Sometimes, it pays to wait and watch, biding your time until you can show the world just what you can do.
For Tua Tagovailoa, his chance came on college football’s biggest stage, when Alabama Coach Nick Saban decided at halftime to replace quarterback Jalen Hurts with his freshman from Hawaii, a guy who had been offered a scholarship only after Jake Fromm flipped his commitment to Georgia.
It was a wild ride from there, with Tagovailoa completing one of the best game-winning passes in college football since Doug Flutie in 1984 as the Crimson Tide won in overtime. But the glory of that 41-yard touchdown pass came after an ugly moment in which he took a sack. “Tua probably couldn’t have thrown that pass if I could have gotten ahold of him after the sack,” Saban said afterward, “but I couldn’t get out there fast enough.”
The legend of Tagovailoa was years in the making, of course, and has roots in Polynesia, with a nod to Marcus Mariota, the Heisman winner three years ago. “To the Polynesian community, I hope and pray that this is only the beginning,” Mariota said as he accepted the award that night. “Young Poly athletes everywhere, you should take this as motivation, and dream big and strive for greatness.”
Tagovailoa had played only sparingly as a freshman, but Saban turned to him with the Tide down 13-0 at halftime and he threw two touchdown passes, along with an interception. He completed 14-of-26 passes for 166 yards and left everyone wondering why Saban hadn’t turned to him before.
“We’ve had this in our mind that if we were struggling offensively, that we would give Tua an opportunity, even in the last game,” Saban said. “No disrespect to Jalen, but the real thought was, you know, they came into the game thinking we were going to run the ball and be able to run quarterback runs, which we made a couple of explosive plays on. But with the absence of a passing game and being able to make explosive plays and being able to convert on third down, I didn’t feel we could run the ball well enough, and I thought Tua would give us a better chance and a spark, which he certainly did.
“I couldn’t be prouder of him taking advantage of the opportunity. We have total confidence in him. We played him a lot in a lot of games this year, and he did very well.”
But those opportunities came mostly in garbage time of blowout wins, even though Tagovailoa carried a reputation as the next great Hawaiian. His roots, though, go deeper than Mariota, whose Tennessee Titans will play the New England Patriots in the NFL playoffs Saturday.
Tagovailoa’s parents, Diane and Galu, told Sports Illustrated two years ago that Tuanigamanuolepola, the oldest of their four kids, slept as a child with a football in his arms. He was regularly scolded at his grandparents’ home for playing catch during prayers and, of course, he broke screens as he worked on his arm strength and accuracy, but managed not to break windows, thanks to his receivers. His paternal grandfather, Seu, is the one who predicted football stardom and went over every game with his grandson. Seu died of pneumonia in 2014, but his vision lived on.
“This is big for our family,” Galu told SI. “My dad’s dream was to see this. He saw Tua’s talent and prayed for it.”
As a highly recruited senior, Tagovailoa seemed more likely to end up at USC, but found a comfort zone in Tuscaloosa.
“You can’t really lose yourself if you’re a kid from Hawaii going to Alabama,” Tua said (via SEC Country). “Things down here in Hawaii are similar to Alabama. We go to church every Sunday. People are treated like family there just like here. There are many similarities there and you want to be somewhere that feels like home and that’s what Alabama feels like.”
During the season, the lefty quarterback found himself playing in mop-up duty, with mixed results. Against Tennessee, for instance, he gave up a pick six for the Vols’ only score. “You probably don’t know Tua very well,” Saban said in October, “but he says thank you and apologizes for everything and he was apologizing for that.”
He went on to complete five of his next seven passes for 106 yards and a touchdown.
“He felt bad. Any player would,” Saban said. “We stuck with him so he could see that we had confidence in him.”
Where does Tagovailoa go from here? Hurts just finished his sophomore season, giving Saban a savory quarterback controversy. After the game, Saban wasn’t ready to commit to either. Lane Kiffin, Alabama’s former offensive coordinator, told “The Dan Patrick Show” that he has “no doubt” Tagovailoa would have transferred if he had not played Monday night because he wouldn’t risk sitting for another year behind Hurts.
Now, for both Tagovailoa and Alabama, the future is complicated. It’s a nice problem to have.
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