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Max Hall sat in LaVell Edwards Stadium with his wife and son, watching his former BYU Cougars football team break a curse that had hung over them since he was quarterbacking them more than a decade ago.
Elsewhere in the stadium, Todd Noall watched his beloved Utes turn the ball over on their two opening drives. The CEO of a local marketing agency watched them struggle on defense. He watched them fall, 26-17, losing the rivalry game for the first time since 2009.
Noall wore a T-shirt with Hall’s face on it — a mugshot from a 2014 arrest, at the depths of a battle with addiction. The shirt read, “Max Hall’s coke is caffeine free.”
Hall struggled with drug addiction and mental health issues during and after his time in the NFL, and has worked to get and stay sober, which he has been for about seven years. So when the Hall family returned to their hotel room, still buzzing from the game, and saw the photo of Noall and the shirt on Twitter, it cut deep.
“Max didn’t even say anything, but I could just see in his face that it hurt him,” Hall’s wife, McKinzi Hall, said.
The T-shirt and the aftermath started a conversation about addiction, recovery, sports rivalries and forgiveness.
Road to recovery
Hall, a former Cougars starting quarterback, reached rock bottom in 2014 when he was arrested for shoplifting and possession of a controlled substance. The incident was the breaking point after years of struggle that began with a dream, a chance to start at quarterback in the NFL.
Hall went undrafted and signed a free-agent contract with the Arizona Cardinals in 2010. He was the fourth-string quarterback at the time, but through hard work and a little luck soon became the second-string.
But in his first start, Hall got hit hard and was knocked out, leading to the worst concussion he had ever experienced. He wasn’t about to give up on his dream, though, so he told the trainers he felt OK.
Going into the next week, Hall didn’t feel right. He was forgetting plays. Although he started a couple of games after the hard tackle, he did not play well, which brought about depression. A few weeks later, he separated his shoulder. At that point, he thought his career was over.
“You’re not prepared for that moment,” Hall said during a phone conversation this week. “And so I’m way depressed. I feel like my football playing days are over. I’m losing my identity of who I thought I was. And I’m in physical pain. And I quickly found out that opiates take all of that away. Physical, emotional, mental pain, anguished thoughts — gone.”
That began the downward spiral that lasted the better part of five years. McKinzi Hall said she saw her husband’s personality change. She grew to hate football for what it had done to him. When it first got bad, she had a newborn daughter and 1-year-old son.
“Those five years, they were hell,” McKinzi Hall said.
The arrest was the start of Hall’s turnaround. He went to rehab for three months. It still took a year, though, for the couple to start rebuilding the trust in their relationship.
That first year after Hall came home from rehab was the most difficult. He said after about a month, he fell back into a deep depression. McKinzie Hall said she told her husband she wasn’t in love with him anymore.
“I remember days of just sitting on the couch, not wanting to get up, almost staring at a blank TV screen sometimes and not answering my phone,” Max Hall said. “I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I had no idea what my purpose was and what was next for me in life.”
But once his wife addressed what had been going on, he decided to turn things around. He cut ties with people who might tempt him to start using again. He changed his phone number. He changed counselors. He started therapy.
“Something just clicked and I was willing to do whatever it took,” Hall said. “Whatever it took to start my path of true sobriety and get back to being happy and healthy. Doing that was harder than just stop taking drugs.”
Hall now works as the assistant athletic director for a high school in Arizona and the football’s team’s offensive coordinator. Earlier this year, he started a podcast called “Agents of Recovery,” where he and his co-hosts talked not just about addiction, but purpose, communication, leadership and other topics.
The events that have transpired in the days since the BYU-Utah game have been weighing on his mind.
A rivalry gone too far
Hall has been a face of the BYU-Utah rivalry for more than a decade. During his playing days, he went off on a now-famous diatribe about the Utes program and fan base, calling them “classless” and saying he hated them.
In the years since, he’s owned those comments and welcomed friendly jabs, regularly posing for photos with Utah fans wearing T-shirts that read “Max Hall hates me.” Hall even did so during Saturday’s game.
In sports rivalries that last as long as Utah and BYU’s, fans will inevitably cross a line or two. But this occasion was different, Hall said.
As photos of Noall and the shirt circulated online, it sent BYU and Utah fans into a state of apoplexy. They replied to his tweet, which has since been deleted, and expressed disappointment. One user commented, “I didn’t know a Ute can could stoop even this low.”
Hall is all for the playful ribbing that goes on between Cougars and Utes fans. But what happened at Saturday’s game, for him, was outside the confines of friendly banter.
“When you take it to the level of somebody who has suffered with mental health and addiction and at the lowest point of their life and getting arrested and having a disgusting mug shot that’s embarrassing and hurtful, and you decide to put that on a shirt and broadcast that to everybody and post that and make fun of that,” Hall said, “that’s crossing the line.”
For his part, Noall acknowledged that it was a mistake to wear the shirt.
“For me to use that picture of him in his weakest moment was absolutely unacceptable. It was in poor taste,” Noall told The Tribune. “The fact that his family saw it was never intended. That’s my biggest regret. It makes me feel awful that his family, his wife and anybody else in his family saw that and had to bring up those previous negative feelings for them.”
McKinzi Hall said she tried reaching out privately to Noall only to be blocked by him on Twitter (Noall denied blocking her on the social media platform) before deciding to make her private message public.
“I understand the position my husband was in and have always let things go when people talk crap,” she wrote. “Watching Max overcome something like that a lot of people either end up in prison or dead because of has made me a little more of a fighter and made me be able to stick up for what I believe in more than ever. I believe that the shirt you wore last night was unacceptable. How dare you put my husband’s lowest of lows on a shirt and wear it! I was at the game with Max and my son last night. If I would have seen you and my son would have seen you wearing that how do you think that would make us feel?”
There was some speculation online that Noall was also selling the T-shirts with Max Hall’s mugshot on them. Noall said that is “absolutely not true.” Both Max and McKinzi Hall said they discovered past instances of Noall using Max’s mugshot as the main photo of his social media profiles. Noall denied that as well.
Noall eventually apologized publicly. Noall also reached out to the former BYU quarterback privately.
Hall then wrote a letter to Noall that he shared with him privately, and then released on Twitter.
“My journey was long, public and demanding. I want you to understand that recovering out loud takes some serious courage,” Hall wrote. “Wearing that shirt to the game did not demonstrate courage. In reality, it showed your ignorance about addiction. My family did not find it funny or rivalry worthy. … I understand gestures in good fun, yet, you took being an antagonist to a very negative place.”
Changing the conversation
The response to Noall’s game-day wardrobe was swift and philanthropic.
As the photo of the shirt circulated around social media, Cougars and Utes fans stepped up. Some internet sleuthing revealed that Noall is on the board of directors at the Utah chapter of the Make-A-Wish foundation. So as a way to promote positivity, fans started donating money to a page associated with Noall.
As of Thursday, the page has collected more than $25,000 in donations. One donor gave $10,000 with the message, “Moroni 7:45-48,” a reference to verses in the Book of Mormon that discuss charity.
The donations appear to have been first made in increments of $26.17 — an homage to the score of Saturday’s rivalry game.
But ultimately, fans who donated said they wanted to turn an instance of the ugly side of a sports rivalry into a positive.
“In my opinion, the purpose of the campaign is really just about promoting forgiveness,” BYU fan Joe Wheat said. “It’s just a way of saying, ‘We saw what you did. We didn’t like what you did. But let’s all rally together around something that we can all get behind and move forward from this.’ I don’t think this is meant to be like the proverbial middle finger, like a slap in the face.”
Messages from donors were largely supportive of Hall and his family. Some referenced Noall specifically, with an urge for him to apologize or “do better.”
“Todd deserves a second chance. Everybody does,” BYU fan Garrett McClintock said. “Max owned up to his past and is doing great things. So instead of canceling Todd, let’s make it a way to move on and do something awesome — even if a little spiteful jab is in the comments.”
In Noall’s public statement of apology, he indicated that he would match every dollar donated to his Make-A-Wish page. Hall challenged him to take a step further and donate to his podcast through Addict II Athlete, a nonprofit organization.
“If you genuinely want to make things right and your actions are authentic, put your money and time behind them,” Hall wrote in his public letter Noall. “Your contribution will help us reach thousands of people who have also found themself [sic] caught in the grip of addiction.”
The donations making the most of a difficult situation seem like a microcosm of Hall’s journey, one from BYU star to starting NFL quarterback to drug addict to an agent of change.
It’s a transformation that’s made waves among sports fans in recent days. But the impact is ultimately felt by those who live it every day.
“I think it’s so unbelievable that he has taken this terrible, terrible thing and terrible trial, and his whole mission and the rest of his life is just to help other people get to the point to realize that they can get there, too,” McKinzi Hall said. “It’s so cool being able to just be a part of it and watch him. The man that he is today is even better than the man I married.”