Osagie Odiase keeps the light on in Mylan Hicks’ closet. On Hicks’ bed, Odiase has laid out his friend’s Michigan State playbook and neatly folded jersey.
“Every morning before I leave, I go to his room and give a bow and a salute. . . just to show my respect,” said Odiase.
“We were close. We were like brothers.”
Hicks isn’t with the Calgary Stampeders for Sunday’s Grey Cup. He was shot and killed outside a Calgary bar in September at the tender age of 23.
But his memory is everywhere. It’s in the black No. 31 pin that Odiase wears on his tuque. It’s in the No. 31 jersey the Stampeders will hang in the locker-room Sunday before they run onto BMO Field. It’s in the players’ hearts.
“The energy is crazy now,” Odiase said, when asked how Hicks’ death galvanized the Stampeders. “It just gave it a huge spurt. You could tell from the beginning to the end, once Mylan passed away everybody just came together. You could feel it when you walked into the locker-room.
“Everybody knows what we are playing for this year. Obviously the Grey Cup. But we are also playing for No. 31 too.”
The Stampeders (15-2-1) aren’t just considered heavy favourites to beat the Ottawa Redblacks (8-9) on Sunday, but a team of destiny.
In Calgary’s 48-23 win over B.C. in last Sunday’s West Division Final, halfback Jamar Wall ran an interception back to put the Stampeders ahead 31-0. After Hicks’ death, Wall had switched his jersey number from 29 to 31 to honour the late player.
“It was my first time, making a play, in the number,” Wall said. “Wearing 31. Scoring the 31st point. I’m a very religious guy. I always feel like he’s with us. If that’s not a sign I don’t know what is.”
Hicks was in his first CFL season and on Calgary’s practice roster and was celebrating with teammates following a 36-34 home win over Winnipeg when he was shot during an altercation at a Calgary nightclub.
A 19-year-old man was charged with second-degree murder.
Odiase wasn’t with Hicks that night, one of the rare times they weren’t together. Odiase, a defensive back in his first season with the Stampeders, first met Hicks at a football free agent camp in Florida. It was pure luck that brought them both to Calgary, where they wound up sharing a downtown home.
“We were very close. Anywhere you saw me, you saw him. Anywhere you saw him, you saw me,” Odiase said. “In the beginning people were asking ‘Do you want to move out of the house?’ I was like ‘No, I still kind of feel him in there. Why run away from it, if I feel him I want to be there still?'”
Standing on the turf at Monarch Stadium in Toronto, Odiase recounted for reporters how he and Hicks took to feeding homeless people in Calgary. It was Hicks’ idea. They would fill their pockets with Rice Krispies treats and fruit snacks, and hand them out on their way to practice at McMahon Stadium.
On Sundays, the two players would find a homeless man and treat him to dinner in a restaurant.
“I still do that,” Odiase said.
The 25-year-old said he speaks daily to Hicks’ mom Renee Hill, who is driving up to Toronto from her Detroit home to watch Sunday’s Grey Cup game.
Jerome Messam, who’s up for the CFL’s top Canadian award Thursday night, was with Hicks the night he was murdered.
“It’s made me appreciate life and not really take things for granted. You never know when it’s your time,” said the running back from Brampton, Ont. “It’s been tough, but we’ve stuck together, we definitely lean on each other as teammates.
“Mylan was like a little brother to me. Think about him every day. We don’t let his life be in vain.”
Hicks was a defensive back who was known for his speed and dazzling athleticism on the field.
There’s no playbook for dealing with a death, said Stampeder coach Dave Dickenson.
“It was tough, it was,” Dickenson said. “It’s just one of those situations not that any of us think about it. You don’t think. . . it shouldn’t happen, super sad that it did happen.
“You just try to be honest with your guys and be yourself. There were some tough moments and there still are. I didn’t know what to tell the coaches, the players. . . you don’t want to get on the political soapbox, but it just shouldn’t happen.
“Put football in perspective and if you look at the whole league, it hurt and affected them. I can’t say that I handled it well but I just did my best and the guys certainly have a purpose. We play for more than just ourselves.”
And a victory on Sunday?
“It’s going to be great,” Odiase said. “It’s going to be the cherry on top. It’s going to everything that we hope for and what we have been playing for.”