METAIRIE, La. -- Somehow it got lost in the sea of scrutiny and second-guessing. But Taysom Hill's debut as New Orleans Saints quarterback last week should really be appreciated as one of this season's great feel-good stories.
Hill overcame a tremendous amount of adversity to make his first NFL start at the age of 30 -- and to win that game 24-9 over the Atlanta Falcons while completing 18 of 23 passes for 233 yards and running for 49 yards and two touchdowns.
"He deserves this," Saints coach Sean Payton said while explaining why he started Hill ahead of Jameis Winston.
Teammates such as Drew Brees and Alvin Kamara said the same thing. Guys who had seen Hill's development behind the scenes over the past four years -- along with Hill's willingness to do all of those extra things like running down on special-teams kick coverage, blocking for running backs and catching touchdown passes while he patiently waited his turn.
"Patience and perseverance is exactly right. The ultimate team player," Brees told ESPN. "Think about all the roles he has played for us over the last few years to help us win. A real testament to his commitment and willingness to sacrifice for the team [in addition to] his work ethic and desire to constantly improve.
"A lot of mental toughness and fortitude."
Hill's college career started late after a two-year church mission to Australia. Then he suffered four season-ending injuries during a five-year career at BYU that generated some Heisman Trophy buzz at one point. One of those injuries was a Lisfranc fracture in his foot in the 2015 season opener, which required extensive rehab into the next year.
Hill also endured the tragic loss of his older brother, Dexter, to an opiate addiction in 2016 -- the reason he switched to his brother's old college jersey number and still wears No. 7 today.
Hill went undrafted in 2017 and got released by the Green Bay Packers before the Saints claimed him off waivers.
Then he spent the past four years showing a willingness to do whatever the team asked in his QB/RB/WR/TE/FB/special teams role -- even though it led to him being dismissed as a "gadget player" by skeptics who couldn't believe Payton kept touting him as Brees' potential successor.
It feels like a Hollywood script that should have Mark Wahlberg attached.
Hill acknowledged he was emotional as he and his wife, Emily, reflected on everything it took to get here.
We can't control what life brings, we can only control how we respond to it. My journey to the NFL has had the highs, the lows and everything in between- and I'm grateful for all of it! #GiveThanks— Taysom Hill (@T_Hill4) November 22, 2020
Full video: https://t.co/FMlFI0eYYp pic.twitter.com/2QCRJ6NcoZ
"I wouldn't say that there's one event that sticks out more than another. But my wife and I dealt with a lot of disappointment through college -- where pretty much every one of my offseasons but one was spent rehabbing from an injury," Hill said. "So when you work hard to mentally, emotionally overcome that and step into another season just to have another disappointment, I would say it was the combination of every year of those five years at BYU which was what really caused us to reflect.
"You know, a lot of people don't see behind the scenes of that process. But what my wife went through with me and taking care of me, it's been really rewarding to go through that experience with her. And again, it was a great time for her and I to reflect on all those experiences."
Hill said he somehow managed to leave "my phone alone Sunday night" while spending time with his wife, their newborn son, his parents and other family members who had made the trip to New Orleans for the game.
"As you can imagine, I didn't have a ton of time to spend with them last week," Hill said.
One of Hill's many supporters who enjoyed watching his victory from afar was Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall -- who coached Hill during his first four seasons at BYU, which included a knee injury as a freshman, a broken leg and torn ligaments in his ankle as a junior and the Lisfranc fracture.
"Man, he went through such a challenge of back-to-back injuries. Those were hard days," Mendenhall said. "And he has an amazing wife and an amazing family, and their first child just came. And there's just nothing that he can't do. And I look back at those times of those injuries, and there was still this sense of optimism and hope where he had that this is still gonna have a great finish. And that's exactly what's happening -- because of him, because of his family, because of how he was raised and because of who he is."
Mendenhall's BYU staff coined the term "Thor-terback" while the fast and physical Hill first developed his reputation as a dual-threat marvel, finishing his career with 6,929 passing yards, 43 TD passes, 2,815 rushing yards and 32 rushing TDs despite all the setbacks.
The 6-foot-2 221-pounder was so strong back then coaches had to instruct him not to squat more than 700 pounds. He reportedly ran the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds at BYU's pro day.
"There's nothing that Taysom Hill will do on the field that will surprise me. He can lead, in my opinion, any team to a championship at any level," Mendenhall said. "He's capable in every possible way. He can run, he can throw, he's poised, he's a great decision-maker, he's a great person. He's a great influence in the locker room, he's unselfish, he's willing to do anything that he's asked to do, he's an amazing teammate.
"There's nothing in a victory in his first start with the Saints that's surprising. It's just like, certainly. Of course they won. Because Taysom was the quarterback."
Of course Hill's debut wasn't perfect. His best result came on an ugly 44-yard completion to receiver Emmanuel Sanders that wobbled in the air for an eternity after Hill appeared to be hit in the leg as he threw it. Sanders had to come back and field it like a punt.
And Payton was able to laugh after the fact about a couple of the motions and alignments Hill got wrong -- including one of the first plays of the game.
But Hill's day could have been even better if a beautiful 57-yard TD pass to Sanders later in the game hadn't been nullified by a holding penalty. And the biggest surprise to outsiders who viewed Hill as a "gadget player" was the fact he spent most of the day looking like a true pocket passer, with barely any designed runs or rollouts.
"Here's what no one else is privy to," Payton said. "And it's hard because what the fans and other people are privy to is the special-teams snaps, the Wildcat snaps, the tight end, receiver snaps. But they don't get to see the same snaps that we might see throughout the course of a year that take place."
Before Sunday's game, Hill had attempted only 20 passes in the NFL, including the playoffs, completing 11 of them for a total of 255 yards with no touchdowns and one interception. He had run the ball a lot more since he mostly entered games in a change-of-pace read-option package, with 105 carries for 596 yards and four TDs.
Nevertheless, the Saints proved how serious they were about Hill's potential by signing him to a two-year, $21 million extension as a restricted free agent this past offseason. And he is now very much in the competition to replace Brees on a full-time basis if the 41-year-old winds up retiring after this season.
"He has such a unique skill set," said Brees, who has to miss a minimum of three games after being placed on injured reserve with broken ribs and a punctured lung. "Playing quarterback in this league is tough. You only get better with reps and experience, which have been limited for him because of his role doing other things."
Another well-known coach who always showed faith in Hill was current Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh -- who originally recruited Hill to Stanford after he was named the Idaho Gatorade Player of the Year for 2008.
Harbaugh stayed in touch with Hill and reached out while he was recovering from the foot injury, saying when he went through a similar experience he decided to take his competitive nature to the classroom and get his best grades yet.
That stuck with Hill, who has maintained that mentality with whatever opportunity arises.
"There are a lot of really great players that just didn't get opportunities in the NFL. And these opportunities are few and far between," Hill said. "So my mindset is to do everything I can to take advantage of every single opportunity. Each game is a big game for me."