Phoenix -- There's something very big missing from the New England Patriots' march to a perfect season. Not praise from their peers. Not skepticism about their legitimacy. Not admiration for Tom Brady or wariness about Bill Belichick - or a businesslike approach or a joy about where they are.
What is missing is their 6-foot-6, 300-pound teammate, backup defensive end Marquise Hill. And the Patriots feel the absence as strongly as they do any other aspect of this journey. They see it, too, in his locker preserved at their practice facility and at Gillette Stadium.
"I was two lockers down from him. Every day, I look at it," said Vince Wilfork, the Patriots' nose tackle and a draft classmate of Hill's in 2004. "And his picture is in my locker. He should be here today."
Hill, however, drowned in May while jet-skiing on Lake Pontchartrain near his hometown of New Orleans.
By tragic circumstance, he is the forgotten casualty of the 2007 season, lost between the shooting deaths of the Denver Broncos' Darrent Williams in January and the Washington Redskins' Sean Taylor in November, and joined by the fatal collapse of the Broncos' Darien Nash in February.
But around the Patriots, Hill - 24 when he died - is never out of anyone's thoughts, particularly not as the team prepares for Sunday's Super Bowl. There never has been a public or private rallying cry to win a championship for Hill, but much of the Patriots' intensely focused mind-set is shaped by the memory of his death.
"I think everybody in that locker room is not only playing for themselves, or their families or this organization, but I think a lot of them are playing for Marquise," said Ty Warren, a fellow lineman.
When the entire team went to his funeral in Louisiana and met his family and others close to him, Warren said, "We got to know him more than we got to know him in the locker room.
"I think that motivated us every time we walked by his locker, to not take things for granted," he said. "Things like going out to practice every day when you're so banged up, and you've got bumps and bruises everywhere. When you feel like you can't make it through the day, you just look over at that locker, and that's motivation."
It wasn't just motivation to play. Safety Rodney Harrison seemingly has as much perspective as any player because of his 14 seasons, his two previous Super Bowls with the Patriots and even his four-game suspension served at the start of this season after admitting he had bought and used human growth hormone.
"I think I've always had a pretty decent outlook on life, thanks to my mom and the way she raised me," Harrison said. "But at the same time, you can get caught up in worldly things, and you lose perspective on the simple things, like waking up in the morning. Marquise died, Sean Taylor died, both really young guys. That shows you right there that you have to cherish every moment you have."
Amid all the headlines about the team this season, good and bad, Hill's death has largely been lost in the rush for those outside of New England. That is fine with them. Besides preserving his locker and its contents, all season they have worn a patch with Hill's No. 91 on their helmets (for the past two months, they've worn two patches, the other mandated by the NFL to honor the Redskins' Taylor).
Yet so far this week - including, of course, media day, when they were proposed to, given multiple versions of the same question and queried about what is the strangest thing they had been asked all day - the players and coaches have been asked very little about Hill.
"With everything that's going on this year with the Patriots, I think it got kind of overshadowed by media," Wilfork said. "I don't think you guys meant to do it, but it is what it is. Like I say, he was two lockers down from me. I remember him, and that's something that's always going to be with me."
That something includes this entire week. Wilfork's and Hill's rookie seasons were the year the Patriots won their third Super Bowl, beating the Philadelphia Eagles.
"That was our goal, to make it back," Wilfork said. "I feel exactly what he felt about coming back here. It was a goal of ours to get back, and this time we would enjoy it. We didn't enjoy it then because it was all business. But this time we would enjoy it."
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