For the 2007 Patriots, numbers held a great significance. Quarterback Tom Brady and wide receiver Randy Moss posted individual record numbers for touchdown passes and touchdown receptions—Brady tossed 50 and Moss hauled in 23. The team also set records by compiling 16 consecutive regular season and 18 wins overall.
Of course, there is that number of ‘1’ that all Pats fans would like to forget. It still looks hideous when joined by a hyphen to the number 18.
However, some might believe that the most important number of the 2007 Patriots season wasn’t representative of an on-field record. This number held, and will forever hold, a significance far beyond that. Each member of the 2007 team remembers that number with admiration and a heavy heart. After all, they each wore it every game that season.
It was number 91.
It belonged to defensive end Marquise Hill.
While it might be cliche, it is also accurate to say that Hill will always be number 91 in our 2007 Patriots programs, but number one in the hearts of Patriots Nation, who continue to mourn his passing 13 years later. In the world of professional sports fandom, it can be easy to forget that our favorite athletes are mere mortals. If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that tragedy can strike anyone at any time.
On the evening of Sunday, May 27, 2007, Hill and his friend and high school classmate, Ashley Blazio, were riding on a jet ski on Lake Pontchartrain, just north of New Orleans, Louisiana. Though a definitive timeline of events has never been determined, the watercraft eventually entered the south shore of the lake. At this point of Lake Pontchartrain, swirling currents and a near 90-foot depth often cause rough sea conditions. It was these conditions that caused Hill’s jet ski to overturn, sending both its occupants into the harsh waters. Neither was wearing a personal flotation apparatus or signaling device.
Blazio, who was described as a poor swimmer, was able to survive by clinging to a nearby buoy until she was rescued. However, Hill (a strong swimmer, by all accounts) drifted away into the current.
The US Coast Guard, as well as the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, continued to search the area for nearly 17 hours. On the afternoon of Monday, May 28, Hill’s body was discovered by searchers, about a quarter of a mile from where he had fallen into the water. He was 24 years-old.
Hill’s death was officially ruled an accidental drowning. An autopsy found no signs of drugs or alcohol in his body, Rather, it did reveal that the fall might have given Hill a concussion. It is likely that this caused him to become disoriented, thus contributing to his drowning.
Loved ones (including Hill’s fiancee, Inell Benn) and friends (including agent Albert Elias, and Patriots teammate Randall Gay) had waited anxiously along the shoreline during the search. His mother, Sherry Hill, prayed for a miracle. Tragically, their worst fears were confirmed. Once cautiously optimistic, Hill’s beleaguered family and friends consoled one another when authorities told them that he had been found dead.
“A Hero Until the End.”
Throughout his life, Hill was no stranger to benevolence and heroism. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana native spent much of his free time, and his NFL salary, helping to rebuild the homes of family members. Those homes included that of his mother, and the mother of his son.
He also kept very close ties to his alma mater, Louisiana State University (LSU), where he was a starting defensive end for the Tigers during their 2003 national championship season under head coach Nick Saban. After being drafted by the Patriots in 2004, he would often return to campus to train and act as a mentor for current LSU players. For Marquise Hill, aiding others just came naturally.
However, Hill’s final action on Earth showed his true heroism. While providing her account of the incident to authorities, Blazio expressed endless gratitude for her fallen friend. She revealed that Hill had, in fact, saved her life at the expense of his own. Knowing that she was struggling to swim, he tried to keep her calm. He told her not to fight the water. Instead, he instructed Blazio to allow the current to carry her to a buoy, which he had spotted behind her. Hill continued encouraging her as he drifted away in the opposite direction, and eventually out of sight.
“He was a hero until the end,” his cousin, Elaine Hill Blackshire, told the Boston Herald. “He made sure that he got her to safety. I’m just so sad that he lost his life, but he wouldn’t have had it any other way. If he had saved himself, and knowing she couldn’t swim, he couldn’t have lived with himself. He thought of others first. He was just that kind of person.”
An “Unstoppable” Legacy
As the 2007 season entered preliminary training sessions, Hill had confided to his mother that the 2007 Patriots team had the chance to be ‘unstoppable.’ He eagerly anticipated taking the field each game with such a uniquely special collection of talent. Unfortunately, he would never physically get that chance. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick summed it up perfectly in his statement to the press:
“We have suffered a stunning and tragic loss. Marquise will be remembered as a thoughtful and caring young man who established himself as one of the year-round daily fixtures of our team. I send my deepest condolences to the Hill family.”
For his teammates, Hill’s loss was devastating. Fellow defensive lineman, Jarvis Green, who had also been Hill’s teammate at LSU, expressed his sorrow by saying:
“I lost a brother, man. He was a funny guy. … He’d just sit there and talk to you, say some funny things off his head that’d make you laugh. He was good to be around.”
Cornerback Randall Gay, who also played with Hill at LSU, had planned to spend that fateful weekend in Baton Rouge. Instead, he drove to New Orleans to monitor the search upon hearing of his friend’s accident.
Despite his physical absence, number 91 was still on the field for the Patriots in 2007; albeit in a spiritual sense. Throughout their near-perfect season, the Patriots team wore a “91” decal on the back of their helmets in his honor. In an additional tribute, Green even wore Hill’s shoulder pads during every game. His presence on the field was surely felt.
Still, and perhaps in the most indelible sense, the true presence of Marquise Hill was, and forever will be, felt every time someone lends a helping hand to those in need. Yes, his bright future was tragically cut short. While his family and friends immeasurably miss him, they undoubtedly cannot help but feel pride every time they mention him. He gave his life to aid his friend when she needed him most.
He was not trying to be a hero, nor was he looking for accolades.
He was simply doing what he felt to be right.
That is the definition of a hero.
That was Marquise Hill…and his legacy will forever be ‘unstoppable.’
-Mike D’Abate is a Managing Editor and Columnist for Full Press Coverage. He covers the New England Patriots and provides NFL editorial content. He is also the host of the Locked On Patriots podcast. Follow him on Twitter @mdabateFPC