Into FedEx Field on Saturday comes a fifth-year quarterback with a Tolstoy novel of a college career, one so long and rocky and formative that he’s unmistakably a grown-up. He’s married and up to manifold projects in graduate school and still taking snaps for Brigham Young even though he once occupied the 2009 recruiting rankings with such names as Brock Osweiler (252 NFL completions, two franchises, one Super Bowl ring), Derek Carr (756 NFL completions in 1,255 attempts), A.J. McCarron (one important NFL win) and Zach Mettenberger (208 for 345 in his NFL career).
He has had the worst luck and the best resolve.
He’s 26, even though, as he notes, only people outside the program really chatter about that (present company included), and given that most BYU players go on two-year Mormon missions, his age isn’t all that removed from most of his teammates.
“A couple of teammates call me Grandpa,” Taysom Hill said, and that’s about it.
Of course, they also know his own mission factored into his bid to do what people long have longed to do, which is to make college go on forever. After signing with Jim Harbaugh’s Stanford out of high school but before enrolling at BYU because it allowed him to join the football team several months sooner, Hill spent two years in Sydney around “so many different people and so many different cultures,” he said. He also said: “I did not realize Sydney was a melting pot. I did not realize I would be serving a more Polynesian area. I didn’t realize I would be serving areas where there were a lot of people from mainland China.”
He’s a man, including in the weight room at the squat contraption, which his former teammate and wide receiver Mitch Mathews labeled as fine spectacle. “You see him as strong as the linemen on the team,” Mathews said. “It’s just fun to see. Especially for us scrawny receivers.”
At the moment, Hill is quarterbacking an offense that doesn’t move very well, standing 104th in total offense and 119th in scoring offense, and necessitating 21 punts in three games. Come Saturday, BYU (1-2) will find West Virginia (2-0) and try to find itself.
One gets the sense he can shoulder that, too, one way or another.
“My path is different, and, to be honest and frank, I don’t get caught up in that stuff,” Hill said of noticing those NFL guys. “This is the path I chose. I’m happy with where I am. They had a different path, and mine was an extremely unique college career.”
Clarification: Sometimes he chose the path, and sometimes the path chose him.
On Oct. 5, 2012, the freshman Hill was draining the last of the clock in a 6-3 win over Utah State. With 1:02 left, a miscommunication caused him to run up the middle rather than kneel. He banged his knee into a safety’s helmet, and he sprang up, limped a bit, finished up, walked off with everyone, smiled brightly. He also had a season-ending injury to his lateral collateral ligament.
He did play the entire 2013 season, throwing for 2,938 yards, 19 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, and rushing for 1,344 yards and 10 touchdowns.
On Oct. 3, 2014, with 2:26 left until halftime, Hill scrambled right for two yards against Utah State. The very same safety pulled him down with momentum that ended haphazardly upon Hill’s leg. The broken leg ended his season.
On Sept. 5, 2015, with — no, stop it, please, no — 13:13 left in the second quarter, Hill conducted a 21-yard touchdown run at Nebraska, during which one wrong foot plant tore his Lisfranc ligament. While he would do a Hercules and return to the game before leaving again in the fourth quarter, there his season ended and his medical-redshirt application started.
It left everyone in a staggered disbelief.
Mathews caught a Hail Mary pass from Tanner Mangum to win that game 33-28, whereupon Mathews celebrated with his parents and teammates and addressed the media. He was, as he remembers, “so, so, so excited.” Then, as he aimed for the locker room, the thought came: “Oh, my gosh. My guy. What happened?”
When he entered, it became a moving video clip. “I remember seeing him. He wasn’t sobbing. He was sitting there with the hat really low,” Mathews said. “He had this face that I knew what happened to him wasn’t good.”
He reached Hill, and they both cried, and then Mathews, still wearing everything but his helmet, went out in the hallway and cried more. “It was just, ‘No way this guy has to go through this again,’ ” he said.
He and teammate Kurt Henderson went to Hill’s house sometime in the next days. Hill hopped up and hopped over and hugged them. Mathews said Hill is the kind of person who requires no worry in general, though, and who rebounds more quickly than normal, a contention that does come with evidence.
In Hill’s various comebacks, he quickly would “beat everybody at sprints” and “lift more than everybody,” former teammate Remington Peck said. Describing Hill as a “freak athlete,” “extremely humble” and “an incredible leader,” Peck, who played defensive end and then tight end, said Hill’s injuries never sowed even a hint of a doubt that he would reestablish his prowess. “I’ve never had that feeling about a player before,” Peck said, “especially a player that’s had three injuries.”
Hill is such a consummate, compelling athlete that when NFL scouts have talked to Peck about him, Peck said, “They don’t know if he’ll play quarterback in the NFL, but they all know he’ll play in the NFL.”
Said Hill: “For me it was really important that I didn’t sit back and feel bad for myself. I made sure I was proactive, and whatever I was doing, I was progressing in my life, making sure I was still setting myself up for the future, and if I couldn’t do that from a football perspective, I could do that from an academic perspective.”
He said: “I don’t [mope], and I think that was a big reason with my wife, I was able to catch her. I also have a wife who is really motivated and driven, and she wouldn’t let me get away with” moping.
Hill’s wife, Emily, helped him decide to return, to refrain from omitting an available season from his lifetime. He could have transferred after graduating in December. Further, BYU changed coaches, with Bronco Mendenhall leaving for Virginia. But he adores the place (clearly), so now he’s tallying up the credit hours as an analyst and associate at a family trust fund, as a graduate research assistant for two professors in the finance program, and by helping manage a portfolio for a group inside the MBA program called, of course, “Cougar Capital.”
He’s also playing quarterback for a team that so far this season has beaten Arizona, 18-16; lost to Utah, 20-19; and lost to UCLA, 17-14. With Heisman Trophy winner and local hero Ty Detmer as offensive coordinator, and with the widely admired Hill at quarterback, this inert start made Doug Robinson of the Salt Lake City’s Deseret News begin a column with, “Well, this is awkward.” It also made Hill take blame this past week and tell local reporters something a wise man can say with an unusual amount of meaning.
“Everything,” he said, “falls on the quarterback.”