FOXBOROUGH -- As Randall Gay sped from Baton Rouge, La., to New Orleans in his wife's 2005 black BMW, he had to keep reminding himself to slow down. He didn't need to compound one tragedy with another.
Only an hour earlier the cornerback had been on his way to an offseason workout -- on Memorial Day -- when he got a call from Patriots teammate and fellow Louisiana native Jarvis Green. Patriots defensive lineman Marquise Hill was missing in the turbid and turbulent waters of Lake Pontchartrain following a jet skiing accident the night before. He had drowned and was found the next day.
"The whole time I was hoping for a miracle," said Gay. "Even though you know it's kind of . . . " Gay's voice trailed off. "Man, he needs to be here right now."
Hill was more than just a teammate for Gay, both in New England and at Louisiana State, where they won a national championship in 2003. They roomed together as rookies with the Patriots in 2004. They had played on the same team since 2001.
"It was almost like he was family, so for him not to be out here it hurts," said Gay after a recent practice. "I know the type of person he is. He wants to see me out here doing good and making plays, so that's what I'm going to try to do."
Gay can't resurrect his friend, but he can resurrect his career. After going from undrafted free agent to Super Bowl starter as a rookie, Gay has gone from the fast track to the breakdown lane. Each of his last two seasons has ended on injured reserve -- in 2005 an ankle injury limited him to five games; last year he played in three games before a hamstring hobbled him. Now, playing with a heavy heart, Gay is determined to get back up to speed.
His timing couldn't be better for the Patriots, who are thin at cornerback. With Asante Samuel still balking at signing his franchise tender, Chad Scott out for the season with a knee injury, and rookie Brandon Meriweather moving over from safety, Gay has been handed a golden opportunity to reestablish himself.
The fourth-year pro is taking advantage of it. He started the exhibition opener against Tampa Bay last Friday and has taken over Samuel's spot at left cornerback, running with the first team in practice.
"You have to have that mentality of I've got to go out here and make plays," said Gay. "Whoever is out there you have to go out there and make a play because we'll find somebody who is going to make that play."
Gay, 25, started nine of the 15 regular-season games he played as a rookie, playing corner and free safety, and intercepted two passes. He started all three playoff contests at corner and finished with a team-high 11 solo tackles and a forced fumble in Super Bowl XXXIX. Since then, he has played in a total of eight games combined the last two seasons with zero interceptions. Still, the Patriots offered him a $1.3 million tender this offseason when he was a restricted free agent, forcing any team that wanted to sign him to surrender a second-round pick. (The New York Jets brought Gay in for a visit in April, but did not make an offer.)
"I know I can play and that's what I'm just trying to show," said Gay. "If somebody doesn't think I can play, well, that's on you. As long as I'm showing the coaching staff that I can make plays and I can do good, that's all that matters to me."
The knock on Gay is that his slender frame -- he's generously listed at 5 feet 11 inches and 190 pounds -- isn't suited for an NFL pounding. Gay took umbrage at the injury-prone label and intimated he wasn't exactly on board with last year's trip to IR because of a balky hamstring.
"You never think, unless you really tear your knee up or something like that, that you should be on IR," said Gay, who started training camp last year on the physically-unable-to-perform list after offseason ankle surgery. "Initially, I was [emotionally] hurt because I really wanted to play.
"At the same time I felt like the doctors know better than me. That gave everything more time to heal because actually, when I came back last year I still wasn't 100 percent, but I wanted to play football that much."
Gay said by the end of last season it was harder to watch his teammates play, especially since he was healthier than most of them, who had a season's worth of bruises.
"I think it was probably very emotional for him," said Green, who was a teammate of both Gay and Hill at LSU. "I think it's like that for anybody. You get an injury and you want to be on the field and perform and get better and he was limited for the last two years, but he's out here now and I'm just happy for him to be back."
Green said despite Gay's nickname, "Blue," he has always remained upbeat about playing.
"Blue has been the same guy since I've known him way back to LSU," said Green. "He has always kept a smile on his face. He has always kept a great attitude."
Gay could just as easily be nicknamed "blue collar" for his work ethic, which he said comes from his parents. His father has worked at a chemical plant for 30 years. In high school, Gay worked bagging groceries with his mother at a local supermarket.
"You go home and you see people doing that stuff and you realize this is really a privilege, not a right," said Gay. When injuries happen, it can scare you a little bit, like, 'Hey, I could lose all of this.' "
But Gay already knew that. Last month, Dave Peterson, another former LSU teammate, died in a motorcycle accident. Gay had seen him the week before.
"You always see people who take this [game] for granted," said Gay. "They think that it's given to them and it's always going to be there, but at any moment this could be taken away from you, your choice or not your choice, at any second."