April 11, 2016 / 2:05 AM / in a year

Retired NFL star Will Smith shot dead in New Orleans

Cardell Hayes is seen in a booking photo released by the New Orleans Police Department, in New Orleans, Louisiana April 10, 2016.New Orleans Police Department/Handout via Reuters

(Reuters) - Will Smith, a prominent member of the New Orleans Saints team that won the NFL's Super Bowl in 2010, was killed by a gunman who shot the retired football player after ramming his car near the city's famed French Quarter, police said on Sunday.

Investigators were trying to determine whether the shooting, which also wounded Smith's wife, was a case of road rage or whether there was some other motive, police said.

The suspect, Cardell Hayes, 28, was arrested and charged with second-degree murder, the New Orleans Police Department said in a Twitter message.

"Our investigation continues as to the motive of this shooting and whether or not Smith and Hayes knew each other prior to this incident," Police Superintendent Michael Harrison said during a news conference on Sunday.

A man with the same name as Hayes sued the city of New Orleans over the police shooting of his mentally ill father in 2005, winning a settlement six years later.

Smith had dined on Saturday night with William Ceravolo, one of the police officers named in the federal lawsuit, police said. Whether that was a factor in the shooting was unclear.

Smith, who was one of the National Football League's top defensive ends before his retirement in 2014, was traveling in a Mercedes in the city's Lower Garden District shortly before 11:30 p.m. CDT (0430 GMT) on Saturday when his car was rear-ended by a Hummer.

Smith, 34, exchanged words with the driver of the Hummer, who took out a handgun and shot him several times, New Orleans Police Department spokesman Juan Barnes said in a statement.

Smith was drafted by the Saints in 2004 after playing college football with Ohio State. The 6-foot, 3-inch (191-cm) lineman played a decade with the Saints before he was injured in 2013 and his contract was terminated in 2014.

"This is such a tragic loss of life," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement.

On the field, Smith was known as a hard-nosed enforcer who refused to bow to opponents. Off the field, he started the Where There's a Will There's a Way Foundation to provide opportunities for women and youth, and was involved in other community initiatives, according to local media.

Saints fans and current and past players took to social media to mourn the death of the father of three children.

"Tragedy! Doesn't even describe the terrible news of the Nola legend Will Smith! Praying for the Smith family! Rest in Love Will!" tweeted Saints' offensive tackle Terron Armstead.

"In our community he was an important contributor to numerous charitable causes to benefit those in need," Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis said in a statement.

Smith's career was not without controversy. He was suspended in 2011 for two games for using a diuretic, which can mask steroids. He was also initially suspended for four games for his involvement in a New Orleans Saints' bounty scheme that paid players for hurting opponents. That suspension was later overturned on appeal to the NFL.

During Saturday night's incident, Smith's wife Racquel was shot in the leg and taken to the hospital, the police said.

The shooting came during a New Orleans food and music event, the French Quarter Festival, which Smith attended with his wife. Hours before he was killed, Smith posted a photo of himself and his wife on Instagram, saying "Having a blast at the #fqf2016."

The shooting occurred in a neighborhood along the Mississippi River, adjacent to the French Quarter, known for art galleries, restaurants, bars and historic buildings.

Police said the shooter stayed on the scene after the incident and that they recovered the weapon used.

Hayes, 28, has a previous criminal conviction, according to New Orleans Parish Criminal Court online records. He pleaded guilty in 2014 to illegal carrying of a weapon and possession of drug paraphernalia, both related to a 2010 arrest, and received fines and suspended jail sentences.

Reporting by Chris Michaud, Fiona Ortiz and Brendan O'Brien; Editing by Alan Crosby, Mary Milliken and Jonathan Oatis

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