Commentary

Max Hall shaking up the Cardinals

Updated: October 21, 2010, 1:37 PM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

PHOENIX -- They don't know him. A woman called Sister Bee is working Tuesday afternoon in the Des Moines, Iowa-based office of the Latter-Day Saints Mission, and will confirm just one thing about Max Hall: No one on staff remembers him. It was years ago, and the faces are constantly changing. He knocked on doors, spread the word of Jesus in a crisp white dress shirt and tie, and had a few of those doors slammed on him. He was 19 years old and full of youthful ambition, boundless energy and love. Who would've guessed that this kid, so unsure of what lay ahead at the next door, would someday have 120,000 lungs screaming for him? Or that he'd leave so many people guessing?

Thing is, for the better part of six months, the entire locker room of the Arizona Cardinals didn't really know him, either. Undrafted rookie quarterbacks don't often get a chance to bare their souls, so here was the thumbnail sketch on Hall: He was Mormon. He had a wife and a baby and could be known, on occasion, to belt out a "yes sir" or a "yes ma'am." By all appearances, he was as wholesome as a box collection of Pat Boone CDs.

Matt Leinart/Max Hall
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesIn the preseason, Matt Leinart, left, was the starter and Hall, right, was among the backups.

Then, on an October afternoon, with the season slipping away, Hall stepped into the huddle, 6-foot-1 (allegedly) and the antithesis of what the Cardinals' 2010 quarterback was supposed to be. Hall was the guy who got a $5,000 signing bonus -- $3,000 after taxes, his agent, Eric Metz, quickly says -- and was No. 4 on the depth chart last spring behind former Heisman Trophy winner and USC god Matt Leinart, veteran Derek Anderson and fifth-round draft pick John Skelton. Hall's future was so tenuous that he lived with his in-laws during spring workouts. All he wanted was a chance.

On Oct. 3 against the Chargers, he got it. He came in for Anderson and stared at 10 faces in the huddle, veterans, Pro Bowlers and men who have been to the Super Bowl. He barked out one sentence that dripped with confidence, contained at least two expletives, and was described as somewhat shocking.

"I can't repeat what he said," receiver Larry Fitzgerald says, citing Hall's reputation as a man of faith.

"It was something that we wouldn't expect from a BYU guy, a Mormon guy," says center Lyle Sendlein. "I mean, none of us really knew him. He had never really taken reps with the first [team] offensive line before. So that being his first impression, I guess it kind of eased the tension of breaking a new guy in."

In six quarters, at least, Hall has provided something the Cardinals desperately needed: a spark. He got his first start Oct. 10 against the reigning Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints and helped Arizona gut out a 30-20 victory in one of the biggest upsets of this young season. It came just a week after the Cardinals were humiliated in San Diego, and a month after Leinart, once considered the franchise quarterback of the future, was sent packing from the desert. It has thrown the economically sagging Valley into a love-struck tizzy, and not only because Hall is a local boy who grew up in nearby Mesa.

His emergence is conjuring up memories of Kurt Warner, a do-gooder and a future Hall of Famer who also went undrafted.

The powers-that-be in Arizona, of course, gasp at any snap proclamations. They want to temper the Hall excitement by pointing out that he's essentially played a game and a half of pro football. To that end, Hall's face time with the media is purposeful yet brief.

He sat on a bench outside the Cardinals' locker room this week, his eyes fixed mainly on the ground. Yeah, it's odd, that after spending the first part of his adult life approaching strangers on the street, now it's Hall who's constantly being stopped. He says it won't go to his head. He says it can't.

"No, because I've been on both ends of it," Hall says. "I've been on the good side, and I've been on the bad side. You try to stay in the middle."

In the beginning

People from various chapters of Max Hall's life had different views of that exhilarating first NFL start. His 7-month-old son Rex was in the stands and slept for roughly half the game. Hall's agent was watching with his own 10-year-old kid, who was ready to head for the door when the Cardinals were struggling, then insisted on purchasing Hall's jersey by halftime, when No. 6 was rallying the boys. The team store, according to Metz, didn't carry it yet.

Max Hall
AP Photo/Kevin TerrellMax Hall, who guided the Cardinals to a 30-20 upset of the New Orleans Saints, will start Sunday at Seattle.

"I had to get it custom-made," Metz says. "But they'll be making them now."

A few miles from the stadium, a famous relative watched it all from home. Danny White didn't need to sit in the stands. He played in the NFL for 13 years as a quarterback and a punter, and he has found that the best view is at home, in front of his television, where he can watch a man's eyes.

If bloodlines factored into an NFL scout's list of draft measurables, then surely Hall's name would've been called. He has White as an uncle -- White is Max's mother's brother -- plus a grandfather named Wilford "Whizzer" White who was an All-America halfback at Arizona State.

Danny White couldn't have seen this, that his nephew would be starting in Week 5, knocking off the Saints. But he did tell a couple of people this summer that he believed Hall would somehow crack the starting lineup by the end of the season.

"I really felt," White says, "that Max, with his personality, was the spark that they needed. It was pretty obvious to everybody that Matt [Leinart] was not providing a spark. There was just no energy at all in their offense.

"I guess I wouldn't have predicted it so soon, but that's a credit to [coach] Ken Whisenhunt more than anything else. It's hard sometimes for an organization to play a guy over somebody they drafted and somebody they traded for, and yet Ken has done that. And the reason is because he's all about winning. He's not about politics; he takes winning over his own job."

So White says he saw everything he needed from his living room. The first half, his nephew's eyes were big. "Deer in the headlights," he says. Then with 2:31 to go in the second quarter, Hall scrambled on third-and-1 at the Saints' 2, fearlessly plunged forward with his head, and was pounded so hard that his helmet came off. It was a reckless rookie move, and Hall fumbled and was lucky that teammate Levi Brown recovered in the end zone.

White saw it as a turning point.

"I think that hit knocked some of the vinegar out of him," White says. "It calmed him down a little bit. You get hit really hard and you're still breathing, and you say, 'Hey, I can take their best shot. I'm going to be OK.' He was entirely different in the second half, and I think it was because of that hit.

"And that's Max. If you challenge him, if you knock him down, nothing will make him fight harder. He'll get back up and he'll be better, and that's exactly the way he's been his entire life."

White takes little credit for Hall's development. It was Mark Hall, Max's dad, who first put a football in his boy's hands. And it was family order that no doubt led to young Max's becoming a leader. He was the oldest of five kids and was used to taking command.

In high school, he led the Mountain View Toros to a 14-0 record and the state championship as a junior, then made a return trip to the title game the following year, only to lose in triple overtime. Gritty, fearless, reckless. That's how people described Hall, who followed family tradition by choosing Arizona State for college.

But Hall left for his mission after his freshman season, heading to Iowa at the age of 19. He didn't complete the full two years of the mission, and doesn't talk much about why he left. He'll say those days taught him how to be mentally tough and persistent.

"I had to grow up pretty fast," Hall says.

When he returned to college, he picked BYU over party-friendly ASU because it felt more comfortable. About 70 players on the current BYU roster have done mission work.

He'd have to sit out a year, then battle three people for the starting job. But first, he'd have to give another team another surprising first impression.

At Brigham Young

The stats, surprisingly enough, are true. Max Hall is the winningest quarterback in BYU history, surpassing an esteemed group that includes Steve Young, Jim McMahon and Ty Detmer. He is also the first player ever to shut down a Thursday night scrimmage.

[+] EnlargeMax Hall
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireCardinals players say they like Hall's toughness.

It was the first week of practice. BYU used to host "Thursday Night Football," a scrimmage between scout-team players who had no shot at playing Saturday. And Hall took it so seriously that he started one big skirmish.

"Our scout team offensive line wasn't any good," says BYU quarterbacks coach Brandon Doman. "He was getting hit in the back of the head, fumbling the ball and getting beat up. Next thing we know, we're having a full-out brawl in practice, and it's him in the middle of it. Then he gets back up and throws a touchdown, and we're like, 'Holy … we haven't had a scout-team scrimmage like this ever.'

"And all it took was one guy, this one guy who walked out on the field and took a complete commanding role."

A couple of days into Hall's first season in 2006, when he had to sit through his transfer year, coach Bronco Mendenhall pulled Doman aside and predicted that Hall would "win a ton of games for us."

What followed was an upset victory over No. 3 Oklahoma in '09, a No. 9 ranking, and 32 wins over three seasons. Before some games, Doman says, Hall would get so amped up that he would be screaming and yelling until he had to be reminded that he wasn't a linebacker and needed to chill out.

As much as BYU loved him, some, like BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe, wondered if he'd make it past Provo. Holmoe played safety for the 49ers during their Super Bowl runs in the 1980s and knows how much size factors into NFL quarterback decisions.

"Have you seen him in person?" Holmoe says. "You'll realize he's not that big. I mean, he's a good-looking kid and kind of put together for a college quarterback, but he's not your prototypical NFL quarterback. But you forget about that right away. When you get to know him, he's a little bit brash and has got a good sense of humor.

"When we'd lose games -- and he didn't lose many -- he'd personally take it upon himself. He wasn't ever going to blame anybody."

One early Saturday morning during the offseason, Holmoe was working out on a treadmill when he looked out the window and saw two kids playing in a field that was off limits. Holmoe stepped off the treadmill and went outside to reprimand the stragglers, who were out at 8 a.m.

As he got close, he realized it was Hall and Austin Collie, a future NFL star, running routes. He stopped in his tracks. He let them play on.

'We know he's tough'

Hall's debut as an NFL starter was anything but pretty. He was intercepted once and threw zero touchdowns. The Saints sacked and harassed and crushed him repeatedly, and at one point he walked off the field with a limp. He seemed to almost relish the punishment, and his hardheaded moxie seemed to galvanize the Cardinals, at least for one afternoon.

[+] EnlargeMax Hall
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinThe hit Hall took from Saints defenders "knocked some of the vinegar out of him," says his uncle, former NFL quarterback Danny White.

"We know he's tough, but that was the first time we saw it out on the field," Sendlein says. "He tried to lower his head, it was third-and-goal. Some guys would've tried to take a slide. It goes to show he has no regard for his body. He tried to take on three or four guys. It goes to show he's a scrapper.

"Everyone listens to him. Everyone is responding, and our work ethic and our tempo is really good in practice."

He's not the average rookie. He just turned 25, has a wife and kid, and is steeled from a series of slammed doors. Maybe they see it, the kid who moved on to the next house, still preaching, still hoping. Maybe it's too early to guess anything.

Whisenhunt, understandably, backs off from any declarations of Hall being the Cardinals' next franchise quarterback. In 10 months, the starting job has passed through four sets of hands. But so far, he likes what he sees.

"It's one game," says Whisenhunt, who insists Hall's fast progression had nothing to do with the organization's decision to release Leinart. "There are a lot of positive signs, as there are with a number of our young players. But until you see him do it in a game repeatedly or you see him make those plays to help you win a game, you don't know.

"Where he goes from here is going to be dependent on how he plays and how our team plays. But you are excited about how he prepares. And a lot of the signs that you've seen along the way that seem to indicate that he's going to be OK."

Filling Warner's shoes?

Kurt Warner's PR guy politely says he's sorry. Warner is supposed to talk about Hall for a few minutes, but he's tied up in a rehearsal for "Dancing With The Stars." Things change quickly in football. Ten months ago, Warner was the Cardinals' rock, leading them to another playoff run. Now he's doing the fox-trot in uncomfortable outfits.

Warner did color in the booth for the Cardinals-Saints game, and told USA Today that Hall reminds him of himself. Hall has heard all the praise but doesn't linger long on it. He spent the bye week studying, hanging out with his wife, McKenzi, and little Rex, and preparing for Sunday's game at Seattle. Somehow, the Cardinals are right in the thick of the NFC West race at 3-2.

Hall doesn't care about the style points, stats, or even the battle wounds accrued to this point. He says he's scared of just two things -- something bad happening to his family and losing.

"You can't doubt yourself," he says. "You've got to believe you can pull off any situation. It doesn't mean you're going to, but you've got to believe you can."

Sometimes, Hall is reminded of what helped him get here, and his thoughts stray back to Iowa. He'd enter the homes of complete strangers, talking about the gospel, and, many days, it seemingly yielded nothing. But then someone would let him in, and they'd listen.

In Phoenix, he has everyone's attention.

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.