Maurice Vaughn raised his fist and told his players to take a knee. The Dunbar High football team had just finished one of its final practices before Thursday’s Turkey Bowl, but the Crimson Tide’s coach wanted to remind his players what they were playing for.

“This is one of the biggest games you will ever play,” Vaughn shouted. “We got a why. We’re playing for our brother. We have an extra player that is going to be with us.”

His young players nodded. Somewhere back in the locker room, the team’s No. 26 jersey was tucked away in a case, ready to travel to the annual city championship game at Eastern High in a few days. The uniform belonged to Ahkii Washington-Scruggs, a 17-year-old rising senior linebacker who sometimes talked to his teammates about playing in the historic game, which is now in its 50th year.

He never got the chance. Ahkii and his father, 57-year-old Hugh Washington, were shot dead in a Northeast Washington neighborhood July 19.

Their murders are part of a spike in D.C. homicides, up 6 percent since 2018 and 45 percent since 2014, according to city police, but what has made Ahkii’s death even more difficult to grasp for family and teammates is that the murder is among 79 homicides that remain unsolved this year — more than half of all murders.

In the painful absence of closure, Vaughn and his players decided the best way to carry on with their season was to make their slain teammate a part of everything they do, during a season in which they have made a surprise run to the city title game.

They write his name on tape and hashtag his initials in social media posts. They bring his uniform to every game and carry it to midfield because he is a captain. They speak his name in speeches and in simple conversation, never afraid that it might remind them about the mystery surrounding his death.

“Football, even with me, has been keeping us from where we can’t get sad right now, where we can’t think about it … being unsolved,” Vaughn said. “We’re going to do this for Ahkii.”

They did the same on Senior Night, when Ahkii was introduced before the game. His family was presented with a framed uniform. His brother, 35-year-old Asa Simms, wore another No. 26 jersey onto the field as his little brother’s name was announced. It was a reprieve from the past four months, which have brought few answers for the family. D.C. police have offered up to $50,000 in reward money for information about the case.

“It’s something I have to wake up and face every day,” Simms said. “It’s very painful to not have a murder solved and to not really know what happened or have any answer to why it happened. Not having that closure, it’s a very difficult thing.”

Vaughn was in Cancun, Mexico, on vacation when he was informed of the murders in July. That week had seen a spate of shooting deaths in the District. Just the day before Ahkii’s murder, 11-year-old Karon Brown — who had played in the local Woodland Tigers youth football league — had been shot and killed, and the two shootings cast a cloud over the city’s football scene.

Vaughn raced back and called an emergency team meeting. He could lead in this situation better than most football coaches. His brother had been a victim of gun violence, murdered in a dispute in 1996 close to where Vaughn grew up on Ninth and T streets NW.

The coach could see many of the kids were shaken, even though most of them kept a hard exterior and chose not to speak with the counselors the school had offered in the wake of the shooting. Vaughn chalked it up to a negative stigma surrounding mental health, but he also immediately could tell that players found comfort in telling stories about Ahkii among themselves.

A few remembered the last time they spoke with Ahkii. For sophomore wide receiver Delonte Vaughn, it was in the weight room during offseason workouts, a few weeks before his death. Ahkii had helped Delonte through the death of his grandmother this year, consoling him during a first-period chemistry class, so it wasn’t surprising that he offered up an extra pair of shoes to Delonte when he forgot his. They laughed and hung out together one last time that afternoon.

“It was more of a brotherhood,” Delonte Vaughn said. “I was always able to come tell Ahkii something, where I was going through this or something was wrong with me. He was always there to understand and make me feel better. He was always just there to brighten the day up. He brought a lot of joy with him.”

There were times this season, especially during road trips to away games on the bus, that Delonte Vaughn would hear his teammates joking around in the back and he would think of Ahkii. The trips would take them through the city that Ahkii had written about in a poem before his death.

I’m from a city full of hate

In D.C., it’s nothing but people trying to take your life away

I’m from a city where it’s a blessing

To see the age 20

Where I’m from you get killed over stupid stuff

such as clothes and shoes

Every day I hear out of town people say D.C. is so great

But in my head, I just say D.C. is full of hate

When Maurice Vaughn arrived at Dunbar in 2017, he took over a high school team that had a rich tradition but was coming off a difficult few seasons. Dunbar hadn’t played in the Turkey Bowl since 2012, and it was struggling to keep its participation numbers up. Vaughn had fewer than 20 players at his first meeting. Ahkii was one of them.

After it was over, he pulled Vaughn to the side and asked whether he was going to have a junior varsity team. “I said, ‘Junior varsity?” Vaughn recalled. “'You’re going to play varsity.'”

Ahkii was part of the foundation on which Vaughn rebuilt the team. Dunbar went 2-8 his first year and 4-5 during his second season in 2018. Ahkii was blossoming into a hard-nosed defender, part of a talented group of players who had set their sights on the Turkey Bowl this season. Maurice Vaughn is convinced that they reached the city title game because his young team played with so much purpose following Akhii’s death.

“A lot of these young men, they didn’t really know their why. They didn’t have anything to put out in front of them, something tangible, to say this is what we’re playing for,” Vaughn said. “The kids really felt the season would be for Ahkii. I didn’t really know how these young men were going to carry through it.”

There were difficult moments. The team forgot Ahkii’s uniform during a road game at Theodore Roosevelt, and after a string of bad plays in the second half, the players were convinced that it was an omen. “It’s because we forgot Ahk’s jersey!” Vaughn remembered one of his players yelling, and while they won the game, they wouldn’t forget it again.

Other times, players mix happy memories of their teammate with difficult ones surrounding his death. When some of his friends were hesitant to jump out of doorways and scare students at school on Halloween, junior defensive back Marquis Raspberry yelled, “Ahk would’ve done it!” So they did.

Those kinds of moments make his unsolved murder more difficult to accept.

“We supposed to be able to trust that somebody is going to help us out,” Raspberry said. “We can’t do nothing about it. So we’re expecting people that can do something to do something. We don’t have no type of power in this situation.”

The only power the team will have Thursday will be honoring Ahkii on its way to the Turkey Bowl against H.D. Woodson. The players will all wear khakis and ties and carry his uniform onto the field after they gear up. Maurice Vaughn probably will remind them of who they are playing for, although he won’t have to. Ahkii’s brother will be among those in the stands who will pay tribute to his brother and to the team.

“It’s a very difficult time for all of us,” Simms said, “but for them to rally and come together and have such a great season, it’s truly a remarkable thing.”