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Still dealing with death

Hill's loved ones struggle after tragedy

MARQUISE HILL Left no will MARQUISE HILL Left no will
Email|Print| Text size + By Bob Hohler
Globe Staff / January 31, 2008

NEW ORLEANS - Alone with her memories near the mighty waters in the Mississippi delta that swallowed her home, her city, and then her only child, a Patriots mother grieves.

In a Texas town 500 miles away, another woman mourns the same lost soul, the father of her 2-year-old son.

Eight months after Marquise Hill of the Patriots accidentally drowned in the lead gray depths of Lake Pontchartrain in the lap of New Orleans, the women he left behind - Sherry Hill and Inell Benn - have little to say to each other, their relationship strained by the knotty conflicts that often develop when a person of considerable means dies without a will.

But the Patriots are their bond, and the women - Southerners by birth, New Englanders in football spirit - will find each other at Super Bowl XLII Sunday in Glendale, Ariz., as Hill's former teammates try to fulfill a prophesy he shared in the final days of his short life.

Sherry Hill conveyed her son's vision to the team during his wake in New Orleans, the Katrina-crippled metropolis he was helping to rebuild before he died.

"They were the last words my son told me about the team," she said in her modest home in a subdivision on the outskirts of New Orleans. "He told me, 'Mama, Coach [Bill] Belichick and Mr. [Robert] Kraft got the missing piece. They got Randy Moss. We're going to be unstoppable this year.' "

Team owner Kraft, who called Hill's mother Monday to invite her to the Super Bowl, reminded her how deeply the Patriots were touched by her sharing her son's prophesy with them. Hill was 24 when he died.

"That lifted my spirits," Sherry Hill said. "I'm sure I will feel a lot of sadness and happiness because I know my son will be there in spirit."

The Patriots have honored Hill by wearing decals of his No. 91 on their helmets and dedicating their quest for football perfection to him. Kraft, who paid for the Patriots to travel to Hill's funeral, also picked up the bill for the services, burial, and headstone. And players throughout the NFL, led by Jarvis Green of the Patriots, Hill's boyhood friend, donated money and pledged to help care for Hill's son, Ma'shy, who was born seven months after Hill helped the Patriots win their last Super Bowl in 2005.

"They have been supportive and protective," Benn said in her small apartment in Round Rock, Texas, as she prepared to drop off Ma'shy at day care on her way to a college study group. "They know the things we're going through because they're feeling a lot, too."

Ma'shy, whose name is derived from shortened versions of Marquise and Sherry, sleeps with a large oil painting of Hill, wearing his Patriots jersey, on his bedroom wall. The boy is too young to know much about his father.

"The hardest thing is, Ma'shy always catches me off guard, asking, 'Where's my dad?' " Benn said. "That's why I have his picture up. I can just point to it and talk about things, but he doesn't really understand."

Enduring romance

Hill was in the delivery room of a Providence hospital when Ma'shy was born. A 6-foot-6-inch, 300-pound defensive end, Hill had met Benn when they worked together at the Jazzland amusement park in New Orleans the summer after their junior year in high school. They shared a birthdate (Aug. 7, 1982), a love of sports (she played high school volleyball), and then a romance.

When LSU signed Hill as one of the nation's top defensive linemen in 2001, Benn went along. They spent three years there, with Hill helping the football team win its first national championship in 45 years in 2004 (his LSU teammates included Green, Randall Gay, and Eric Alexander of the Patriots, and Corey Webster of the New York Giants, New England's Super Bowl opponent).

Hill's studies at LSU included completing an internship at the New Orleans coroner's office, and he planned to operate a funeral home in the city after his playing career, according to his grandmother, Elmira Hill.

At LSU, Hill also provided Benn a sense of security when the Baton Rouge campus was terrorized by a serial killer, Derrick Todd Lee, whose seven confirmed victims included an LSU graduate student.

"Marquise was my protector," Benn said. "When I was with him, I felt like people knew not to mess with me. Now my parents tell me not to take things so lightly."

After the Patriots selected Hill in the second round of the 2004 draft, Benn joined him in Bellingham, Mass., settling in a condominium about 20 minutes from Gillette Stadium. But after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, killing more than 700 residents and displacing hundreds of thousands, Benn's parents left Louisiana for Texas.

Benn decided last winter to move near her parents, taking Ma'shy with her, though she maintained her relationship with Hill. She was scheduled to visit him in New Orleans when tragedy struck.

Night of tragedy

As dusk fell May 27 on Lake Pontchartrain, a shimmering expanse 12 times the size of Boston Harbor, Hill took a friend, Ashley Blazio, for a ride on his Jet Ski. By all accounts, Hill was not dating Blazio. Childhood friends, they had recently met again when Hill offered to help Blazio's parents rebuild their storm-ravaged home after a contractor scammed them, taking their money for work he never performed.

Skittering across the lake's swirling currents, neither Hill nor Blazio was wearing a life vest when the Jet Ski overturned. Hill was alert enough to urge Blazio to swim to a nearby pylon, where she was rescued. But he suffered a head injury - possibly a mild concussion, according to the coroner - and disappeared into the lake.

A search team discovered his body the next day, Memorial Day.

For his mother, the aftermath has been "torture," she said.

Sherry Hill devoted much of her life to her son. She said Hill saw his father only twice in his life, first when he was 10 and his father reneged on a promise to return at Christmas with a gift. Hill was 17 and one of the nation's top college prospects the second time he heard from his father. That time, his mother said, he told his father, "My daddy's deceased. I don't know who you are."

Strong-willed and strict, Sherry Hill helped her son survive the dangerous streets of New Orleans. When Marquise was 8, she said, she took him to view the body of a neighborhood youth who had been shot multiple times and lay dead in the street.

"I said, 'This is what drugs and alcohol do for you,' " she recalled.

Three days before her son died, Hill began writing a book, "From the Cradle to the [Super] Bowl: The Marquise Hill Story." She said the book will chronicle parts of Hill's life that few people knew, including an incident in 2000 in which, she claims, he was wrongfully convicted in a predominantly white jurisdiction of assaulting a white youth. She declined to provide details of the episode, saying she was saving it for her book.

Court records in St. Bernard Parish, however, show that Hill allegedly struck a youth at a track meet at Chalmette High School (Hill was a shot putter for De La Salle High School). The youth and his father sued Hill and his mother for $50,000, and Hill settled the suit for $10,000 over his mother's objections.

"I wasn't going to pay anything," she said. "They would have had to lock me up."

Other than the pain Katrina caused her - she lived for a year in Baton Rouge after the storm, then another year in a trailer in New Orleans while Marquise helped to rebuild her home - Sherry Hill described her son's high school court case as one of her greatest traumas before his death.

Estate muddled

Since the tragedy, she has waged another legal dispute, this one over Hill's estate, which has complicated her relationship with Benn.

Seventeen days after Hill's funeral, an Orleans Parish judge appointed Benn the administrator of Hill's estate. Because Hill did not have a will or a spouse, Louisiana law dictates that his son, Ma'shy, is his sole heir. And since Benn is Ma'shy's legal guardian, she petitioned successfully to administer the estate.

Sherry Hill challenged the court order, claiming Benn was not qualified for the role and asking a judge to appoint her instead. The court rejected the motion, but not without ordering Benn and her lawyer to post a $600,000 security bond.

As it turned out, Hill planned well for his loved ones. He did so despite his refusal to draw up a will - his grandmother said he spurned her advice to prepare one a week before he died - and his aversion to insurance policies. In a move that proved vital to Hill's survivors, Albert Elias Sr., a financial planner and the late father of Hill's agent, Albert Jr., went to great lengths to overcome Hill's reluctance to take out a life insurance policy, finally prevailing on him to sign one.

Court records show the policy was worth $1 million and was split evenly between Hill's mother and Benn. Hill also named three beneficiaries - his mother, grandmother, and son - to equally divide an NFL life insurance policy worth $550,000. And he left more than $100,000 in a retirement account for his mother.

In addition, Ma'shy is the sole beneficiary of Hill's NFL pension, which provides monthly payments of $9,000 for four years and payments of $3,600 a month thereafter until Ma'shy turns 19 - or 23, if he goes to college.

The remainder of Hill's estate includes his properties in Bellingham and New Orleans, which have an estimated combined equity of $142,000; about $178,000 in investment and savings accounts; five cars with a combined value of $83,000; and his Super Bowl and LSU championship rings and football jerseys, valued at $35,000.

But no matter how the remaining assets are divided, Sherry Hill said, she feels strongly that she has been left out of the discussions about his estate. She said she believes, for example, that her son would have wanted her to have the six-bedroom home in New Orleans where she was living before he died (she has since bought a smaller home).

"I feel like an alien, to be honest with you," she said. "I'm left out of everything and it hurts. It's like tearing into a wound. If my son was to come back right now, I don't think he'd be happy at all."

Benn, who attends Austin Community College and hopes to become a medical sonographer, indicated she was mystified by Sherry Hill's distress. Because of the women's differences, Hill has had very limited contact with Ma'shy.

"The thing is, Marquise took really good care of his mom, his grandmother, and me and Ma'shy," Benn said. "I think the biggest thing for all of us right now should be taking care of his son. Ma'shy has a long way to go."

Benn noted that the court, not she, will determine how Hill's remaining assets are divided. Reluctant to criticize Sherry Hill, she said, "We're all hurt about Marquise. I just think that sometimes we think too hard about things when it's really not that necessary."

Haunting remnants

Both women confront Hill's absence daily, when the phone rings in the morning, when they see photos of him on their walls, when they dream at night.

"I just miss him so much," Sherry Hill said. "It's very hard on me."

In a perfect world, the Super Bowl would provide some relief from their pain and grief. They said they anticipate the sorrow of not seeing him on the sideline Sunday or emerging from the locker room afterward.

"When that last person comes out and Marquise doesn't come out, it's very emotional for me," said Benn, who attended the Patriots' game in Dallas in October. "I see all the kids interacting with their dads, and I either break down or try to hold it inside."

But they expect to sense Hill's presence at the game. They know Green will be wearing Hill's shoulder pads in his honor. And they hope to celebrate with the Patriots if the team fulfills Hill's prophesy.

"He will be there in spirit," Sherry Hill said, "and he will be watching on heaven's TV to see his words come true."

Bob Hohler can be reached at hohler@globe.com.

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