METARIE, La. — A little more than a year ago, Mike Westhoff came out of retirement to coach special teams for the Saints. He didn’t know any of the players on his new team.
Westhoff walked through the locker room and noticed a player coming out of the shower wearing a towel around his waist.
He thought, “He’s big, put together.”
Later, he was with head coach Sean Payton.
“Who the hell is that guy?” he asked.
“He’s a quarterback,” Payton told him.
“A quarterback?” Westhoff said.
“A quarterback,” Payton replied.
“How big is he?”
“He’s 6’2″, 230.”
“How fast is he?”
“He ran a 4.44 40-yard dash at his pro day.”
“Excuse me?” Westhoff said.
Then Payton told Westhoff the story of Taysom Hill.
Playing for Highland High School in 2009, Hill was the All-Idaho Player of the Year. He committed to Stanford, but he then decided to fulfill a two-year Mormon mission to Sydney, Australia. Then he resumed his football life at Brigham Young, where he threw an 18-yard touchdown pass on his first play from scrimmage.
By the time he was a junior, he was a Heisman candidate along with Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston. But that season—like all but one of his five college seasons—ended with an injury. There was a knee injury in 2012, a broken fibula in 2014, a fracture of his foot in 2015 and an elbow strain in 2016.
The Packers liked his potential and brought him to camp as an undrafted free agent in 2017, and he was impressive. They waived him on cut-down day, but they planned on signing him to their practice squad.
As Payton studied wide receiver Max McCaffrey, whom the Packers had waived, he kept noticing the player who was throwing him the football. He saw the last name on his jersey and thought it was veteran Shaun Hill. Then he found out the player was a rookie. He asked around the building to find out why the Saints had not been interested in Hill. He kept watching him, and the more he watched, the more he liked.
The Saints put in a claim and got their man. For most of the 2017 season, Hill served as the team’s third-string quarterback behind Drew Brees and Chase Daniel.
Late in the season, the Saints needed a player to cover kickoff returns. Payton asked Westhoff if he thought Hill could play on special teams. Yeah, Westhoff said, he sure could.
That week, Hill practiced on special teams in what has become the first chapter in one of the NFL’s most fascinating stories.
In his NFL debut, Hill splits a two-man wedge and tackles Panthers kick returner Fozzy Whitaker. He brings down Whitaker again on another return. He also comes close to blocking two punts, including one the punter drops. In the locker room after the game, Payton gives Hill a game ball.
As a sophomore in high school, Hill played wide receiver on varsity because the team had a senior quarterback. He became the quarterback the next year, and he also was the team’s punter and kicker. He moonlit as a cornerback, safety and linebacker. He also lettered in basketball and track, competing in the long jump and the 200 meters.
The Saints play a game similar to horseshoes in their weight room with washers, and Hill dominates. He drives a golf ball 100 yards farther than anyone in the foursome, according to his golfing buddies on the team.
His combination of strength and speed would be outstanding for a running back. It’s unheard of for a quarterback. Saints coaches shake their heads and smile recalling him squatting 625 pounds, which would be impressive for an offensive lineman. His 40-yard dash time was faster than Marcus Mariota’s (4.52), Russell Wilson’s (4.55), Cam Newton’s (4.59), and Tim Tebow’s (4.71). It also was faster than the 40 times of teammates Alvin Kamara (4.56) and Michael Thomas (4.57).