One blue practice jersey numbered "91" hangs in the Patriots locker room. Placed upon the top shelf of Marquise Hill's locker, purple shoulder pads with gold trim look ready to be pulled on at any moment. A pair of pants and a helmet complete the ensemble.
It's all so common place that you expect the man with the mammoth 6-foot-6 frame to come sauntering through the locker room with his familiar smile. He'd pull up his chair and get ready for another day at work with his usual dedication. In fact, he'd probably be the first one there, beating his teammates in to work no matter how early they arrived.
But something doesn't seem right. There's the photograph. The man with piercing brown eyes, focused. He's wearing the big, disarming smile that was constantly fixed to his face.
You expect the man in the photo to take up where he's supposed to be: Picking through his locker, dressing the purple and gold shoulder pads with the No. 91 and going about his business for another day, laughing and cracking jokes the entire way.
"He just wanted to make you laugh all the time," Patriots cornerback Randall Gay said about fallen friend and teammate Marquise Hill. "That was his goal in life, to make friends and to lift your spirits up if you were having a down day. Now that Marquise is not here, it's tough to find somebody because you don't have that anymore. There's nobody else in this locker room really that could ever replace that personality that he had."
Everything's there, but there's still a lingering sense that something's missing.
BIG MAN, BIG HEART
There wasn't anything small about Marquise Hill, from his personality to his stature.
Playing high school football in his native New Orleans, Hill stood out at De La Salle High, racking up 92 tackles and eight sacks his senior year. He was named National Defensive Lineman of the Year by ESPN's Tom Lemming and rated the No. 7 prospect in the country by SuperPrep.com.
"The thing about Marquise was that he was so big and such a presence on the line that all the teams ran away from him, literally," said Richard Walker,who coached Hill at De La Salle. "They just didn't want to deal with him at all, so every play that the teams would run would be in the opposite direction of where Marquise was lined up. Even though he had a terrific career, he still probably didn't put up the type of numbers he should have. That was just because nobody wanted to face him."
From there, Hill would head down Interstate 10 to Baton Rouge to play for Head Coach Nick Saban at Louisiana State University, where he was a key contributor on the Tigers' 2003 BCS Championship team.
Hill never forgot his roots, though. The day after Hill and his Tiger teammates delivered a win over the University of Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl for the National Championship, he was back home.
"Marquise always came back whenever he had the chance,"Walker said. "Here he was, the day after winning the championship and he was back at the school. He really cared about the school and the kids in our program. He really took to heart and appreciated not only the football, but the educational element of what he got here and he always wanted to give back."
His resume at LSU helped to make Hill a second-round draft choice of the New England Patriots in 2004. In Foxborough, Hill spent his time surrounded by plenty of familiar faces fromthe Bayou, arriving in New England at the same time as Gay, who was signed as a rookie free agent. At that time, linebacker Eric Alexander also entered the fold and added to a group that included fellow LSU alums Jarvis Green and Kevin Faulk.
The veterans took notice of Hill's presence.
"The thing about Marquise is that he was just a great guy to be around," Faulk said. "There was just a way about him. He kept things loose in the locker room, always laughing. You always knew when Marquise was around because you were laughing the whole time."
Although Hill never started while appearing in 13 NFL games over his three-year careerwith the Patriots, it only motivated the defensive lineman to work harder.
"Marquise and I had this little competition running to see who could get into the weight room earlier," Gay said. "You'd think that you were the first one there, coming in at 6 o'clock and then you see his car out in the parking lot and you think, 'How did he beat me again?' That's what Marquise was all about, and that's the way we all should approach the game, like he did."
That work wasn't limited to the football season.
During the offseason, Hill would return home to New Orleans to spend time with family, but also to toil with the Tigers in Baton Rouge. There, he struck up relationships with the current LSU players and Coach Les Miles.
Hill had planned to spend time at LSU leading up to Memorial Day weekend 2007 before heading back to New England for the start of mini camp and another football season.
THE LONGEST DRIVE
Hill and Gay shared a particularly special bond. The two had roomed together on road trips since 2001 when Hill was a freshman at LSU. Beyond their fraternal football ties, the Hill and Gay families were close, as Randall's wife, Desha, and Marquise's fiancée, Inell, were best friends.
"We'd just let them go and do their own thing," Gay laughed. "Marquise and I would just hang out."
Gay figured there would be plenty of time to hang out with Hill again one week after Memorial Day when the team would flock back to New England for the start of mini camp. The Patriots' fourth-year corner was visiting family back in Baton Rouge for the holiday and thought he'd get in some early morning work at the gym before enjoying the rest of the day. As Gay went about getting ready to leave, he noticed a missed call on his cell phone from Jarvis Green, something that struck him as odd.
"I saw that Jarvis had called around one o'clock in the morning," Gay said. "I thought to myself, 'Why would Jarvis be calling me at that time? He knows that I'm usually in bed by nine o'clock.' I was laughing about it because I thought he was trying to joke with me, but then I got another call from him about 10 minutes later when I was driving over to the gym."
Green told him that Hill was missing. He had been jet skiing on Lake Pontchartrain and had been thrown into the water in an area with strong currents. Gay immediately began to fear the worst.
"My wife called his fiancée and we told her we were coming down.When they told me that they weren't at their house, they were by the lake, I just didn't want to go there. I didn't want to see it, but that was my family. I knew I had an obligation to be there just to support his family. It was just what I needed to do."
Immediately, Gay set out for New Orleans. Over the next hour or so, speeding down Interstate 10, every thinkable scenario floated through his mind.
"It seemed like the longest drive I'd ever taken," Gay said. "The whole time you're just hoping for a miracle, get a phone call saying that he's all right. You know in your mind that it's unrealistic to think that's going to happen because he'd been missing for so long, but you keep thinking there's a chance."
"It had me thinking about how life is. I had been so upset last year about not having played that much football, but then I realized that I'm still here. I'm still alive and able to see my little boy and the thought of Marquise not being able to do that ever again was just too much. You have all these things rushing through your mind, but you're just hoping and praying the whole time."
Gay was there when Hill's body was discovered and brought back to the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, the site of so much horror in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Hill, himself, hadn't been exempt to the suffering during that time. His brand new home was destroyed in the storm's fury.
But Marquise was ever the optimist and instead of reflecting on what had happened to him, he turned his efforts toward helping those who were less fortunate in his hometown in its darkest hour. He'd donated his time and money to construction projects to re-build homes.
Even in his last moments, Hill was helping. While he battled the current, he saved a friend's life by helping her onto a buoy, where she could stay dry until help arrived.
Hill's funeral was held in the same gospel church he'd attended since he was a child. His casket was covered with a bouquet of red roses and a football that was embossed with the Patriots' and Tigers' logos.
New Orleans had seen a lot of sorrow, and it again was mourning the loss of a native son.
"Any time a crisis happens, everyone wants to come together," Hill had said about his relationship with his teammates who were fellow Louisiana natives after Katrina hit in the fall of 2005. "We were already tight knit, but after that happened, it made everyone a little bit closer."
Hill didn't just share that bond with his teammates. It touched all those who knew him and even those who didn't.
At Hill's wake, the NFL community came together with former LSU stars like Colts running back Joseph Addai, Buccaneers wide receiver Michael Clayton, Cowboys defensive end Marcus Spears, Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams and Bengals offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth all paying their respects. Saban, who since had moved on to coach at Alabama, was also in attendance.
Members of the current LSU football team were present. Even though they'd never played with Hill, he'd trained beside them so much that he was one of them.
Nearly every one of Hill's Patriot teammates came for the wake, along with the coaching staff, including Coach Bill Belichick, and owner Robert Kraft, who chartered a flight for the team down to New Orleans.
"It's special when you see the team respond like that," Kevin Faulk said. "Mr. Kraft was very generous in doing what he did to get the team down there and in what he did to help Marquise's family with the arrangements. It was such a tough thing to go through that I know it meant a lot to Marquise's family to have so many people there who knew and loved him."