NEW ORLEANS Honorees Will Smith and Hokie Gajan were not present Friday at the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame luncheon inside the Grand Ballroom at the Chateau Golf & Country Club in Kenner, though their families felt otherwise.
Smith, a gifted defensive end who played 10 of his 11 NFL seasons in New Orleans, was introduced as the newest inductee into the Black and Gold Hall of Fame.
Gajan, a fullback, area scout and longtime color analyst on the team’s flagship radio station, received the Joe Gemelli Fleur de Lis Award given annually to a person for his/her contributions to the organization.
Each was honored posthumously.
Smith was shot and killed the night of April 9 after the second of two traffic accidents turned violent in the Lower Garden District of New Orleans. He was 34. Gajan died two days later after a lengthy battle with a rare cancer known as liposarcoma. He was 56.
Every effort was made by the Smith and Gajan families and those who spoke on behalf of the honorees to make this special occasion a “celebration of life.’’ In that vain, I’ll describe the tears shed at the podium and in the audience as tears of joy.
But their pain was palpable, their emotions discernible and completely understandable.
“In my heart, I know Will is here with me today, with our three beautiful kids, just proud as ever,’’ said Mrs. Racquel Smith, who continues to recover from gunshot wounds to both legs she received the night of the incident. “I can hear his voice. I see his smile and I feel it in this room.
“Will you made it. You made it to the Saints Hall of Fame in your first year of eligibility. I know you are wearing the Black and Gold No. 91 (jersey) in heaven. We celebrate you today, and always. I love you. Congratulations baby, you did it again. I’m so proud of you.’’
Cardell Hayes, 29, is scheduled to stand trial Dec. 2 on charges of second-degree murder, attempted second-degree murder and two other felony counts related to the April 9th shootings. Hayes’ lawyer said his client is not guilty of murder and wasn’t the agressor in the incident that ended with Smith being shot eight times, including seven in the back.
Hayes remains jailed in lieu of a $1.75 million bond.
“It’s been said a coward dies a thousand deaths, a man dies once,’’ Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt said. “And that’s what Will Smith is; he’s a man. He leaves a legend behind that is uncompromised. His thoughts, his words, his actions; he’s a man’s man. What he has done speaks so well, you don’t even need to hear what I have to say now.’’
Judy Gajan accepted the Joe Gemelli Fleur de Lis award on behalf of her late husband from former Saints tackle and longtime friend of the family, Stan Brock.
Moments earlier, Jim Henderson, a New Orleans media icon and veteran play-by-play man on the Saints radio broadcasts, paid tribute to Gajan.
“To thine own self be true,’’ Henderson said. “That was said by Polonius : Act 1, Hamlet, William Shakespeare. We all remember how much Hokie loved to quote Shakespeare.’’
After the laughted died down, Henderson continued.
“All right, Hokie never said it but he lived it,’’ Henderson said. “I’ve never known anyone who was truer to himself than Hokie Gajan. No one was truer to himself in word, deed and wardrobe than Hokie. If he was your friend, you couldn’t have a truer one.
“If he was your teammate, you couldn’t have had a tougher one. And if you were a member of the family he treasured so much, you couldn’t have had a more loving husband, father, grandfather, uncle, brother or son. We all have had the privilege of knowing at least one unique individual in our lives.
“Joe Gemell’s slogan in his clothing store was ‘Big and Small, He Fits Them All.’ The Fleur de Lis award named in his honor fits one man better than any leisure suit Joe ever sold. Hokie, we love you.’’