The Forestville High School football team doesn’t have a No. 44 anymore. No Knights player has worn that jersey since Rico Marshall had it back in 1987. Most everybody who went to the Prince George’s County school with Marshall figured he’d end up famous. And, all these years later, he is still talked about around here. Partly because of his gridiron exploits. Mostly because he’s dead.

On the morning of Feb. 13, 1988, Rico Leroy Marshall went into convulsions and lapsed into a coma he’d never come out of. Medical examiners found a lethal amount of cocaine in his system. There was no anecdotal or physical evidence he’d ever smoked or snorted the drug. From the contents in his stomach, it was concluded he’d swallowed the narcotic that killed him less than three hours before he died. The coroners couldn’t make a judgment, however, on whether he’d poisoned himself voluntarily.

Marshall’s death, and what caused it, stunned the community. Around the school, everybody knew him as a good guy and a leader, on the field and off. In his senior season, the 6-foot, 205-pound bullworker broke the school’s rushing and scoring records. His reward for that came just three days before he died, at an assembly in front of reverent classmates, where Marshall signed a national letter of intent to play football at the University of South Carolina.

There was more to Marshall than brawn, though.

“What I remember most about Rico was his voice,” boyhood friend and Forestville teammate Leslie Shepherd tells me. “He was a great athlete, for sure, but that dude could sing.”

Shepherd, a former Redskins receiver now playing for the Miami Dolphins, recalls watching Marshall sing the national anthem before basketball games and croon pop tunes at school parties.

The local cops didn’t hold Marshall in such high esteem. In the eyes of the lawmen, Marshall wasn’t a star or a winner. He was a drug dealer. A day after he died, the P.G. County police said that they’d seen Marshall late Friday, on his final night on this earth, on the 1400 block of Nova Avenue in Capitol Heights, site of a well-known open-air drug market. Marshall, the cops said, took off running when a police car approached.

“He literally ran into the arms of two uniformed officers on foot,” then-police spokesperson Bruce Gentile told the Prince George’s County Journal at the time. “He was stopped. They questioned him. He identified himself as Rico Marshall. A search of his pockets produced six empty glassine envelopes and about $150 in cash. Since he had no drugs on him, they didn’t arrest him. He was released.” Gentile also said that before he died, Marshall told an unnamed girlfriend he’d swallowed the cocaine. The names of the officers who allegedly encountered Marshall on his last night were never released.

Just days after his death, the police released more information about Marshall’s criminal history to the media: He’d been arrested two months earlier in the same Capitol Heights neighborhood, the cops said, holding nearly an ounce of crack. That case never went to trial.

Marshall’s loved ones, as often happens in such cases, didn’t want to believe he was a crack dealer. If there had indeed been a prior arrest, his parents and the Forestville administration loudly proclaimed at the time, nobody from the police or the county had ever told them about it. Besides, his family said, he didn’t even have a girlfriend.

And some in the community perceived flaws in the cops’ tale.

A kid on a quick, mad dash from the law, folks reasoned, wouldn’t have an easy time extracting the rocks out of six separate plastic bags and then putting them into his mouth, much less swallowing them. And if he had managed the feat, as the police claimed, then why wouldn’t he have thrown the bags away, rather than stuffing them back in his pocket for the officers to find?

After the toxicological report confirmed that cocaine intoxication had taken Marshall’s life, a groundswell of suspicion began growing in the community: Somebody must have made Marshall swallow the drugs that killed him.

“Rico was a smart guy,” says Shepherd. “Too smart to swallow drugs on his own. That story didn’t make any sense.”

Community activists regarded the cops as suspects. Crack was relatively new to the D.C. area at the time. Hip street kids would rip off unsavvy buyers by peddling cut-up chunks of soap, which look like rock cocaine. Lawmen in jump-out squads didn’t like finding out at the end of their run that the suspected dealer they’d just nailed was holding not crack but Ivory, and so it was not unheard of for vindictive officers to occasionally force dealers to eat their faux coke, a wash-your-mouth-out-with-soap routine. Maybe this time, they’d made Marshall swallow the real thing.

At Marshall’s funeral, held at Maple Springs Baptist Church, mourners who stared at the coffin with the No. 44 jersey draped over it demanded an inquiry into his death. The next day, however, Alex Williams, then the state’s attorney for Prince George’s County, denied a request for an investigation from Marshall’s pastor.

Williams is now a U.S. District Judge in Greenbelt. When contacted last week in his chambers, Judge Williams said he didn’t remember anything about the Rico Marshall case.

Marshall became political fodder for a while. The P.G. County Council, citing his case, began debating whether police should be compelled to tell the schools when a student is arrested. That March, Jesse Jackson made a stop at the University of Maryland during his failed 1988 presidential campaign. Marshall and former Terrapins basketball star Len Bias, who had died a year and a half earlier of a cocaine overdose, were the absentee stars of a rally where Jackson denounced drugs as “the No. 1 threat to our national security.”

At Forestville, the administration, coaching staff, and even the school building are all different from when Marshall was the biggest man on campus. Eric Knight, who up to that point had been the only football coach in the school’s history, became a scapegoat for his player’s death. A month after Marshall’s death, Knight was suspended by the county school board and transferred away from Forestville when it was learned that he hadn’t included information about a 1974 marijuana arrest on his job application with P.G. County. The Forestville principal left the next year.

Marshall’s jersey was retired by Forestville and hung at the school. But during an extensive renovation of the building that began in 1991, the memorabilia and the students were moved to a nearby junior high. The students returned three years later. The jersey never made it back.

But Marshall is not forgotten.

“Funny you should bring Rico up,” Coach Charles Harley, Forestville’s first-year head football coach, tells me when I call. “I was just telling the team about him the other day.”

Harley, who played club football with Marshall as a kid and now also works at a youth recreation center near Nova Avenue, wasn’t talking to the kids about the controversy over the former football star’s death. He just told them about Marshall’s life, how great everything seemed right up to the day he died, and how his behavior contributed to his demise. It’s a story, he says, they still need to hear. “These kids around here grow up around the drug life—they all see it,” he says. “I talk about Rico because that tells them that no matter how rosy life seems, it can turn tragic the very next day.”

According to P.G. County, because no arrest was made the night he died, there are no public records about the encounter with police that led to Marshall’s death. —Dave McKenna