In one of their last telephone conversations, Marquise Hill confided in his mother, Sherry. Back in his native Louisiana for a weeklong visit before the New England Patriots’ June minicamp, Hill, a 24-year-old reserve defensive lineman, said: “Momma, guess what. I feel like we’re going to be unstoppable.”
Sherry Hill’s voice cracked as she recounted the conversation. “All I can say,” she said tearfully, “is Marquise was right.”
If the unbeaten Patriots can defeat Jacksonville on Saturday, earn the American Football Conference championship and win the Super Bowl, their winning streak will reach 19 Hill’s jersey number transposed.
The symbolism is as plain as the No. 91 decal on the Patriots’ helmets, a season-long tribute to him. The 6-foot-6, 300-pound Hill drowned in late May when he fell off a water scooter after dark while riding with a high school friend on Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans.
It has been difficult for Sherry Hill to follow the Patriots’ pursuit of perfection because of all those 91’s in the huddle, on the defensive line, at the ready, their bid for football immortality bringing into sharp relief, for her and others who loved her son, the frailty of life.
“I get emotional,” she said in a telephone interview, adding: “I appreciate them honoring him this year. But it’s hard for me to see Marquise’s number and to have him not be out there.”
Her brother Marcus, who was recruited to Alabama by Bear Bryant, said in a telephone interview, “It’s kind of bittersweet because it does remind you of the great loss we suffered as a family.”
Professional football teams are often depicted as families, but the Patriots showed themselves to be one in the wake of Hill’s death, paying for his funeral and attending it as an organization. Shortly afterward, some of the players suggested that they wear his number on their helmets.
Hill’s fiancée, Inell Benn, said, “I’m more appreciative than anything, because they could have just ignored the fact that Marquise was gone.”
Benn’s voice was raspy on the phone from Texas. For the past week, her throat had been scratchy, which made her think of Hill, who used to mix homemade remedies at the first sign of a cough or fever.
He would add over-the-counter cold syrup to an energy drink and order her to drink it, Benn recalled. “Marquise never wanted me to be sick,” she said.
She used to look out for Hill, too, sending him food and toiletries during the season. On occasion, Benn has gone to the store and returned home with bars of the Old Spice soap that Hill liked. “It’s kind of hard to let go,” she said.
High school sweethearts and parents to a son, 2-year-old Ma’Shy, Benn and Hill were laying the foundation for a bright future. Hill, who had been drafted in the second round in 2004 out of Louisiana State, was striving to break into the Patriots’ starting lineup; Benn was living in Austin, Tex., near her parents and studying to be a nurse.
Her job as a nurse’s aide kept her from accompanying Hill to New Orleans after a visit to Massachusetts in May. They parted at the airport. Hill flew to Louisiana and Benn to Texas.
The day of the accident, Benn spoke to Hill on the phone and solidified plans to drive to New Orleans early the next morning. Late that night, she received a call with the news that Hill had been in an accident on Lake Pontchartrain and that he was missing. She flew with her mother to New Orleans, arriving shortly before his body was pulled from the water. Months later, the circumstances of his death gnaw at Benn.
“I just can’t imagine Marquise not wearing a life jacket because he was more into safety than me,” she said. “I just don’t understand why he wasn’t wearing one.”
Since Hill’s funeral, Benn has been living in Austin with her son. The house that Hill bought in Bellingham, Mass., is for sale and she has no plans to return there, except to take Ma’Shy to visit Patriots defensive end Jarvis Green and his wife, Rakia, with whom she is in regular contact.
If not for her son, Benn said she would probably have turned a deaf ear to the N.F.L. this season. But the weekly telecasts have been the soundtrack of Ma’Shy’s Sundays since he was born, and she said she thought they might serve as a kind of lullaby, bringing him comfort.
So on Sundays Benn turned on the television and listened as she did chores. The only Patriots game she also watched on TV was the last one against the Giants because she said she was curious to see if they could close out a perfect regular season.
Benn attended the Patriots’ game at Dallas on Oct. 14. Out of habit, she kept scanning the New England sideline in search of Hill. The finality of his death did not hit her until the last of the Patriots had filed out of the locker room after their 48-27 victory against the Cowboys.
“It was hard for me to not see Marquise come out,” Benn said. She added, “That’s when it became real for me, that he’s not coming back.”
She talked with Green after the game, and he told her he had worn Hill’s shoulder pads.
“Once he told me that, it was kind of a comfort,” Benn said. “I kind of felt that even though I don’t see Marquise on the field, I kind of imagine that he’s there in some type of way.”
She has sent Green text messages the day before every game this season, relaying the same messages she used to send Hill. She tells him to be safe and lets him know he is in her prayers.
“I know Jarvis is feeling stuff, too,” Benn said. She added, “It’s amazing how he can stay focused on what he’s doing on the football field and still stay focused on us.”
Green, who made a career-high 10 starts and 39 tackles in the regular season, grew close to Hill when they were at L.S.U. . He entered the N.F.L. two years before Hill and was the nearest thing that Hill, an only child, had to a big brother.
Hill, who played only 13 games in three seasons for the Patriots, pushed Green to try his pads, telling him over and over how light they were. Green said in a telephone interview that he had resisted until after the accident, then thought, why not?
“It was a way to keep Marquise close,” said Green, who has volunteered to serve as a surrogate father to Ma’Shy. Green and his wife invited Ma’Shy to spend the summer in Louisiana with them and their three children, ages 1 to 9.
“As far as being responsible and being there for his son, I was the right person for the job,” Green said, adding, “I’m doing it more for Marquise than anything. He always talked about not having a father and how that affected him. He’s gone now, but I want Ma’Shy to know about his dad and have that father influence.”
Hill’s influence is felt in the locker room at the team’s headquarters. His practice jersey hangs in his cherry wood cubicle, and Green said he occasionally tucked a T-shirt or a flier for a charity event into it “to let him know I’m here for him.” Somebody taped a portrait of Hill in the locker, furthering the illusion that he never left.
Green says he feels Hill’s presence. He sees it in L.S.U.’s national championship season the team’s first since Hill helped the Tigers to the 2003 Bowl Championship Series title and in the Patriots’ unbeaten regular season, the first in the N.F.L. since 1972.
“Oh, definitely,” he said. “I think something’s going on that’s very special and I know Marquise is there. He’s a part of it.”