Mylan Hicks strapped weights to his ankles, picked up a stack of orange cones and headed for the door.
“Where are you going?” his mother, Renee Hill, called from behind him.
He turned to her and smiled. She already knew the answer. Her son had been down since returning home to Detroit from the San Francisco 49ers training camp without a contract. After finishing a four-year college career with the Michigan State Spartans, he’d hoped he was a step closer to realizing his dream of playing in the NFL. Several of his Spartan teammates had already made it to the League and he was determined to make it, too. When things didn’t work out with the 49ers, Hicks felt as though he’d taken several steps back. But his disappointment didn’t hold him down for long. No one can tell me I can’t play ball — that was something he always told himself when he faced doubt. Swearing by that statement, he’d earned his spot as a starter with the Spartans in his senior year. Nothing was going to stop him from ending up where he believed he was supposed to be. Raised in a family of deep faith, he felt his path was predetermined. He was going get there — someway, somehow — even if it meant returning to the baseball diamond he’d played on as a boy to charge up and down the bleachers with weights on his ankles, to run drills in the field between cones he carried there himself.
“I’m going to grind,” Hicks yelled to his mom as he pushed out the front door. “I have to put my work in.”
Renee Hill can still see the glass door closing as her son bolts out into the street. She can see him everywhere in this house, and she plays the moments of their shared life on repeat — anything she can recall, anything to keep her son moving through her mind. The mantel in the living room where she sits is covered with photographs that tell the story of his life. There are family photos with his big, beaming smile. There are photos from college, where he sports that sly, cool grin. He’s there charging down the football field at Renaissance High. And he’s there in his Spartans gear, all grown up and representing the only school he ever really wanted to play for.
The photographs won’t be put away anytime soon. Hicks is everywhere here, and Hill will make sure the place stays that way. The dead become ghosts because we need them to. So, she’ll find pieces of her son in old photographs and the letters that still come in, celebrating his life. She’ll imagine him on the football field or playing video games with his brother or taking out the trash for their elderly neighbour. She’ll imagine him walking back through the door, and she’ll try to make sure he never leaves again.
Hill scrolls through her cellphone, looking at the unanswered messages she’s texted to her son each day since he was murdered outside of a Calgary nightclub last September.
I love you, son.
I miss you.
My heart aches for you every day.
This Mother’s Day is nothing without you.
I hope this reaches heaven.
And she pictures the final message he typed to her in late September, carrying the same words Hicks sent his mother every day.
I love you too.
Hicks went to Calgary believing he’d found a backdoor to the NFL. He never played a single game as a Stampeder. He was relegated to the team’s practice squad after making it through training camp in June 2016. He spent the season working for an opportunity to play, believing that he deserved it and that it was his ticket to realizing his dream. Instead, after celebrating a win with his teammates, he was gunned down outside of Marquee Beer Market in the early hours of Sept. 25.
The tragedy became a catalyst for his mourning teammates as they pushed on without him, earning a place in the Grey Cup. This season, the Stampeders organization will offer no special remembrance of Mylan Hicks, but several of his former teammates will pay tribute, quietly, as the team moves forward without him. For those who knew Hicks well, though, the shock of his violent death is still visceral, and the memory of the tireless young man who left Detroit to chase his dream will never leave them.
Mylan Hicks knew he was destined for the NFL from the moment he could conjure the idea in his mind. As a toddler, he slept with a stuffed Barney dinosaur in one arm and a football in the other. He and his best friend on the street, Tor Vinson, who lived 10 doors down, first made the neighbourhood their stomping grounds when the training wheels first came off their bikes. “We touched every part of this neighborhood,” Vinson says of their childhood adventures.
When they were old enough to play organized sports, Hicks and Vinson hit the diamond at Stoepel Park. That’s where Hicks’s athleticism first stood out. When he laid down a bunt, he’d be at first base before an infielder got to the ball. He could also dish out smack talk with the best of them, Vinson says, but he knew he could back it up on the field. Some might have called her son cocky, Hill says, but Hicks would correct them: “Nah,” she remembers him saying. “I’m confident.”
He was brought up that way. Renee and Reggie Hill raised all of their children to believe in bigger possibilities than those that seemed to exist in their hometown. They taught them to believe in destiny, in big goals achieved through hard work and perseverance. But growing up in Detroit wasn’t easy. It’s a city filled with distractions and danger. “These streets are a jungle and you are no match for it. I don’t care how much beast you think you have in you,” Renee told her son. “You weren’t raised for the jungle. You were raised decent. These people here aren’t decent. They will snuff your life out.”
Hill knew the reality of violence all too well. Her first husband, the father of her two oldest daughters, was shot and killed in an alley after fighting back as he was being mugged. She was only 24 years old when she became a widow.
Hill watched her children like a hawk. When they were kids, she made sure they were home before dark. And when they were older, she imposed strict curfews. She always told her son to plan to leave 30 minutes before a party ended. “You don’t leave with the crowd,” she’d say. “That’s when things happen. You leave before the crowd.”
In 2008, when he was 15, Hicks faced the effects of violence firsthand when the mother of one of his close friends was ambushed and shot to death at a traffic light just down the street from Renaissance High. It was early morning and she had dropped her daughter off just moments before. After the murder, Hicks was a constant source of support for his friend, DeJanae Douglas. “Mylan was always there, checking on me, making sure I laughed,” says Douglas.
“I know today is really hard,” he texted on the anniversary of her mother’s death. “You know I’m here for you if you want to talk.”
When the scholarship offers started to pour in, Hill would bring the letters to the diamond at Stoepel Park where her son played rec-league baseball throughout high school. Each offer was exciting, but Hicks wasn’t happy until the Michigan State letterhead appeared. Being a Spartan had been a goal since he started playing football.
Hicks’s tenure at Michigan State didn’t go as he planned. For the first time, he realized how talented other players in the country were. And through his first three years, he was plagued by injuries and unable to crack the starting lineup. It was a humbling experience, but it strengthened his determination to prove that he could play the game at the highest level. Seeing his frustration, especially when he was told that a back injury might end his career, Hicks’s family rallied behind him and pushed him forward.
“You know you’re special right?” Hill recalls telling him on the phone.
“Ma!” he answered, embarrassed.
“You know you’re special,” she persisted.
“Yeah, Ma!” he said.
“Say it like you mean it.”
“Delay does not mean defeat, right?”
“You’re going places, son. Stay grounded.”
In 2014, his senior year at Michigan State, Hicks accepted a move to linebacker. He made three tackles in his first appearance and started the following week. Before graduating with a degree in psychology, Hicks left a personal mark on the storied team when he won an award for being the most inspirational player on the roster.
He went undrafted that spring, but didn’t let it deter him. He was going to find a way to play in the NFL and provide for the neighbourhood where he grew up. He had big plans to give back. Hicks had “Detroit Made Me” tattooed on his arm, and often spoke about his desire to take care of his family and neighbours when he made it to the League.
As a free agent, Hicks garnered some attention from the New England Patriots, but it didn’t go anywhere. Then, in 2015, he signed a contract with the 49ers. The team seemed to have genuine interest Hicks as a young defensive back, but he only saw action in a couple of exhibition games before being released. At the same time, several of his close friends from the Spartans had found their way onto the NFL rosters. As Hicks returned home to Warwick Street, he watched former teammates like Lawrence Thomas, Jeremy Langford and Kurtis Drummond realize the dream he was still pursuing.
Hicks was down, but far from out. His father told him he could stay at home as long as he needed to — and not to worry about paying for a thing. “I’ve got you for two years,” Reggie Hill told his son. “You do what you have to do.”
Having his son back home was never a burden for Reggie. He thought of Mylan as his closest friend. They’d go to movies, watch sports and play Xbox together. Reggie was just as likely to receive advice from his son as he was to give it. Mylan was his confidant.
Hicks’s younger brother, Bralan, was also happy to have his big brother around. He’d looked up to Mylan since he was a toddler, when they woke up early on Saturdays to watch Power Rangers together. As he grew up, Bralan looked to his brother to help navigate the uneasy waters of adolescence. He got his style cues and advice about girls from Mylan. He got his butt kicked in NBA 2K. He got his favourite pair of Air Jordans and a row of beaded bracelets he never takes off.
Hicks was a cornerstone in his family’s full house. He was like a dad to his sister’s two young boys, Carter and Kaiden, whose biological father had never been in the picture. He babysat them whenever his sister needed an extra hand. He’d pull them around the house in a little wagon or he’d let them practice their tackling on him. Whenever he was out of town, Hicks would call in on Facetime to chat with his nephews. He’d make a mean face and hold up a fist, and the little boys would laugh before attempting tough guy faces of their own.
Every day back in his parents’ home, Hicks would head out that front door with his weighted ankles and orange cones, ready to “grind.” In August 2015, he took an opportunity to play with the Brooklyn Bolts of the short-lived Fall Experimental Football League, but the league fell apart before the regular season had even finished. Disappointed, Hicks returned to the house on Warwick and the Stoepel Park field. But late that year, he learned about another opportunity — this one with the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders.
When he signed his contract with the Stampeders in February 2016, Hicks was excited again. His frustration was gone, replaced by pure determination. There were no guarantees that he’d stay with the team or even get a chance to play. But Hicks wasn’t going to let those details get in the way.
Before leaving for the team’s rookie camp in Florida that spring, Hicks was working out at a Detroit gym called Total Performance, where he met Charleston Hughes, a veteran Stampeder from Saginaw, Mich. Hughes told Hicks to make sure he made it through rookie camp and earned a spot in Calgary because he was going to love it there. “It’s not like where we’re from,” Hughes told Hicks. “It’s nice there. You can go to Calgary and things will be awesome. You’re not going to want to go back home.”
In Florida, Hicks immediately clicked with another defensive back hoping to make the team, Osagie Odiase. The two had a lot in common. After graduating from Sacramento State, Odiase had played briefly in the Arena Football League, before winding up at Stampeders rookie camp. He grew up in Long Beach, Calif. — an area that, like Detroit, has a reputation for crime and violence. “When we make this team, we’re going to be roommates,” Hicks told Odiase.
They both moved on to the Stampeders’ main camp in Calgary, but partway through Odiase was ready to give up. He was struggling to memorize the plays and felt like he was running around with his head cut off. Hicks and Odiase were competing at the same position, and it was likely only one of them would get the call. “I’m not going to let you get cut,” Hicks told his friend. “If you’re going to go out, you’re going out with a fight. I don’t want to make the team because you’re acting like a weenie. I want to feel good about making the team, so you’re going to give me some competition.”
Hicks brought Odiase to his dorm room at the University of Calgary, where the players were staying next to the stadium during training camp. Hicks had a mind for the game and understood the playbook immediately. He moved the furniture in the room so he could walk Odiase through each formation.
Hicks had a great camp, while Odiase says he barely hung on. But after the final practice, they both received calls to come up to the coach’s office. Each of them had earned a spot on the Stampeders practice squad. Odiase was relieved, but Hicks was disappointed. He was happy to stay in Calgary, but he didn’t want to be on the practice squad — he intended to play. “He had a lot of confidence,” says Odiase. “He knew in his heart that he was supposed to be on the field … that’s why he continued. There were plenty of times [in his career] when he got cut, but he kept going.”
The bond Hicks and Odiase had formed in training camp didn’t go unnoticed: The team found an apartment near the Calgary Tower for the two to live in together. At their new place, they agreed on an open-closet policy, sharing clothes. They binge-watched Netflix. They took turns buying groceries and cooking dinner. The only time they argued was when they played NBA 2K.
Together they took homeless people for a meal and handed out snacks around the city. It was something Odiase had done with his family growing up, a tradition he wanted to carry on. Hicks thought it was great, and happily joined in. They both started carrying Nutrigrain bars to hand out on their way to practice.
Hicks did his best to prove that he belonged on the roster. He went hard in practice, showing particular skill on special teams, and continued to pour over the playbook. But the Stampeders were deep at defensive back, and it seemed the team was more interested in developing Hicks as a future player rather than a current one. “He was an injury away last year from being a good player and getting to play for us,” says defensive backs coach Kahlil Carter.
But for Hicks, Calgary was supposed to be a door to bigger things. Now he was stuck in a holding pattern. Odiase, meanwhile, was occasionally given a chance to play. While being overlooked stung Hicks, he didn’t hold it against his roommate. He continued to be Odiase’s biggest support on the team, rooting for him from the sidelines and running through the playbook with him at their apartment. “I’m not supposed to be here,” Odiase says. “The only reason I am is because he helped me.”
On the last night of his life, Mylan Hicks came home and found his roommate asleep on the couch. Odiase was angry that he’d been sent back to the practice squad and hadn’t played in the Stampeders’ win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers that afternoon. The team was heading out to celebrate the victory. Hicks had gone to dinner with several teammates, then come back to the apartment to try to convince Odiase to join the festivities. But Odiase didn’t feel up to it. Hicks empathized with his frustration. He pulled his friend off the couch and told him to get to bed. Before heading back out to meet his teammates, he went into Odiase’s room. “Alright, bro,” he said. “I’ll see you later.” Then he turned out the lights and closed the door.
The events that transpired early the next morning inside and outside Calgary’s Marquee Beer Market are the subject of a forthcoming trial. A man named Nelson Lugela, who was 19 at the time of the shooting, is charged with second-degree murder in Hicks’s death. But details discussed in a preliminary hearing are sealed by a publication ban.
What’s known is that Hicks was in the parking lot of the Marquee early on the morning of September 25, 2016, when he was shot multiple times in the back. Several of his teammates were in the vicinity. One of them, Brandon Smith, was waiting for a cab when he heard a friend yell, “Watch out, he’s got a gun!” Smith heard shots. He ran back towards the bar, where he saw Hicks lying on the ground. He was still alive. “Keep breathing. You’ll be all right,” Smith told him. “You’re tough. You’ll get through it. Just keep breathing.”
Hicks wasn’t able to speak. He looked up at his teammates as he fought for air. Smith and a few others stayed with him until paramedics arrived. Jamal Nixon, another Stampeder, went to the Foothill Medical Centre, praying for good news that never came.
The trauma was too great. Hicks died at the hospital. He was 23 years old.
Renee and Reggie Hill were celebrating their anniversary the weekend their son died. They had decided to travel to Indianapolis to watch their daughter’s last performance as a cheerleader for Ohio’s Central State University. Their initial plan had been to visit Hicks in Calgary, but he’d told them not to bother coming because he wasn’t on the Stampeders roster.
Now, on her first trip to Alberta, Renee found herself in a funeral home standing by her son’s lifeless body. “He looked just like my baby,” she says. “I leaned over and I kissed him, and I pulled back up and I stared right at him — and he had this smirk, which he was good for, because that’s how he spoke, with expressions. His expression said, ‘Ma, there wasn’t nothing you could do.’”
Renee clung to her faith as she held the side of her son’s casket. Weeping, she hung over the coffin and started to sing a song the preacher at her church often sang from the pulpit.
All of my life, God’s been good to me…
All of my life, God’s been good to me…
God’s been good to me…
The tears fell down her face and she looked at Mylan. “All of your life, God’s been good to you,” she told him. But she couldn’t feel it. Because how could her son be taken like this? He’d made it out of Detroit, and now he was lying in a coffin in Calgary. “Lord, you were so good to him. Why didn’t you give him grace this night? Why didn’t you cover him?” she asked. “I always prayed for my kids, so what happened? Did you not hear me? Did I fail?”
Reggie was quiet beside her; shock, pain and anger mixed inside him and he was unsure what dark elixir would result. They left the funeral home and went to McMahon Stadium, where the team was waiting for them. Their son had never played a game there, but his face was up on a large screen and dozens of young men were weeping for him. Renee felt compelled to address them and gave an impassioned speech about her son’s legacy and how they’d all carry it forward. Reggie still couldn’t speak. “I had no feeling in my body at all,” he remembers. “I was done — mentally, physically, I was out of it.”
Later, they drove to the courthouse where the man accused of killing their son would stand before a judge. A crowd of reporters was waiting outside.
“You’re going to be mad at me, but I can’t go in there” Reggie told his wife. He was worried about what he might do when he saw the accused. “If I go in, I’m never coming out. If I go in, I’m never leaving Canada.”
He was crying now. “He hurt my son,” Reggie said. “He took my son.”
They drove away and left Calgary as quickly as they could.
The Stampeders carried the pain of Hicks’s death with them through the final five games of the regular season. Hicks might not have had a direct impact on the field, but he’d left a huge impression off of it. Odiase kept his friend’s room exactly as he had left it, even leaving the light on in the closet. When the Stampeders asked him to take on another roommate, he refused.
As they fought their way to the Grey Cup, Calgary players wore Hicks’s No. 31 on their faces and written on their equipment. Hicks’s family was invited to come to Toronto, where Hicks was honoured ahead of the championship game. The remembrance was touching, but it couldn’t fill the deep void that kept expanding without him.
On his 17th birthday, Bralan Hill went to a tattoo shop and had “Almighty 6 Warrior” tattooed on his right forearm. Hicks wore No. 6 at Michigan State. It was the number he considered his. “Mylan was a warrior. He never stopped,” says Bralan. “It didn’t matter what he encountered. He was going to keep pushing, no matter how hard times got.”
On the same arm, Bralan wore several of the braclets his brother had given him. He also had a new one he’d recently added with “Thou Shalt Not Kill” written along it.
Bralan was never into football the way his brother was. In his senior year at high school, he’d considered skipping the season altogether, but decided to go out for the team one last time.
“Yo, I’m going to play football,” he had told his brother by phone.
“Oh, okay, that’s what’s up!” Hicks had replied. “I’m going to have to try to make one of your games this season.”
After his brother’s death, Bralan didn’t have much desire to play. But he felt he needed at least one final game. He asked a teammate to swap jerseys with him so he could run out onto the field wearing No. 6. “I played my heart out for him,” he says.
Odiase sits in the empty bleachers at McMahon stadium on a warm June evening, shortly after finishing his second of two training-camp practices. He wears a green Michigan State hoodie that belonged to Hicks, with a matching green Spartans bracelet. The screen on his cellphone is still shattered from throwing it against a wall when he learned about the shooting. “I should have been there,” he says.
Odiase still wonders what might have been different if he’d gone out with his friend that night. Maybe they would have left early. Maybe, they’d still be playing video games, sharing clothes and running through plays in their apartment. Maybe — but he’ll never know.
Those questions linger back on Warwick Street, too. In the living room filled with photographs of her lost son, Renee Hill runs through the hypotheticals she’s been unable to shake since Mylan’s life was taken. What if they’d gone to Calgary that weekend instead of Indianapolis? Or what if he’d left a half hour before closing time, like she’d always taught him?
The idea that her son could face danger in Calgary had never entered Renee’s mind. She didn’t want him to stay in Detroit precisely because she felt there was little opportunity and far too much risk. Canada seemed like a safe place. There were 302 homicides in Detroit in 2016, in a population of less than 700,000. Last year in Calgary, which has a population of 1.2 million, there were 28 homicides — including the killing of Hicks.
His friends and family have tried to come to grips with the reality of his loss, but each day without him is a struggle. This spring, a new foundation formed in his name raised enough money to send two local kids on a trip to Florida with their football team. Brief moments of joy like that — knowing that Hicks is able to give back even in death — are interrupted by sharp bursts of inconsolable grief. Reggie Hill tries to push through his long shifts as a fire sergeant, but the minute his mind isn’t occupied, the loss of his best friend floods back. “I thought I was getting better. But it’s getting worse for me,” he says.
The life of Mylan Hicks continues to play on repeat for those who love him. He’s biking down Warwick; he’s shoveling the driveway for his neighbour; he’s beating his brother at NBA 2K; he’s teaching his nephews to tackle; he’s swinging on the ceiling fan pretending to be Buzz Lightyear; he’s telling them he’s going to the League and that he’ll never let anyone say he can’t play football. He’s telling them it’s destiny.
Renee Hill hears the front door open in her mind.
“Where are you going?” she asks her son. He grins. She already knows the answer.
“I’m going to grind.”
And he’s gone.
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