What Tua taught us
Please allow me to take off my sportswriter’s hat for just a moment and admit something.
Tua Tagovailoa is my favorite college football player — ever.
I am a 42-year-old man with a wife and a son, but I have a kid-like fascination with a young man 20 years my junior who wears No. 13 for the Alabama Crimson Tide, dances in traditional Samoan garb and buries rainbows into the breadbaskets of streaking receivers.
You have to admit: There’s something special about Tua Tagovailoa.
Even his name — Tua — evokes a caramel-like smoothness. I suppose things might be different if his name were Mike Tagovailoa or Peter Tagovailoa. But it’s not. It’s Tua.
Say it a few times and see how easily and effortlessly it rolls off your tongue.
Tooo … ahhh.
Feels good, doesn’t it? It’s almost like that refreshing feeling after you’ve popped the top and taken a swig off a bottled Coke that’s been dug out of an icy barrel in a hundred-year-old mom-and-pop gas station on a hot summer’s day.
I don’t know Tua Tagovailoa personally, but I feel like I do. I feel like if I ever got a chance to meet him, we’d probably be boys.
What is it about him that so enamors us?
First, I think, he was the quarterback Alabama had been praying for for decades. Even though Tuscaloosa had once been the home of Joe Namath and Ken Stabler, for years, it had become a venue for a series of “game managers” who occupied the quarterback slot (and performed well) but did not exhibit total mastery over it. Enter Tua, who blew away even the hardiest of expectations for a Bama QB.
Wait, Alabama has a quarterback projected as the first overall pick in the NFL Draft? Unheard of!
Second, it was the way he began. Bama’s love affair with Tua began the moment he trotted out on the field and led the Tide to an improbable comeback against Georgia in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship in Atlanta, capped off by a 2nd-and-26 for the ages.
In one half, he turned a freight train that had lost a bit of steam into a F-16 Fighting Falcon.
Fans loved Tua immensely from the start because they knew he saved them. In his postgame comments, however, he wanted the world to know who saved him.
Third, it was because Tua did things Alabama had never seen before. While others played chops, Tua played Mozart. While others were paint by number, Tua was Picasso. In a world of averageness, he was a gridiron virtuoso. He was Steph Curry on the football field.
Over time, perhaps Alabama nation got a bit too comfortable with him. That sort of thing happens when you throw, you know, 87 career touchdowns in less than 2 full seasons. He was so skilled at passing that the spectacular became almost humdrum. Four TDs and 300 yards passing? Just another day at the office.
It’s not that Tua the Magnificent’s act grew stale — no, not at all. It’s just that we became so desensitized that at times we forgot to appreciate what we were witnessing.
I was talking to a buddy at the gym and he put it best. Even in the NFL, you see quarterbacks overthrow or underthrow receivers on the deep ball. But Tua’s deep ball accuracy was almost impeccable. We became so used to Tua hitting Jeudy, Ruggs, DeVonta in stride that it just became old hat.
So for just a moment, let’s savor the whole meal:
- Tua has thrown for at least 300 yards on 10 occasions
- Tua has thrown for 400 yards on 3 occasions, all this season
- Seven times, Tua has thrown for 2 touchdowns in a game; 5 times, he’s thrown for 3 touchdowns; 8 times, he’s thrown for 4 touchdowns; 3 times, he’s thrown for 5 touchdowns, and once, he’s thrown for 6 touchdowns, a school record. (Repeat: Tua threw for 6 touchdowns in one game. No offense to former Alabama quarterback Jay Barker, but in 1992, Barker threw for 7 touchdowns — the whole season.)
- Tua had back-to-back 5-touchdown games this season on Sept. 14 (South Carolina) and Sept. 21 (Southern Mississippi)
- And he has that King Cobra effect, consistently demonstrating the propensity to strike from almost anywhere. Example: Tua’s played in 24 games in the past 2 seasons. In 3 of those games, Tua’s longest passing play was over 80 yards. In 5 games, his longest passing play was 70-79 yards. In 2 games, his longest passing play was 60-69 yards, and in 4 games, his longest passing play was 50-59 yards. Which means that it’s more likely than not that Tua is going to make a throw for 50-plus yards.
But it wasn’t necessarily about the stats. Tua put flesh and bone on the game. We were interested in him as a person. We wanted to follow his life. We became voyeurs into the Tagovailoa family and their unique heritage. We watched his father get baptized and cheered when his little brother followed big brother’s footsteps. In some ways, we felt a part of the Tuamann narrative.
His humility and faith challenged us in some way, made us look deep within our own selves, caused us to journey inward. We admired his warrior-like attitude, his full-fervor attacking of life. The way he honored his parents and his coaches. How his teammates were drawn to him.
We could see that he was working hard. We watched him on the Bama practice field, on a Sunday, in the rain, by himself, working on footwork drills.
We knew how badly he wanted to bring home another national championship, sacrificing his body for the sake of his team. And we wanted it for him, too.
We were saddened when he didn’t win the Heisman. We felt for him when he left it all on the field against Clemson — and lost. And we grimaced when we saw him in pain.
In the end, Tua reminded us of something important. If you ask any Alabama fan — from the service technician at a tire center in Muscadine to senior partner at a law firm in Birmingham — they’ll be able to tell you without hesitation how many national titles the school has won. That’s right, 17. Prior to the game this season, Tide fans would have easily been able to regurgitate how many times Alabama had beaten LSU in a row. That’s right, 8. And pretty much everyone would have easily been able to tell you how many national titles Nick Saban has won at Alabama. That’s right, 5.
But ask what insurance company former Bama quarterback Jake Coker works for and they may not be able to tell you right away. Ask “Whatever happened to former wide receiver Freddie Milons?” and they might not be able to tell you where Freddie is or what he’s doing.
Tua’s injury puts things in the right perspective. For just a moment, he reminded us that the health and future of this splendid young man — and any student-athlete for that matter — matters more than winning. That if you whittle college football down, it’s all about the lives of the young men who suit up on Saturdays in fall. It’s about the men they are, and are becoming.
In short, it’s all about the players.
Winning is great, and winning can give you bragging rights, but what college football affords is a training ground for life.
We are all interested in what happens to Tua, and believe that no matter how the road forks from here, he will be all right. God has a plan. Still there were some sad goodbyes, fans far and wide engaging in a somber lament that Tua has probably taken his last snap in a crimson uniform. But perhaps those goodbyes were a bit premature. I believe that he has as much chance of coming back to Alabama next year as he does declaring for the NFL Draft.
That said, I’ve tried my best for this piece not to sound like an obit (Tua strumming his ukulele in a hospital bed is evidence that he’s very much alive and taking it well), but when thinking about this whole situation, I’m reminded of a phrase in the movie The Shawshank Redemption. A wistful Red, played by Morgan Freeman, is reflecting on the loss of his friend, Andy Dufresne, when he offers these touching words: “I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice. But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they’re gone.”
If this is the end, if the Tua Tagovailoa era in Tuscaloosa is over, gosh, it was so much fun while it lasted.
What has Tua Tagovailoa taught us?
That just because you have setbacks in life doesn’t mean you should roll over and die.
That if you are going to do something, don’t do it halfway. Do it with all you’ve got.
That adversity and trouble are going to come, no matter how nice an individual you are.
That God causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
When life throws you lemons, you play the hell out of that ukulele.
And lastly, celebration may come from victory, but joy comes from the Lord.