At home in the Calgary Stampeders' dressing room, his locker remains untouched, his helmet and shoulder pads at the ready as if Mylan Hicks will stop by at any moment to prepare for practice.
On the locker's top shelf is a game ball with a heart-felt inscription: "In loving memory of [No. 31, Hicks]. You are with us on this journey…" The message then says the Stampeders will "smack pads for you" because that was Hicks' favourite expression – "Let's go smack some pads." He would say it every day he practised right up until he was killed – a victim of an early-morning shooting outside a Calgary nightclub on Sept. 25.
Already a championship-like team, the Stampeders rededicated themselves to getting to the 104th Grey Cup game in Toronto and winning it not just for themselves, but for their fallen teammate and his family, mother Renee Hill, father Reggie Hill and sister Jazzmine Fowlkes. They will be in the stands at BMO Field when Calgary plays the Ottawa RedBlacks.
"We already booked our hotel rooms and we're ready to go," said Ms. Hill, who lives in a suburb of Detroit and began following the Stampeders as soon as they signed her son as a free agent in May.
"It's still so hard, but we're holding it together."
This has been a devastating time for the Hicks. They were only too happy to learn their son, a Michigan State defensive starter, was leaving home for the relative safety of Canada, to be a Stampeder with Osagie Odiase. The two first met months earlier when they attended a free-agent training camp in Florida.
Odiase said Hicks came up to him and asked where he was from. Odiase was raised, and still lives, near Los Angeles.
Their big-city backgrounds made for an easy connection; that they were competing for the same position could have pulled them apart. Instead, Hicks tutored Odiase, got him so comfortable with the position that the Stampeders signed them both.
When they made the team – Odiase would become a roster player, Hicks a member of the practice squad – the two moved into an apartment in downtown Calgary. It wasn't long before their commonality and friendship found what they felt was the right way to express itself.
"We decided to help people. So we went out and fed the homeless," Odiase said. "We'd find someone on the street and take them out to a restaurant for something to eat. We did it about once a week or so."
That her son was buying dinner for homeless souls came as no surprise to Ms. Hill. She said her Mylan was raised to care for others. As a child, he would take out the garbage for the elderly woman who lived across the street. Even when he came home from Michigan State, he would make sure the neighbour's trash was moved to and from the curb.
"Her name is Lillian McCauley and she's 100 years old," Ms. Hill said. "I remember Mylan was a teenager and he wore a suit. He dressed up to go to church and he'd say, 'I'm different.' And I say, 'Yes you are.'"
On the last evening of his life, Hicks arrived late at the Marquee Beer Market, where a dozen or so Stampeders were being riled by a group of men inside the nightclub. According to his teammates, who passed this information along to Ms. Hill, Hicks tried to be the peace-maker. He bought a drink for the man who is alleged to have shot him. It wasn't enough to cool things down. Instead, a fight began and spilled outside the club. Before he was gunned down, Hicks told his teammates to run for cover.
Police arrested 19-year-old Nelson Lugela and have charged him with second-degree murder.
Stampeders' head coach Dave Dickenson called Hicks's mother and told her the horrible news. She flew to Calgary to see where her son had lived and died. It was with a sense of cruel irony that she told reporters she was glad her Mylan had gone to Canada where he would be safer than if he stayed in Detroit with its high crime and murder rates.
"After he went to Canada, people used to ask, 'How's Mylan doing?'" Ms. Hill said. "I'd say, 'He's not here, and that's a good thing.'"
The Stampeders have been honouring Hicks all along this journey. There was a candle-lit vigil in the parking lot outside the south end zone of McMahon Stadium. Quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell attended. Defensive back Jamar Wall decided to wear Hicks's number 31 for the balance of the season. In the West Final, Wall intercepted a B.C. Lions' pass and returned it for a touchdown.
And Odiase? He wonders if things could have been different had he been there that night with his roommate instead of staying in. In tribute to his friend, Odiase has gone out alone to help a homeless person and take them to a restaurant.
"This has been a tight group," Dickenson said of his team. "But I think all this has made us even tighter."
In Toronto, in the West Division team's dressing room at BMO Field, there will be a locker with a helmet and shoulder pads at the ready, as if Mylan Hicks will stop by at any moment to prepare for practice. His teammates know exactly what time that will be. Time to get busy; time to smack the pads.