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.
December 3, 2017
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).
But Hill never had done anything like covering a kick in the NFL. The week before the game, Saints secondary coach Aaron Glenn told Hill he wanted to take him through some tackling drills. Hill told his fellow quarterbacks what he needed to do that day.
"He never should have told us," Brees says.
When the time came to try to take down a large tackle wheel with perfect form, Brees, Daniel and quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi made sure to be in the front row, where they could critique Hill savagely.
"I'm out there doing these tackling drills wearing a red jersey," Hill said. "There were some laughs going around."
Whitaker wasn't laughing on Sunday, however.
Hill's role on special teams grew. Westhoff put him on the kickoff return team and assigned him the toughest blocks. Kamara probably would not have had his 106-yard kickoff return against the Bucs if not for a block by Hill. He was made the personal protector on the punt team, lining up three yards behind the line to make sure the rush doesn't disrupt the punt. He became a kick returner. He was put on the field-goal block team. And on the punt return team, he was asked to rush the punter—Westhoff says he is one of the best in the league at doing so. Hill also is the backup holder and the backup long snapper.
Now, Payton and Westoff believe Hill should make the Pro Bowl as a special teams player.
Oct. 21, 2018
In a 24-23 Saints victory over the Ravens, Hill plays every skill position offensively—three receiver spots, two tight end positions, halfback and quarterback, as well as having a full plate on special teams. He ran the ball six times for 35 yards, including once on a fake punt in which he takes a direct snap from his personal protector position and rushes for a first down. Among his responsibilities are blocking pass-rusher Terrell Suggs and Ravens defensive ends on some plays.
On Payton's desk is a yellow legal pad with page after page of offensive plays he has drawn up for this week's opponent. This season, Payton began designing plays for Hill on that pad. If Hill had the versatility to cover kicks, Payton thought, he should have the versatility to contribute on offense.
"Man," Payton says, "he's fun to coach."
When Hill enters the game as an "F," or receiving tight end, it's part of a personnel package called BYU. If he comes in the game as a quarterback, the personnel package is called Cougar.
Defenses have no idea how to play Hill. He can start at one position and motion to another. Safety up, or safety back? Some have tried to play nickel when he's in the game. Others have remained in base. Hill almost always creates some kind of defensive concession.
"For him to do the things he does, I can't think of anybody who has ever done it to that degree," Brees says.
Teammates call him Jim Thorpe after the Hall of Famer who played multiple positions in the 1920s. And it is as if Hill came to the Saints from a previous time, when square-jawed sports stars were more legends than athletes.
But there is so much that goes on that enables Hill to do what he does. Here is his typical practice day:
6:30 a.m.: Studies the game plan with Brees and the other quarterbacks.
9 a.m.: Team meeting.
9:35 a.m.: Special teams meeting.
9:50 a.m.: Catches up with what he's missed in the 9:35 quarterback meeting.
Noon: Special teams walkthrough while the quarterbacks practice QB-center exchanges.
12:15 p.m.: Offensive walkthrough.
12:30 p.m.: Practice. He participates in quarterback drills, throws to unguarded receivers and then takes reps at various offensive positions during team periods. He also often is the scout team quarterback when the Saints starting defense is on the field. He leaves the quarterbacks during special teams periods, missing the review of the game plan and the preview of the next period.
2:30 p.m.: Lifting, then lunch.
3:45 p.m.: Special teams meeting.
4 p.m.: Offensive meeting in which practice is reviewed.
4:45-7:30 p.m.: He and Brees review the plays that were installed for quarterbacks, and then Hill goes over his non-quarterback plays that were installed.
The temptation is to do too much with Hill. Payton is aware of the possibility of overtaxing him physically or mentally. He would like to limit him to about 15 offensive snaps per game.
But Payton assuredly has more up his sleeve with Hill. "I hope there will be more coming," Hill says.
After Hill broke his fibula in 2014, Jim Harbaugh called. Harbaugh had recruited him to Stanford and stayed in touch. Harbaugh told him about when he broke his arm as Michigan's quarterback in 1984 and had to sit out the rest of the season.
"You and I are so similar," Harbaugh told him, according to Hill. "What I found is I needed to find something else to compete at, because I couldn't do it on the football field. Go compete in life, go compete in the classroom."
Hill took his advice and committed himself to the finance curriculum at BYU. He subsequently became one of the top students in the rigorous program. What he accomplished gave him great satisfaction, even though he missed football.
There's a parallel between then and now. With the Saints, Hill can't do what he wants to do—be a starting quarterback. But he still can compete at something and throw himself into a multipurpose role.
"If you can provide value somewhere and have a coach who believes in you and creates opportunities for you, it's so important to continue to try to excel," he says.
That meant learning to block as if he were in Pop Warner. Early this season, tight ends coach Dan Campbell pulled him aside and explained the fundamentals—leverage, keeping his pad level down and leading with the same shoulder and foot.
He regularly works with five assistant coaches—Campbell, Westhoff, Lombardi, offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael and running backs coach Joel Thomas—on an almost daily basis, and he also interacts with other assistants sporadically.
At the BYU pro day after Hill's senior year, a scout from the Patriots approached him. "We really like you as a quarterback," the scout told him. "But what if I told you we want to bring you to camp, and that might involve playing some running back or doing some other things—how would you respond to that?"
"I'll do whatever it takes," Hill said.
Oct. 28, 2018
Hill lines up at quarterback in shotgun, takes a short drop and launches a deep pass over the middle to Michael Thomas, who has run by Vikings safety Harrison Smith. Thomas slows down and makes the catch for a 44-yard completion in a 30-20 Saints victory.
Ask Hill what he is, and he laughs. He always answers the same: "A quarterback."
In a preseason game against the Cardinals, Hill, playing quarterback for the first half, threw two interceptions and fumbled three times, leading many to believe he was incapable of being an NFL quarterback. Twelve days later, the Saints traded a third-round pick to the Jets for Teddy Bridgewater.
But Payton's belief in Hill as a quarterback was never shaken.
"I think he's going to be a great NFL quarterback," Payton says. "I'm excited about his prospects as a quarterback. He's strong, he can run, he's accurate. He's got a quick throwing motion. He's got a real good stroke. I think there are traits of Steve Young. People forget it took a while for Young to move and get into a system and then all of a sudden play at a high level."
Hill, 28, may succeed Brees just like Young succeeded Joe Montana. In the meantime, Hill is learning everything he can from the NFL's all-time passing leader.
He has adopted Brees' routine. He gets to work when Brees gets to work and leaves when Brees leaves. He follows Brees' in-season workout regimen.
"He's been so welcoming," Hill says. "That's the unique thing about Drew. He's really opened up his routine to me and given me an opportunity to get to know him. I jumped all over it."
They even spend their off days together. On one recent Tuesday, they had breakfast, watched a few games of their next opponent, took a hot tub, sauna, steam and cold tub, and then watched another game.
"What he's doing is like going to grad school sitting next to Albert Einstein," Westhoff says.
Nov. 4, 2018
On a 4th-and-1 in the first quarter, Hill takes a pitch from Brees on a reverse. The play calls for him to throw it back to Brees, but Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald grabs Brees, disrupting the play. Hill subsequently takes off for a nine-yard gain, including about four yards after plowing into Rams safety Lamarcus Joyner. The sideline erupts with teammates who are bouncing and laughing. When Hill jogs back, linebacker Craig Robertson leads a contingent of players and coaches who greet him with high-fives, hugs and pats on the helmet or shoulder pads.
Hill provides a value to the Saints beyond his catches, yards, passes, blocks and tackles. When he makes a play, it sends a current through his team.
"It gets me hyped," Saints linebacker Alex Anzalone says. "It gets me excited. Last year when he started covering kicks, that was probably the coolest thing. This year, returning kickoffs starting in the Cleveland game, now that was cool."
It's one thing if Kamara runs wild. It's something different if Hill does it.
"There is this energy around him," Payton says. "It's a little like Ferris Bueller. His teammates feel it, they really do. The other players around him are better because of him, because of his effort, because of his smile, because of his attitude."
Like no other player in the league, Hill belongs to every position group on his team. Speaking for the linebackers, Anzalone says, "He's one of us. "
A quarterback doing linebacker things or tight end things is revered like few players could be. "A quarterback who is willing to go out on a kickoff or cover a kickoff?" Saints linebacker Vince Biegel says. "That's the type of guy you want on your team."
Hill doesn't just fill multiple roles—he fills them with fervor. He covers kickoffs like his career depends on getting to the returner first. He hits so they remember his number. He finishes his runs as though he thinks he's Earl Campbell.
"I love it," Payton says of the way Hill lowers his shoulder into a tackler.
For Hill, finishing runs is not done without thought, however.
"When I had those injuries in college, I had all of these conversations with coaches about protecting myself," he says. "It was a constant internal struggle for me. ... Being the full-time quarterback, there is a big responsibility to stay healthy for your team. I feel like my role has been different now. Here, my responsibility is to add a spark, add value where I can. I think I'm able to do that by being aggressive and fighting for every yard I can get."
He doesn't do this because of what he could be in one of his tomorrows. He does this because of who he is today.
Hill resonates because he sacrifices. He sacrifices his body. He sacrifices his free time like few players. And he sacrifices personal ambition.
"The ultimate compliment you can pay to a teammate is he'll do whatever he's asked to do to help the team win," Brees says. "Taysom was a highly successful college quarterback. He's a great athlete, leader and competitor. So to come in and have great dreams and aspirations of playing quarterback, and then all of a sudden you have this unique skill set to where we want you to go down and return a kickoff.
"As a quarterback, he is trying to master this 1,000-play playbook and master the position, now you want him to run down on kickoffs. And you want him to be [the] personal protector on [the] punt [team]. And you want him to return kickoffs. Then you want him to go in and run-block, block defensive ends, block strong safeties, crack linebackers, run out for passes, get in the backfield. That's unbelievable."
That's why the sideline erupts when Hill makes a play.
Hill thinks it's pretty cool, too.
"It's been a blast," he says. "My mindset is I'm a quarterback. But I love being on the field. I love competing. So this is the next best thing."