Will Smith was poised to go back to training camp this summer with the New Orleans Saints – as a fellow on Sean Payton’s coaching staff.
That was just one of the plans shattered with the death of the former Saints defensive end, 34, who was also on track to earn a master’s degree in July from the University of Miami as a member of the school’s inaugural Executive MBA for Athletes and Artists class.
“All the chapters before now were great,” Payton told USA TODAY Sports on Monday. “But it’s sad that we won’t see the next chapters.”
Smith would have worked with the Saints as a participant in the Bill Walsh NFL Minority Fellowship Program, which operates on a team-to-team basis to bolster prospects for minorities to enter the coaching ranks. Named after the late Hall of Fame San Francisco 49ers coach, the program – whose alumni include two-time NFL Coach of the Year Ron Rivera – is viewed as a gateway to landing a full-time coaching job.
Payton liked that Smith, who spent his final year with the Saints in 2013 and was in training camp with the New England Patriots the following year, pursued the fellowship after taking a couple of years to assess his post-playing career.
“I know he was going to be a heck of a coach,” Payton said. “He had such a presence about him. Not only would he have made the transition to be a great defensive line coach, he had all the tools to become a head coach.”
During his 10 seasons with the Saints, which included winning Super Bowl XLIV following the 2009 season, Smith established himself as one of the team’s most respected leaders.
“He epitomized a captain,” Payton said. “Tough. Respected. Smart.”
Those qualities, Payton added, were demonstrated by the Ohio State alumnus typically taking the initiative in settling locker room issues.
“Will’s one of those guys … he wasn’t always talking, but if something needed to be addressed, he had it,” Payton said. “It was, ‘I got it.’ And it was done.”