He’s worked really hard and he’s got himself to a place where he’s able to be the old Max that we remember. We’ve been standing by him throughout this process and we’ll continue to do so. – Dennis Pitta, on Max Hall
On a bright, crisp morning last spring, Max Hall stood on the field at LaVell Edwards Stadium during Alumni Day, smiling and reconnecting with former BYU players.
Upon seeing Hall, new head coach Kalani Sitake embraced him warmly. “You’re always welcome here,” Sitake told him.
Hall had returned to the place where he had become the winningest quarterback in school history. He returned a much different person than he was when he finished his collegiate career in 2009.
While Hall was bathed in sunlight that day, he is intimately acquainted with being shrouded in darkness.
Nearly two years ago, his world came crashing down after his arrest for shoplifting and drug possession — he happened to be wearing a BYU T-shirt in the infamous mug shot — in Arizona. That event revealed to the world his addiction to painkillers.
At that point in his life, “I just wanted to keel over and bury myself and never come out,” he says. “I got knocked down pretty hard. That was the hardest thing to get up from. I thought about just staying down and not getting back up.”
Despite his battle with substance abuse and a series of bad choices, for which he takes full responsibility, Hall is standing upright again.
That’s thanks in large part to the support of his family and many others — including a high school that was willing to give him another chance at coaching. For the past year, he’s been the offensive coordinator at American Leadership Academy in Queen Creek, Arizona. Hall plans to attend BYU’s season-opener in nearby Glendale against Arizona on Sept. 3.
“He’s worked really hard and he’s got himself to a place where he’s able to be the old Max that we remember,” said his former BYU teammate, and brother-in-law, Dennis Pitta. “We’ve been standing by him throughout this process and we’ll continue to do so.”
Over the past two years, Hall has dealt with legal issues related to his arrest, he’s completed a year-long diversion program and he’s repairing relationships. He has a misdemeanor shoplifting charge on his record, but the felony drug possession charge was expunged when he graduated from the diversion program.
These days, Hall isn’t hiding from his past. He eagerly seeks out opportunities to share his story — a candid, unvarnished version — in hopes of encouraging others. His is a story of a tragic fall and ongoing redemption, with chapters still being written. It’s a daily battle that he knows he must win.
“I’m making sure I do things the right way and I know that things will continue to get better in my life,” Hall says. “It’s going to make me a stronger person.”
Max Hall figures that his first addiction was to football.
When he was a star quarterback at BYU from 2007-2009, Hall was known for his ultra-competitive personality.
“I was in the film room all of the time. I was calling up guys to throw routes,” he recalls. “When I was at home I was watching film. I was obsessed with the game. It made me a great football player.”
By the time his college career was over, Hall had earned 32 victories as a three-year starter.
Not only was Hall a fiery competitor, but he was also known for his unflappable toughness. He never missed a game though he suffered numerous injuries.
In 2007, when the Cougars hosted arch-rival Utah, Hall played with a serious shoulder injury that he suffered the previous week at Wyoming.
“I had no ligament holding my collarbone down,” Hall recalls. “(Medical personnel) just strapped some tape on top of it to hold it down so my collarbone wasn’t sticking up through my skin.”
Publicly, coaches and players downplayed the injury going into the game, calling it “a shoulder sprain.”
With a little more than one minute left, BYU trailed 10-9 and faced a fourth down and 18 from its own 12-yard line. Hall, then a sophomore, rolled out and completed a 49-yard pass to Austin Collie, giving the Cougars a fresh set of downs and setting up the game-winning touchdown with 38 seconds remaining. It’s one of those magical, iconic plays in BYU football lore.
“On that play, that was everything I had to throw that thing 40 yards,” Hall says. “My resiliency and toughness paid off. I played through other injuries. I just loved it. I was willing to sacrifice my body to play. People who are very driven and get totally committed to something like I was with football, you could say I was addicted to football. Was I tough player? Did I play through pain and all of that? Yeah. But I wasn’t very tough handling emotions off the field.”
Hall went on to play in the National Football League and that’s where, he says, another addiction — painkillers — started taking over his life.
In the spring of 2010, the Arizona Cardinals, Hall’s hometown team, signed him to a contract. As a rookie, he started against the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints. Hall had suffered a concussion but he lied to doctors during his concussion protocol because he didn’t want to lose his job.
“That first year with the Cardinals, I suffered three really bad concussions,” Hall says. “Two of them knocked me out cold. I still played. I shouldn’t have. I was on the field and I’d get to the line of scrimmage to start my cadence and I’d forget the play. They finally yank me. I’m upset. They put me back in, I dislocate my shoulder. I’m depressed, I think my NFL career could be over. I’m hurt and I’m in pain and I’ve got a whole bottle of pain pills. It’s no excuse, but I think, ‘Hey, when I take that, I feel better.’ Next thing I know, three days later, it’s all gone. I’m calling people to find more. It got worse and worse.”
Hall ended up playing six games, starting three, for the Cardinals before being waived in August 2011. Suddenly, his NFL career was done.
“Handling football being over, I wasn’t good at that,” Hall says.
In 2012, Hall rejoined BYU as a student assistant coach that season, where he found solace from the disappointment. “I was coaching at BYU and I was doing really well,” he says. “I was clean.”
The following year he signed with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League. There, “I fell back into (an addiction to pain pills) a little bit,” he says. He returned home to Arizona, where he was hired as the offensive coordinator at Gilbert High School.
“It was one of those things where I had friends in high school that struggled with addiction. I would always think, ‘That would never happen to me,’” Hall says. “But now I understand more about addiction and the type of personality of people who tend to be more prone to addiction — that’s totally my personality.”
Then came the lowest point, Aug. 30, 2014, when he was arrested at a Best Buy store in Gilbert.
“That was the worst day of my life,” Hall says.
Officers found $286 of stolen electronics, such as cellphone cases, cellphone chargers, and a small quantity of cocaine in Hall's possession, according to the police report.
“I didn’t know what I was doing. I had taken way too much pills and cocaine,” Hall recalls. “I was wondering around the store, opening stuff out of packages. I wasn’t there trying to steal anything, I was just acting like an idiot. They arrested me. Now it’s public. Now everybody knows that I was a drug addict. Everybody knows my little secret. That was hard.”
Soon thereafter, he was fired from his coaching job at Gilbert High.
“Looking back at it, I choose to see it as a blessing. If all that hadn’t happened to me, I don’t know if I would have gotten help,” Hall says. “Maybe I would have kept doing it. Maybe I would have lost more. Maybe I would have lost my family. It definitely was a slap in the face from God saying, ‘Hey, you’ve got a chance right now to fix this or you don’t.’”
‘Brothers’ reach out
Amid the nightmare that was unfolding in Hall’s life, hope penetrated the hopelessness in the form of text messages and phone calls.
Among those who were the first to reach out to him were his former offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at BYU, Brandon Doman, and BYU associate athletic director Chad Lewis, a former Cougar tight end.
Lewis left an impassioned message on Hall’s phone.
“I wanted to let him know that I care about him and I love him and I’m his friend and that I wanted to help him right now,” Lewis remembers. “He’s the winningest football player to ever play at BYU. He’s an important part of the fabric of BYU football, as a quarterback, player and competitor. He’s part of the 'Band of Brothers' that I believe BYU stands for. It’s real challenging when you see a friend in a real bad spot like that, knowing there’s no easy solution or a quick fix. Brandon and I wanted to help him rise up and instead of languishing and feeling empty and friendless. We both felt it was so critical to surround him with all of our hopes and faith, and that he could do it for himself and for his family and get him the help that he needed.”
Messages from Lewis and others helped Hall realize he could come back from this major setback.
“It meant the world to me,” Hall says. “When a guy like Chad Lewis reaches out to you and says, ‘Hey, it’s going to be fine. Let’s get you some help. Let’s do this. I support you.’ At the time, you think nobody is going to want anything to do with you anymore. You think you’ve ruined everything. Then you get some phone calls and you realize that’s not the case. There’s still people who love you and want to help you. They helped me get back on my feet.”
Pitta, Hall’s brother-in-law, former teammate and current Baltimore Ravens tight end, stood by his side as well.
“We all love Max. We know the struggle those things can bring into someone’s life,” Pitta says. “It happens to a lot of people. Unfortunately, his became a little more public than most that have those issues. Once people got news of that, especially the BYU community, they’ve been incredibly supportive.”
Their wives, the sisters Hall and Pitta married while at BYU, recently went into business together, opening a Pilates studio in Mesa called Power Core Plus. They teach classes that help clients improve their physical fitness.
Another former teammate that helped Hall was Harvey Unga, who experienced his own turmoil when he was forced to leave school prior to the 2010 season due to an Honor Code violation. Unga, the school's all-time leading rusher, knows what it’s like to have personal issues make headlines.
It can be even tougher for players at BYU, where standards are so high, Unga said.
“This can be a very judgmental place. It puts a lot of pressure on people," he explains. "It puts them in an awkward situation when a lot of people look up to you who are fans, friends, family. You feel a little embarrassed, lost, and ashamed. You feel like an outsider. You feel like you’ve let a lot of people down.”
Unga could relate somewhat to what Hall was going through.
As it turned out, Unga said, people were kinder to him than he had expected and he received an outpouring of positive messages from friends, family and fans. The same thing happened to Hall. And the support and love wasn’t limited to the BYU community. It came from all over Utah, including from Ute fans.
“The support has been overwhelming. I didn’t feel judged by people who were close to me,” Hall says. “Even people I don’t know come up to me all the time and say, ‘We love you, we support you, we’re with you.’ Those little things mean a lot. At the time, you feel like everybody’s done with you and nobody wants anything to do with you anymore. I felt like a hypocrite, playing at BYU and then that happening to me. It’s been cool to see people reach out.”
A fresh start in coaching
Rich Edwards believes in second chances.
He had followed Hall’s career when Hall was quarterback at Mountain View High in Mesa (Edwards had also played quarterback there) and his career at BYU.
When Edwards’ son came home from some quarterback training and told him his instructor was Hall, Edwards was curious. At the time, Edwards hadn't met Hall.
Edwards is the head coach at American Leadership Academy, a public chartered school in Queen Creek, Arizona. He introduced himself to Hall and watched how he interacted with kids at his quarterback trainings. Edwards believed a relationship between the school and Hall might be mutually beneficial.
“We needed someone to take us to the next step offensively. I was looking for someone to help us,” Edwards says. “Max and I talked about his life. I felt comfortable that he had a desire to do what was right. I felt the environment at our school could help Max.”
Edwards floated the idea of Hall becoming the team’s offensive coordinator to the president of the board, who told Edwards to hold off. Months passed. Edwards broached the subject again and the board members agreed to meet with Hall.
When Edwards asked Hall if he would be interested in joining the school’s coaching staff, “it surprised me at first,” Hall said. It was another humbling reminder to him about how much people are willing to forgive and forget.
The five-member board met with Hall, who was candid about his struggles and the steps he was taking to overcome them. After he left the room, the board talked for two hours about the pros and cons of hiring Hall.
“It wasn’t a football decision. If we could help Max as much as he could help us, or more, then that was the goal,” Edwards said. “They felt Max was sincere and honest in what he was trying to do. We felt it was the right thing to do for Max.”
Hall was hired in July 2015.
“He’s done a great job,” Edwards said. “The young men love him. He’s at a point where he can make a difference and he’s done that. He’s elevated our offense and he’s helped our young men be better. He talks to them about decision-making, accountability and choices. I don’t want to paint Max as an angel, but he’s never been a problem.”
This return to football has helped Hall find himself again.
“The hardest thing when you’re recovering from addiction is finding something else that you’re passionate about,” Hall says. “Everything I did before, I had to be high to make it better. It makes a bad time good and a good time even better. Getting used to doing little things without having a buzz is really hard at first. That’s why a lot of people are depressed and have a hard time staying sober. It put me in a situation where I was surrounded by good people. I was doing something that I love, being a part of football. And it’s a job that’s not really stressful to me. That’s what you have to do, you have to do something that you love and that you’re passionate about. It replaces that feel that addiction has.”
Spreading his message
As he recovers, Hall is spending time sharing his story with youth groups, players he currently coaches and reporters — whoever will listen.
“Even though what I went through was embarrassing, I can use it in a positive way to help and bless the lives of others,” Hall says. “Everybody knows what happened. If I’m going to talk to kids or somebody, I’m going to be honest. This happened to me. I got addicted to this stuff, which led to other stuff, and I couldn’t shake it. This is my story, this is how I did it. I went through rough times, but it doesn’t mean I couldn’t bounce back. That message could be inspirational. As I’ve tried to figure out how to portray that message, I’m getting better at it. I’ve had kids, and parents, tell me how much it meant to them, and that meant a lot to me.”
As much as Hall likes speaking to groups, it’s talking to individuals who are struggling with substance abuse issues that he enjoys most.
“If you’re an alcoholic or an addict and you’re trying to talk to somebody who’s not, I don’t feel like you’re going to understand what I’m saying,” he says. “It’s not just speaking to people. I want to do all that, but it’s actually going in and helping guys. There have been guys who have done that to me — calling me every day and helping me through the issues. It makes a difference in people’s lives. In my opinion, I can change lives doing that more than I could being the BYU quarterback and signing autographs once in a while. But I can really make a difference and help people.”
One day at a time
For Max Hall, progress is measured by each day he stays clean.
“When you struggle with the things that he’d struggled with, it’s not just a one-and-done issue,” Pitta says. “It’s something that he’ll battle throughout his life.”
Hall is placing his family — wife Mckinzi, a 6-year-old son, Rex, and a 5-year-old daughter, Hayden — ahead of everything else, including football.
“My wife and I, right now, we’re doing great. When I got out of rehab, things were rough,” Hall says. “We had a lot of issues we had to work through. But I would say the last three or four months, things have gotten a lot better for us. We’re happy. She’s happy doing her thing at the Pilates gym. I’m at a good place right now.”
During the three months Hall spent in the diversion program, the Halls told their young children that “dad was living up in the mountains,” Hall says. “They didn’t know what was really going on. But as little kids, they can sense something was wrong.”
One day, he knows, he will need to explain it to them.
“When they get a little bit older, I’m going to have to sit them down and I’ll be honest with them,” he says. “I’ll say, ‘This is what I went through. You’re going to see my mug shot on the internet.’ I hope it will be a lesson to them or I can give them some advice and inspiration to not do what dad did and learn from that.”
Career aspirations are taking a back seat to family priorities. Hall would love to be a college coach someday, but he’ll likely postpone any opportunities to do so.
“I love the situation I’m in right now because I get to coach at a great school. I have great kids that I can coach and mentor,” he says. “I have two young kids at home. If I’m a college coach, I’d never see them. I’d be on the road, recruiting, working late. What I love about the job I have right now is I can spend time with my family. For the next little while, I’ll probably keep doing what I’m doing and finish my degree. When my kids get a little bit older, 10 or 15 years down the road, I’d like to coach in college somewhere.”
Given what he’s gone through, Hall takes his goals one day at a time.
“My No. 1 focus right now, and it has to be every day when I wake up, is to stay sober,” Hall says. “In order to do that, there are things that I have to do. I still have bad days. I’m not perfect. I still make mistakes. I’m still working to improve my relationship with my family and all that stuff. That doesn’t happen overnight. It starts with hitting my knees. If I can do that and keep myself right and continue to get more sobriety time, I can help a lot of people. It’s something that’s got to be on my mind every day. I have to wake up every day and make a decision that I’m going to be sober. I’ve got to call a sponsor. I’ve got to go to a meeting. I’ve got to read some material. I’ve got to talk to someone about it to keep myself in check. Every once in a while I take a drug test just to keep myself in line. Whatever I need to do to focus on it. It’s cliché, but it’s day-to-day. What matters is that today, I stay sober.”