Renee and Reggie Hill speak about their son Mylan Hicks, the former MSU football player who was shot and killed outside a nightclub in Calgary, Canada, last year. Max Ortiz, The Detroit News
Detroit — Every morning, Renee Hill wakes up and kisses two pictures of her son, Mylan Hicks. In one, he’s in uniform, playing football at Michigan State. The other is from his time in training camp with the San Francisco 49ers.
Hill kisses those pictures because that’s all she has now — pictures reminding her of her oldest son. Pictures upon pictures joined by helmets and cleats and anything else that serves as a reminder of the former Detroit Renaissance star who played four seasons at Michigan State then followed his football dream from San Francisco to Brooklyn to Calgary, Alberta.
He was in Canada when it seemed the dream of playing professional football was finally within reach. A member of the Stampeders practice squad, Hicks was forming fast bonds with his CFL teammates and impressing his coaches.
However, on Sept. 25, 2016, it all ended. Hicks was with teammates at a Calgary nightclub celebrating the team’s victory against Winnipeg when trouble inside the club spilled outside. A gun was pulled. Shots were fired. One person was hit.
It was Hicks. He died later that night at the hospital, hundreds of miles from home. He was 23.
“I know Mylan lived for a little while because the boys tell me he was conscious,” Hill said Thursday at her house on Warwick Street in Detroit. “The boys tell me he was conscious and I can only imagine, in that conscious state, that Mylan thought of me, that he thought of us. He knew his mom was not gonna be all right. He knew his dad was not gonna be all right.
“I wonder how long he laid there and thought that.”
It’s been a full year and this is the battle Hill and her husband Reggie have on a daily basis. There is no closure, Renee Hill says. Time hasn’t helped.
She spends her days, as she says, masking her pain when she’s out and about. When she’s home, she’s in her daughter’s room, the last place she saw Mylan. For Reggie, it’s work that gets him through. The sergeant in the Detroit Fire Department shakes his head as he and his wife talk about the hell the last year has been, accentuated this week with the anniversary of his death.
“There is no coming back from this,” Reggie Hill says.
“There will always be a void there.”
It wasn’t exactly easy for Mylan Hicks. At least, his football journey wasn’t simple.
An All-State player at Renaissance, Hicks was a four-star cornerback and committed to his favorite school — Michigan State — as part of the 2010 class. But things didn’t go exactly as planned. He redshirted that first year and switched to safety the next season, battling injuries on and off until his senior season.
Renee Hill says Mylan had a hard time not playing. He believed he deserved to be on the field. But mom gave her son important advice then, advice that would serve him later in life.
“Delay doesn’t mean defeat,” she told him.
Hicks embraced that theory, and by the time the 2014 season came around, Hicks had been switched to linebacker. Reggie Hill says his son didn’t love the move at first, but once he locked down the position he thrived. Even another injury — a broken arm that kept him out four games — couldn’t top him. Hicks capped his career with four tackles in Michigan State’s win over Baylor in the Cotton Bowl.
The NFL draft came and went the next spring and Hicks didn’t hear his name called, but he landed a spot in training camp with the 49ers. He played, well enough that his eventual release devastated him.
“He was hurting,” Reggie Hill said.
But mom wouldn’t let her son lay around. She got on his case and soon Hicks was at old Redford High, working out every day.
“I gotta grind,” he’d tell his mom.
That led to a stint with the Brooklyn Bolts of the now defunct Fall Experimental Football League. It was a tough stop in the journey but it led to a spot with the Stampeders, where Hicks signed in May of 2016.
It was then that Renee Hill breathed a sigh of relief. Her son was happy, following his dream. But she was happy he was out of Detroit.
“When he left Detroit, I felt like God had answered my prayers that he was covered, he was safe,” Hill said. “I felt he had answered my prayers because I had always asked the Lord to get him up out of here.”
The irony is hard to avoid. Hicks thrived in a city that had 302 homicides in 2016 but didn’t make it out of Calgary, which had 28 homicides in the same year.
But Hill felt good about the fact she’d always raised her son to avoid conflict, to stay out of situations that could go bad. When he was young, she always picked him and dropped him off. When Hicks started driving, he was told to leave places 30 minutes before they ended to avoid any conflict on the way out.
And Hicks did a good job of reassuring her.
“I would say, ‘Remember, I’m only all right if you’re all right,’” Hill said. “He’d say, ‘Then you’re all right.’”
Renee and Reggie Hill were planning to celebrate their anniversary last year by going to Calgary to visit their son. The plans were set, but then their daughter urged them to come to her cheer competition in Indianapolis.
So, mom and dad relented and headed to Lucas Oil Stadium, the same place Hicks and his teammates had won the Big Ten championship in 2013 leading to a spot in the Rose Bowl. The competition had finished and a concert was going on afterward.
Renee Hill stayed so the family could have fun, but she started to not feel well. Soon she felt faint and her heart rate dropped.
She had to be taken to the hospital. It was late on Sept. 24. Just a few hours later, Mylan Hicks was killed in Calgary.
“I could hardly breathe and now I know why, because I was about to lose my child,” Renee Hill said. “I felt some type of way. Something wasn’t right and I believe that’s where all the pain I was experiencing came from, because Mylan was about to leave.”
There still have been no clear answers as to why the shooting happened outside of Marquee Beer Market. Nineteen-year-old Nelson Lugela is charged with second-degree murder and will stand trial in December of 2018. Reports say Lugela was causing trouble in the club and Hicks at one point bought him a drink and tried to calm him down.
That was the only connection between the two. Outside the bar, Lugela allegedly shot at random.
There are no good answers, of course, so Hill does her best with the photos and whatever else reminds her of her son.
Hicks’ silver Dodge Charger sits in their driveway and Hill found a pair of cleats in it just the other day from Hicks’ time at Michigan State. They now sit next to his MSU helmet in front of a huge picture from the Cotton Bowl, the team ready to come out of the tunnel and Hicks behind coach Mark Dantonio.
The mementos help Hill remember. She also texts her son nearly every day, keeping his phone active and paying the monthly bill. She knows he won’t respond, but it helps her cope.
On Mother’s Day, she ended her message by saying, “I hope this makes it to heaven.”
“It’s the only way I know how to make it,” she said.
Renee and Reggie know their lives will never be normal again. They only hope people remember their son for the person he was. His friends reflect that.
There’s the group of former Michigan State teammates — Lawrence Thomas, Tony Lippett, Darqueze Dennard, Kurtis Drummond and Jeremy Langford — that designed and picked up the $5,600 tab for a bench that will be constructed near Hicks’ grave at Detroit Memorial Park West in Redford.
And don’t dare ask Thomas about his friend. They were brothers.
“That makes him angry,” Renee Hill said with a smile.
There’s the group of guys down the street Hill always thought of as trouble that have visited her regularly in the last year, telling her Hicks never had to worry around town, they protected him.
There’s DeJanae Douglas, a friend Hill didn’t know until the last year. Douglas’ mother was killed while she and Hicks were in high school and Hicks took her under his wing, making sure she had a place to stay.
Now she is like another daughter to Renee and Reggie.
“Mylan was everything to her,” Renee said.
And there’s the man they met in Calgary, an old homeless man that hung out near Hicks’ apartment. Hicks made it a point to regularly get the man dinner. When the Hills went to Calgary, the man had heard the news of Hicks’ death and was devastated.
“Where’s my friend?” he asked.
Once again, there were no good answers.
Renee Hill is now starting to put her focus in the Mylan Hicks Foundation, which focuses on giving back to the Police Athletic League in an effort to help the community. Before now it was too hard for her.
“I was grieving,” she said.
Renee and Reggie Hill admit life is different. But the man their son became will live on.
“He was everything I could have asked for in a son,” Reggie Hill said. “And more.”
Added Renee, “Some people die off and you don’t hear much about them. But this little fella, everywhere I go someone wants to talk about Mylan. Someone wants to tell me something good about Mylan.
“Sometimes success doesn’t come in dollars, it doesn’t come in great rewards of material things. They come in a legacy. He has a great legacy.”