Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth and the late Will Smith matched up twice in the regular season.
Since he heard Will Smith died at the hand of a gun on a New Orleans street this past weekend, Andrew Whitworth has been thinking about that first trip to the Crescent City as a pro.
It was ten years ago and even though Whitworth was an NFL rookie, he had already played 11 games in the Superdome. First winning a state title as a prep all-star in Louisiana for West Monroe and then as a franchise left tackle for the LSU national champions.
But this one, back on Nov. 19, 2006, was just his fifth NFL start at left tackle and he was pitted against Smith, the Saints' third-year right end that would go to the Pro Bowl at the end of that season.
After the game was over, after the Bengals stunned the Saints, 31-16, despite Drees Brees' 510 yards, Whitworth recalled on Monday Smith telling him after the game, "He said he thought I was going to be a good player."
Whitworth and Bengals kicker Mike Nugent were just two of the current NFL players reeling from Sunday morning's news of the 34-year-old Smith's death. As a fellow player active in the NFL Players Association, Whitworth had a bond with him, as did Nugent, Smith's teammate at Ohio State.
"He was older than me. He was one of the cool guys. One of the guys that helped the younger guys," Nugent said Monday. "He didn't care if you were a freshman running back or a senior quarterback, he treated you the same. He was great for the locker room."
Whitworth played against Smith twice in the regular season and twice in the preseason, as well as talking with him at some NFLPA events. The last time they played against each other, the 2010 regular season, they talked about how they'd both been around and were no longer the young guys on the make. In the 2007 preseason, the Saints practiced at Paul Brown Stadium for two days and Whitworth and Smith got a chance to know each other a little better.
"You talk about some of those things. The guys he's played against, the guys I played against," Whitworth said. "You feel like you know them a little bit. From everything I've heard about him from the guys who played with him in New Orleans, he was a guy that had everyone's respect. A team captain. A guy that everyone looked up to. With us, there was mutual respect there. It's just a sad deal we still have this kind of violence going on in our country."
The details continue to be unnerving. Nugent didn't realize Smith had three children.
"It's horrible. It's horrible for any family," Nugent said. "I remember him as a guy that always had a smile on his face. He was never in a bad mood."
Whitworth knows both the beauty and the danger of New Orleans. When LSU played there, the warnings went out. Don't stray far from beaten path and don't go anywhere alone.
He prefers to remember a day ten years ago, one of those days he began to realize he could be in this league a long time. Smith beat him for a sack on the second series, when Whitworth was looking for a twist and got a straight rush instead. But Smith wouldn't bother quarterback Carson Palmer any more, once Whitworth got used to the dome din again and started looking at both Smith and the ball before the snap.
"He (said) it was impressive how I played as a rookie so far," Whitworth said. "You always remember those things, the veteran players you play in those days. I'll never forget playing him down there . . . New Orleans is a special place and going back to the dome and playing there, it was fun."
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