The initial details of a car crash that turned deadly late Saturday night in the Lower Garden District of New Orleans seemed so random and run-of-the-mill routine.
One vehicle hit another. Words were exchanged. For the majority of us, another exchange usually follows – involving insurance cards.
This time, gunfire shattered the relative calm and the life of a father and husband, one who fueled cheers and wins as a defensive end with the NFL’s Saints, ebbed away as his wife sat wounded nearby.
When police responded to the “shots fired” call at 11:29 p.m., they found Will Smith, the man who had finished No. 4 all-time in sacks for New Orleans. The fatal encounter with Cardell Hayes amounted to little more than a commercial interruption in most sports-watching lives, though, during arguably the most action-packed week on the calendar.
We might have told a person or two during one of those “did you hear about .” conversations. Then it was gone, swallowed by a run that roared to its start with the annual rebirth of baseball and an epic NCAA title game, followed by the Masters and Golden State’s flirtation with NBA immortality.
The loss of Smith, a dad to three who stumbled from time to time as the humans in our sports lives do, struggled to create a sustained ripple outside of Louisiana and Ohio, where he helped the Buckeyes cap the 2002 season with a national championship.
Smith was suspended a couple of games for performance-enhancing drugs during his nine-year career and identified as one of the players tangled up in the old “Bountygate” mess. By all accounts, though, Smith stayed connected to the community that provided him so much and active in charities that served the area and his native New York.
There certainly could be more to this story.
There’s a murky narrative about Smith sharing dinner that fateful night with a former police officer involved in a decade-long lawsuit related to the shooting death of Hayes’ father. A search of Smith’s car revealed a fully loaded 9 mm handgun, though police said there was no indication the gun had been fired and authorities did not say if the weapon belonged to Smith or one of the other passengers in his car. The lawyer representing Hayes hinted, too, at an alleged hit-and-run minutes earlier, while saying an investigation will reveal more.
At the onset, however, it was portrayed as a sad, random coincidence.
Yet, nearly all of Sunday’s oxygen was expended on the Masters collapse of Jordan Spieth – as Rae’s Creek played the iceberg to the youthful golf sensation’s Titanic. The halting breaths that remained, reserved for the Warriors chase of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls and 73 regular-season victories.
It reminded, again, that we care first and most about sports of the “now,” those things freshly unfolding – the reality TV of the moment. By late Monday morning, the headlines that eclipsed Smith’s death on ESPN.com included, “Sources: Butler not flying with Bulls on Sunday.”
None of those stories, of course, amounted to life or death . other than Smith.
If Johnny Manziel had been spotted straddling a bar in Las Vegas or “sources” had whispered that the Broncos had talked to Tim Tebow, the headline would have tumbled off the radar completely.
We want our sports to include drama, but never too much of the real life stuff. It’s a distraction, an escape – and wholly uncomfortable when it reminds us that the people on our fantasy teams and backs of our jerseys sometimes face life at its meanest and messiest.
We shake our heads at the most unthinkable of those situations. Then, we quickly move with the type of speed that matches our hurried, hustle-to-the-next-thing lives.
The fact that Smith’s playing days ended in 2012 likely contributed to how people weighed it against the other sports stories tugging at their time. I heard “I feel horrible for Jordan Spieth,” however, and paused. He’s 22. He’s made more than $23 million from golf, including an $880,000 emotional Band Aid on Sunday. He flirted with a grand slam last year. He’ll be fine.
I feel horrible for Racquel Smith and those three kids.
Late Monday, an ESPN.com headline explained how Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer felt about the NCAA’s texting rules. Another headline tried to unravel where Manziel is living these days. Wait, no update on Tebow?
No one expects our worlds to stop at every sports-related misstep and misfortune. They shouldn’t. They won’t. A week like this, however, illustrates how easily the somber and sorrowful can drift into the ether.
Our ability to change the channel so readily and effortlessly says something about the times we live in.
Unfortunately, it says something about us, too.
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