Alabama football: The complicated legacy of Tua Tagovailoa
For those who can remember beyond when Nick Saban effectively resurrected the Alabama Crimson Tide football program, there was quite the fallow period in the early 2000s that didn’t see all that much in consistent on-field success in Tuscaloosa.
Instead of the weekly debate of how the College Football Playoff committee will rank the Tide, it was whether Alabama will scrape together enough wins to be bowl eligible. Instead of tallying up weeks at No. 1, it was booking trips to Shreveport and Nashville and being home in plenty of time for the postseason games that really mattered.
Except for 2005. And on one glittering fall day not all that much different than Saturday, the Tide was among the best teams in the country.
Fifth-ranked Florida was the opponent, and the site was Bryant-Denny Stadium. Both teams were 4-0, though Alabama wasn’t getting as much respect and was ranked No. 15. Three weeks before, in the Tide’s second game of the season, a diminutive receiver named Tyrone Prothro thrilled the world with a miraculous catch against Southern Miss that defied logic and seemingly bent several laws of physics.
That catch changed the complexion of the Alabama-Southern Miss game, and propelled the Tide to victory. Three weeks later, Alabama delivered coach Mike Shula his first real signature victory by beating the pants off of the Gators 31-3.
The day was perfect. Alabama was perfect. QB Brodie Croyle didn’t seem like he could miss. Alabama harassed Florida QB Chris Leak into a mistake after mistake.
The day was perfect.
I was there. I remember.
I was on the field when it happened, too. With the game well in hand and the 1st-team offense still on the field in the 4th quarter, Croyle lofted a long pass attempt to the end zone.
What happened next was more immediately apparent to CBS viewers than those on the field. Prothro was down in the end zone, surrounded by Alabama’s medical staff. Something clearly wasn’t right.
It wasn’t for a couple minutes when one of my newspaper’s photographers hustled up to me and warned me what I was about to see in his camera’s screen.
Prothro’s leg was grotesquely bent backwards as he attempted to make the catch, the tibia and fibula poking out of the receiver’s lower leg and about to come in contact with the crimson-painted turf.
Tyrone Prothro’s career was over in an instant, though no one wanted to believe it. Certainly not Prothro himself, who underwent immediate emergency surgery that night to insert a metal rod into his tibia.
I tried hard to forget the image I was shown, even though we wrestled with whether to publish it in our newspaper the next morning.
Tyrone Prothro was in my thoughts for a while after that before fading into the recesses of the memory.
He resurfaced again Saturday when I saw Tua Tagovailoa screaming in pain on the turf at Mississippi State.
Surely you’ve seen the replay by now. Tagovailoa — in his 2nd start after arthroscopic ankle surgery — was forced out of the pocket and threw an incomplete pass as Leo Lewis and Marquiss Spencer pressured him — the Bulldog defenders bringing their full weight onto Tagovailoa as he hit the turf.
Tagovailoa immediately rolled over in pain with blood coming from his nose. He could not put any weight on his right leg when trainers helped him up and the quarterback was helped to the injury cart in obvious pain.
Tagovailoa was taken to the Davis-Wade Stadium X-ray facilities for evaluation, and departed the stadium via ambulance in the 3rd quarter. From there, Tagovailoa was airlifted to St. Vincent’s Hospital in Birmingham.
And from there, well, no one quite knows yet. One report, citing Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy, was that Tagovailoa suffered a hip fracture that was described as similar to the one that ended Bo Jackson’s football career in 1991.
Another report, by The Athletic’s Aaron Suttles, said Tagovailoa is out for the season with a dislocated hip with a posterior wall fracture.
After the 38-7 victory back in Starkville, Alabama coach Nick Saban answered the 1st round of questions about whether Tagovailoa should have been in the game at all.
“It is a freak thing that you seldom see,” Saban said. “We felt like if he could move in pregame, which we took him out before the team ever went out, he was good. He was at least as good as he was a week ago in terms of his ability to move and I didn’t think anything he did affected his performance in the first half. So … you know, the guy played.
“We can second guess ourselves all we want. We told Mac (Jones) to warm up and we were going to go 2-minute before the half. Tua wanted to play in the game and so I don’t really make a lot of decisions worrying if a guy is going to get hurt.
“We hate it. We hate that he got injured. We hate it for him. We hate it for his family. We hate if any player on our team gets injured. Godspeed to him and his entire family and our thoughts and prayers are with him and hope this isn’t so serious that it has any long-term effect on his future as a player. I really don’t know the severity of what he has.”
Facing more questions probing the thought process of keeping Tagovailoa in, Saban offered more defense of the decision.
“Look, the way I look at this whole thing is, Tua is our No. 1 quarterback,” Saban said. “If he’s physically able to play, we want to play him. That’s what he wanted to do and that’s what our team wanted to do. If I would know … knowing something bad would happen, I certainly wouldn’t have put him in that position. But we’re a team. We’re a team that’s trying to get better in the long term and the long run. This team, if we can finish the season the way we want, then … you know, I hate it that the guy got hurt.”
Back in 2005, Alabama was never quite the same after Prothro went down. Shula faced questions on whether he should have had his 1st-teamers in the game that late. The Tide ultimately lost 2 straight games down the stretch to LSU and Auburn before downing Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl.
That was still an enormous accomplishment back in 2005.
This isn’t 2005. It is 2019. It is tough to quantify how much Prothro was worth to the Crimson Tide in 2005 vs. how much Tagovailoa is worth to the Crimson Tide in 2019.
But both were and are worth quite a lot, probably more than any other individual player on their respective rosters.
I remember Tyrone Prothro’s career ending in a flash back in 2005.
I hope I don’t remember Saturday being the end of Tua Tagovailoa’s career.