NFL Star and New Orleans Native Tyrann Mathieu Calls Suspect in Will Smith Slaying a 'Coward': 'He Was Always This Big, Bad Bully'

04/11/2016 AT 04:30 PM EDT

For New Orleans native and Arizona Cardinals star Tyrann Mathieu, Saturday night's fatal shooting of Super Bowl champion defensive end Will Smith hit particularly close to home. The 23-year-old safety tells PEOPLE he not only considered Smith a close friend, but claims he has had several previous run-ins with Smith's alleged killer, Cardell Hayes.

Mathieu says he and Hayes, 28, were never friendly. Instead, Mathieu says Hayes tried to bully and intimidate him on several occasions and that he seemed to harbor resentment towards those who had more success in life.

"He was always this big, bad bully," Mathieu recalls. "I'd had several encounters with him. He always acted however he wanted to, without suffering any of the consequences, because he was always the biggest guy in the room."

Hayes was a former high school football star, and in 2004, he was named one of Louisiana's top 50 football prospects. Last year, he was on the roster for the Crescent City Kings, who play in the minor league Gridiron Developmental Football League.

"I remember I did play against him and he was supposed to be this big time recruit but he came up short," Mathieu says. "I don't know if he was jealous or envious. Sometimes, people carry that disappointment with them – that hate. I guess he felt the need to have Will Smith feel all the pain he was carrying with him, and that [stinks]."

Adds Mathieu, "He's a coward."

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New Orleans police claim Smith was shot by Hayes following a minor vehicle accident. The two men started arguing, and Hayes allegedly pulled out a gun, shooting the football star several times in the back and side. Smith's wife, Racquel, was also shot Saturday evening, but is expected to make a full recovery.

Before the shooting, Smith and his wife had dinner with former Saints teammate Pierre Thomas and William Ceravolo, a former New Orleans police captain named in a wrongful death lawsuit filed in 2006 by Hayes.

Ceravolo was one of seven parties Hayes sued following Hayes's father's 2005 shooting death at the hands of police.

Mathieu tells PEOPLE he can remember hearing about Hayes and some of his previous encounters with police, including his 2010 arrest for possessing an illegal weapon and possessing drug paraphernalia; he pleaded guilty to the counts in 2014.

"It's totally senseless," Mathieu bemoaned, fighting back tears as he spoke about Smith's slaying. "Will was a man of great character. This was a guy who brought our city its first championship. This was a guy we all looked up to, who did wonderful things for the community. He was a gentle giant who was very soft spoken. He wasn't the guy who wanted everyone to know he was in the building. He was anonymous, a family man."

Mathieu, who first met Smith as a high school student while attending a football camp sponsored by the Saints, learned of Smith's murder from a friend in New Orleans, he says. He's still trying to come to terms with his friend's death.

"He was such an inspiration for me," Mathieu says. "Like I said, we never had a championship until Will came over. We never had it decent. Will helped give us something to be happy about. He helped give kids like me hope. That's how I will always remember Will."
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