Updated September 19, 2020 - 6:03 pm
Most football fans in Pocatello, Idaho, cheer on Friday nights for either Highland or Pocatello High. They’ll pick a side and pack Idaho State’s Holt Arena for the state’s fiercest annual rivalry game between the two, the Black and Blue Bowl.
But come Sundays — or in this case, Monday night — they abandon their allegiances and cheer for the pride of their town of 56,637: Highland alum turned New Orleans Saints all-purpose weapon Taysom Hill.
“If you’re wearing a Taysom Hill jersey or something like that, people always say ‘What a great kid,’ ” said Warren Whitaker, one of Hill’s assistant football coaches at Highland. “He’s just a hometown hero. Period.”
Hill is the fourth Pocatello native to play in the NFL in the league’s 100-year history and is flourishing with the Saints, one of their most versatile players. The 30-year-old is listed as a quarterback, but has more career carries, catches and tackles than completions.
He doesn’t just play quarterback. He plays football, and he’ll play it again Monday night against the Raiders at Allegiant Stadium.
“For them, he’s kind of a jack of all trades. He can clearly do everything. Throw, run, pass,” Raiders defensive end Maxx Crosby said. “He’s a really good athlete. He does a good job on special teams as well. He’s somebody we’re definitely tuning in on and seeing how they use him. We’re looking forward to the challenge, wherever he lines up.”
A Friday night phenom
The town of Pocatello is tucked near the southeast corner of Idaho, surrounded by farms. It is the home of Idaho State, the 1981 Division I-AA football national champion.
Hill was named after Pocatello’s Taysom Rotary Park — a hub for community recreation — and developed on the town’s football fields, where his high school coaches became privy to his exploits long before he’d don a Highland uniform.
“He was probably in fifth grade, playing and defeating most of the seventh-graders,” Highland coach Gino Mariani said, recalling the way Hill would dominate the school’s youth football camps. “He was way ahead of his team. You could see it in his size and strength.”
Hill’s older brothers, Jordan and Dexter, had excelled at Highland, and Mariani and his staff were eager for his arrival, knowing he was a transformative type of talent who could vault them back into state championship contention.
He was a quarterback by trade, but Mariani installed him at wide receiver during his sophomore season while he backed up a senior signal-caller. He started that year as a wideout, but was quarterbacking the team full time by his junior season.
“He was the best athlete on the field, hands down. And every coach knew it,” Mariani said. “It was like ‘You’ve got to try and stop one guy.’ But good luck.”
Hill dazzled on Friday nights at Highland, excelling at quarterback, kicker, punter and situationally on defense. He made crucial field goals, some as long as 48 yards. He made crucial tackles as a safety or linebacker.
College coaches from around the country congregated in Pocatello to watch and recruit Hill, who guided Highland to a state championship in 2008 by passing for 2,269 yards and 18 touchdowns and rushing for another 1,491 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Originally, he committed to Stanford but opted instead to embark on a two-year mission with the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints before enrolling at Brigham Young in 2012.
Pocatello, Mariani said, “isn’t a hotbed for athletes, and we don’t have college coaches coming into town all the time. But he was the one who got us that look, and since then, we’ve had kids go to Notre Dame and Ohio State and Washington and Boise State. … Taysom showed us the way.”
Finding his footing
At BYU, injuries, it seemed, were the only thing that could stop him.
Hill lost portions of the 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2016 seasons to knee, leg, foot and elbow injuries, but rushed for 1,344 yards in 2013, the lone year in which he played 13 games. He wasn’t drafted in 2017, despite measuring at 6-feet-2½-inches tall and 230 pounds and clocking a 4.44-second 40-yard dash.
Hill signed with the Green Bay Packers as an undrafted free agent but was waived before the 2017 season, allowing coach Sean Payton and New Orleans to stake their claim. Payton, long lauded as one of the NFL’s most creative coaches, has tapped into his versatility over the last three seasons.
Hill had his most productive season in 2019, with 156 rushing yards, 234 receiving yards and seven touchdowns.
In the Saints’ opener, a 34-23 victory over Tampa Bay, Hill was his usual versatile self, rushing three times for 13 yards, catching one pass for 14 yards and completing his only pass for 38 yards. He also played 12 snaps on special teams, six on the punt team, five on the punt return team and one on the kickoff return team.
“We’re trying to find that balance of how much I’m going to be used and how much I’m not going to be used,” Hill told reporters earlier this month. “The coaches have done a nice job of finding ways that we can create challenges for the defense, and I think it really becomes a week-to-week thing.”
Mariani said he always had a sense that Hill could play on Sundays, but seeing him in a Saints jersey continues to be surreal. He’s a Saints fan now, as are many others in Pocatello.
“I can’t help but just be so proud of him and what he’s doing,” Whitaker said. “It doesn’t happen very often from around here, and here we have this kid. So it’s very, very exciting.”