He paved the way for the guys that followed.”

Said Semaia: “He gave with his time and with his passion and with his finances to charity, and he gave us an example of what true character is all about.”

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