NEW ORLEANS -- Three times in their history the Patriots have traveled to this charming city to play in the Super Bowl. But yesterday they came here for a much more solemn occasion -- to honor the memory of teammate Marquise Hill.
The reserve defensive end and New Orleans native drowned following a Jet Ski mishap Sunday. His body was discovered in nearby Lake Pontchartrain Monday. Water from that lake flooded New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the Jacob Schoen and Son Funeral Home was left with waist-high water in its parking lot, but yesterday it was the site of an outpouring of grief for Hill.
Family, friends, teammates, neighbors, and former coaches, including Alabama head coach Nick Saban, who recruited and coached Hill at Louisiana State University, all came to mourn him. The LSU football staff, now coached by Les Miles, even sent flowers.
Former Patriot linebacker Andre Tippett, now with the team in a community relations capacity, said that after the organization was made aware of Hill's death, owner Robert Kraft and coach Bill Belichick decided the Patriots should pay their respects to Hill as a team.
"Going down as a team says a lot about the organization and the Kraft family," said Tippett. "It was the right thing to do and it sends a powerful message."
"When you talk about being a family, you can't be there just for the good times," said Kraft. "This is an unfortunate tragedy."
The Patriots pulled up at the funeral home on Canal Street at 4:12 p.m. After holding meetings in the morning at Gillette Stadium, nearly the entire team boarded buses that left Gillette at 11:45 a.m. for Logan Airport, where the team took a Delta charter flight to New Orleans. After landing at Louis Armstrong/New Orleans International Airport, the Patriots boarded five buses and headed to Hill's wake.
They entered the funeral home through the back entrance, led by Kraft and his wife, Myra, Belichick, and vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli. Inside, Kraft said, there was an impromptu service in the chapel where Hill's family helped comfort the Patriots players.
Hill's mother, Sherry, told the team how much playing for the Patriots meant to her son, and Belichick, among others, addressed Hill's life.
Several of those who were inside said it was tough for Hill's teammates to grasp the loss. Tippett said he saw a lot of blank stares on the players' faces as they passed the casket.
"They're still hurting," said Tippett. "They just spent three or four days with Marquise in practice and all of the sudden a couple of days later he's gone. I think a lot of them were shocked, especially the guys who played with him."
Former New England linebacker and current assistant strength and conditioning coach Don Davis, who was part of a Patriots contingent that went to New Orleans ahead of time to help the Hill family plan the proceedings, which include a funeral service today at noon at the Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church , said for many it put football into perspective.
"It absolutely does," said Davis. "When you're talking about life, a lot of times you feel like you're at the pinnacle. You're a professional athlete and it's like you're almost invincible. It kind of brings vincibility back into life."
In comments made Thursday, Patriots defensive lineman Ty Warren agreed. "Marquise being that stature, 6-6 and 300 pounds, the average person might have thought a guy like that would have swam his way out of that situation, but it goes to show you that you just never know."
Warren, who took Hill under his wing, said he felt a void not seeing his protégé around the Foxborough facilities.
But as Davis pointed out, any void that the Patriots are feeling right now pales in comparison to what Hill's mother is going through.
"It's not real until you see him [there]," said Davis. "You hear about it and it seems strange, but when you see him that really puts it into perspective. He's 24 years old. As they always say, it's got to be the toughest thing for a parent to bury a child. We got a glimpse of that today and our prayers are with the family."