GAINESVILLE, Fla. — It would be easy to dismiss the University of Florida’s most recent social media rollout as just that: A social media deployment of positivity in an awfully strange time for the world.
There’s Thayer Hall, sitting in a room at her home in Spartanburg, South Carolina, blonde hair cascading down a long-sleeve pink shirt, telling Gator Nation that “I’m really just taking advantage of this extra time being home … ultimately just a blessing that I get to spend extra time with my family with both of my brothers being home, both my parents working from home.”
It is often difficult to separate the genuine from the facade on social media, yet this is not one of those cases. Anyone who knows Hall, or any member of her gifted family, understands this: Thayer Hall loves every second she gets to spend with them.
— Gators Volleyball (@GatorsVB) April 8, 2020
Hall’s family is difficult to miss in almost every type of way. The middle of three children, Thayer stands 6-foot-3. Her older brother, Chris, played center for Anderson University, a small liberal arts school in South Carolina. The youngest, PJ, recently committed to play basketball at Clemson.
“I say ‘little’ using air quotes,” Thayer said in describing PJ. “He’s 6-foot-10. He’s huge.”
Their height was a genetic gift bestowed upon them by their parents. Her mother, Melanie, is 6-2 and played volleyball and basketball at the College of Charleston. Dad’s 6-6 and played hoops for Wofford.
“We were doomed,” Thayer said jokingly, “at birth.”
Doomed. And blessed, a word Thayer will use frequently throughout a 30-minute interview, weaving her faith into most every answer. If height and unbelievable coordination was the physical manifestation of her parents’ gifts, faith was the nontangible, the bedrock upon which each of the Halls have built their lives.
“I’m a firm believer that volleyball is the talent that God has given me to be a light for him in this world and even more so with the humility factor,” Thayer said. “Growing up with two brothers, either you beat people up or you get beat up.”
Thayer watched Chris closely as a child. Seven years her senior, it was Chris who set the example of the type of person whom Thayer wanted to become. It was Chris who, when Thayer turned 13, celebrated her birthday by taking her on her first date. He held the door. Lent her his coat.
“He showed me how a guy should treat me,” she said. “He’s been that role model as far as what a Godly man is.”
Beyond that, Chris was Thayer’s role model for what a teammate is. Before his basketball seasons, Chris would write on the tongues of his shoes: “I am second.”
Thayer didn’t fully understand the first time she noticed it. She did it simply because Chris did, and if Chris did it, it must be right. Rare was the time that any of the Halls were second on any team in terms of talent or most performance metrics. But when Thayer was a freshman or sophomore at Dorman High School, it was the mindset behind that mantra that began to resonate with her.
“It’s not about me,” she said. “It’s about the girl beside me, in front of me, on the bench, whoever it is. I’m not doing this for myself. Second – volleyball is just something I do. It’s not who I am.”
Soon, however, volleyball and Thayer Hall seemed inextricable. Three times she was named the South Carolina Gatorade Player of the Year. Twice she’d win state championships. All of the honorifics poured in: All-America, All-USA Today, South Carolina High School Miss Volleyball.
In a year, it would, if briefly, be taken away.
Hall, who will be a junior in 2020, can still remember the sound of her college commitment. She had called up Florida coach Mary Wise to tell her that she was coming to Gainesville. Wise was driving — and then nearly drove off the road, running her car over the rumble strips on the side of the road. Soon, it became no wonder why the coach nearly got into an accident, so excited was she by Hall’s arrival.
Hall was still going into her senior year of high school when she led the USA women’s junior national team to the Women’s U20 Pan American Cup gold medal. Hall — the youngest player on the squad — was the MVP of the international tournament.
In 2018, the outside hitter tallied 20 kills in her first match as a Gator, then 21 in her second. She’d get set at least 30 balls in her first 22 matches before an injury would keep her out a month. It was the first time Hall had to truly embody the mindset she espoused on the tongues of her shoes: She had to be second. She struggled at first. She hadn’t found a home church. Was still seeking a sense of community.
“It’s always been instilled in me that, yes, these accolades are adding up but at any moment it could all be taken away from me,” Hall said. “I never experienced that until I got to college and that was a really hard wall I hit. There wasn’t any real community outside of volleyball and that was a low point for me and my mental state.”
It didn’t take long. She found a church she loves. Began babysitting for a family she adores. Discovered her identity on a new team in a new state with a new coach and new standards, on an entirely new stage.
“I find that when things start going the way I don’t want them to go is when I start trying to do things myself,” Hall said. “And so it’s just God’s way of saying ‘Nope, now you gotta sit out. Take a step back, regroup.’ I think beautiful things come from dark moments.”
It prepared her for what came last season.
With only Texas A&M left on the 2019 regular-season schedule, Florida was building momentum heading into an NCAA Tournament that was filled with parity, one in which perhaps Florida could win for the first time in school history. Hall would pile up 16 kills, two aces and three assists in the 3-2 win over A&M. She’d also partially tear her patella tendon, ruling her out for the first two matches of the NCAA Tournament.
“When things like that happen, personal goals can be crossed off the list,” HaIl said. “I’m just a firm believer that if God has this planned for me then it’s going to happen and if he doesn’t, it’s not meant to be. When it’s out of my control and out of my hands, I just have to make the most of the situation that I’m in.
“So for those matches that I couldn’t be on the court, not a part of the physical play, it’s my job to still maintain credibility with my teammates, maintain respect. There’s no lollygagging.”
Hall would return for their NCAA regional semifinal versus Minnesota, taking a platelet-rich plasma shot to get her through. She’d lead the team in kills again, with 17, but the Gators fell in five. A premature end to what had been a brilliant sophomore season. She was a VolleyballMag.com second-team All-American after leading the Gators with 415 kills (3.74/set), 133 more than her closest teammate.
None of this — the loss, the injury, the current quarantine — has seemed to dampen Hall’s spirit. Florida returns much of its 2019 team, including Hall and seven others in a magnificent junior class.
In early spring, she was able to get home and watch PJ compete in his final high school basketball games. And now, for the foreseeable future, she’ll be at home.
That’s quite all right with her.