The Vikings’ quarterback lost his father suddenly over the summer, leaving him and his younger brother orphaned. But he’s used the love and support of friends to excel on the field.
The love doesn’t need words. It emanates from Max Nall the moment his father’s name is mentioned.
And if there’s one thing Michael Nall loved, it was watching his sons compete in sports. Nainoa, an eighth-grader at McClure Middle School, is a budding baseball player. Max, a senior, is the starting quarterback at Rainier Beach.
The Vikings (4-2) are having the type of season Michael dreamed of last spring when he sold their Magnolia home and relocated the family to south Seattle. The move meant Max transferred from Garfield, where he helped lead the Bulldogs to an 8-2 season in 2016.
“ ‘I can’t wait to see Max ball this year,’ he said that every day,” Beach coach Corey Sampson recalled of Michael.
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Michael died after suffering a heart attack on July 24 — one week after his 55th birthday. He was driving in Auburn when he clipped a pole.
“I could tell from his voice when he said ‘Meet me at the hospital,’ ” Max said of his father’s urgent words.
Max was swimming with his girlfriend in Leschi. They quickly dressed and Max raced down the shoulder of the freeway in rush-hour traffic to reach his father.
“But when I got to the hospital, it was too late,” he said.
By nightfall, Max and his girlfriend made it to his best friend’s waterfront house in north Seattle. Griffin Touw’s home has always been a hub for a tightknit group of 12 boys and six girlfriends from different socioeconomic backgrounds, sports and high schools within the Metro League.
Table-tennis competitions, steak nights, boating and swimming usually filled summers. But during the final week of July, the group spent three days and nights on the backyard lawn comforting Max and his brother, sleeping under the stars.
On the second day, Griffin’s father, Courtney, brought in two counselors for group and individual sessions with the kids coping with the loss. Many were still grieving a peer who committed suicide last winter.
“You think, ‘Oh, I have a good group of friends,’ but this was real,” Griffin’s mother, Lisa, said. “It was friendship in action. It was beautiful to see that love.”
The support was especially needed because Max and Nainoa lost their mother, Jan, in November 2009. A Native Hawaiian, her entire family resides in Oahu. Michael, a native Seattleite, was an only child.
By the end of the week, it was decided Max would live with the Touws but finish his schooling at Beach. Nainoa is living with a family in the Nall’s former Magnolia neighborhood in order to remain at McClure in Queen Anne.
“It’s not so much that I feel alone; it’s something I can deal with,” Max said of being an orphan. “I miss the hell out of them. But what I worry about is my brother and how it affects him. I need to be there for him because I’m of an age where I can process everything. There are a lot of emotions and I’m not ignoring them, I deal with them. But I worry about him because he’s younger.”
Max wiped tears from his eyes as he spoke about his parents. They married in 1995 after meeting at a conference in Bellevue. Michael complimented Jan in passing and she gave a sassy retort. Michael was hooked.
“It was love at first sight,” said Max of his father’s retelling of the story. “He called every other woman he was talking to and told them it was over. … He’s obviously something I think about every day. Everything I do, it’s with him on my mind. I’m just thankful for the time I had with him. He taught me so much.”
Michael Nall was owner of Eastside Basketball Club in Kirkland and Trident Sports International, which staged global soccer matches and promoted other events. Yet, you would have thought he was part of the Beach football coaching staff.
He attended practices, 7-on-7 tournaments and meetings. Made sure the water and Gatorade was stocked. And completely reorganized the locker room and handled the team’s laundry on weekends.
Michael’s motto was “Leave it better than you found it” and that’s what he did, according to Sampson.
“He lived for Max and his brother,” Sampson said. “At first I was standoffish with it, like nah, I can do it myself. He convinced me that he just wanted to take some things off my plate because he knew I had to coach and he wanted to be there for the team. I finally opened up and he was excellent. …
“But not only was he a parent, he had become a good friend of mine,” Sampson continued. “We talked on the phone all the time about the team and the players and the support system and how can we make Rainier Beach better. This was a guy that’s been here every day since springtime and all of a sudden he’s gone. It hurt me. But it also motivated me to love the kids more and be a better person.”
Beach’s season opener was a 34-6 road win against Madison in Portland, Ore. Max broke down in tears during the pregame pep talk, the team wanting to win for him in his first game without his father in the stands.
The Oct. 6 win at Garfield was similarly emotional. Michael wanted the team to have pink jerseys to support Breast Health Awareness Month, but it was just something he mentioned. In honor of Michael, Sampson spent about $1,500 to make the purchase himself.
Sampson surprised the team with the jerseys on the way to the game at Memorial Stadium. Nall fumbled the ball on the opening play, but recovered to lead the Vikings to a 27-12 victory.
“It’s one of the better wins I’ve seen Rainier Beach have in a long time.” Eastside Catholic coach Jeremy Thielbahr said. “For Max to get that victory is really phenomenal, especially with everything that’s swirling around in his life. I can only imagine the pain he’s been going through. We’ve been praying for him over here and really hoping he finds success.”
Griffin Touw, a tennis player at Seattle Prep, said he’s amazed at the strength and maturity his friend has shown since July. Touw sees Max becoming an even better athlete, too, through the loss. Max hopes he can garner a scholarship to play at the University of Hawaii, where he’d likely study astronomy.
“In some sense, it is therapeutic for me. It always has been. You go play football and kind of forget about everything else,” Max said. “But it’s also therapeutic because I know this is what my dad would want me to do. He was extremely proud of me.”