NFL draft chitchat, which through the years has devoured more and more of the 52 weeks on the annual calendar until it threatens to deluge all of life’s moments, readied for acceleration. The case of former Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who took a lectern in Tuscaloosa to declare himself draft-bound, lends that chitchat one of its favorite fuels: a wide uncertainty.
“Yeah, it’s a unique situation, for sure,” said Tagovailoa, whose answers at a news conference underscored the unclarities, 108 chitchat-filled days to draft onset.
Tagovailoa, of course, is the bright light of an unbroken decency, the 6-foot-1, 218-pound left-handed junior whose harrowing injury Nov. 16 robbed college football of a towering star for the balance of the season. That lousy thud followed two years as the chitchat-minted probable No. 1 pick for 2020, which meant Tagovailoa’s name swirled through both premature chitchat and very premature chitchat.
All that yielded to doubt when, on that mid-November day at Mississippi State, late in the second quarter, Tagovailoa tumbled with help from two pursuers and took both a dislocated right hip and a posterior wall fracture. Suddenly, he screamed in pain while loaded onto the cart (as reported by ESPN’s Molly McGrath on the sideline), got airlifted that day to Birmingham, Ala., had surgery Nov. 18 in Houston. As football intellectuals spoke of past football hip injuries and their haunting effects, an orthopedic surgeon who works with the Alabama team began with an encouraging prognosis, post-surgery.
“Tua’s prognosis is excellent, and we expect him to make a full recovery,” Lyle Cain said in a statement.
The way Tagovailoa described it while fielding questions Monday, verification of that could begin only in late winter.
“I don’t think any of the doctors can tell, you know, the foreseeable future,” he told the assembled reporters. “None of the guys rehabbing me can tell that. From what they’ve seen, you know, in New York [which he visited for consultation], everything looks good, but you can’t really tell until the three-month part, or the four-month part.”
He steered his answers to his recurrent subject, saying, “It pretty much boils down to one thing, and I think that’s faith.” To a question about whether he might remain a high draft choice, he said: “I don’t think I can tell you that. I don’t think any of the teams can tell you that. You know, it really depends on how the doctors kind of — how the doctors’ report goes, with my MRI, my X-rays, at the three-month mark. But then again, I think you know what factors into this decision, too, is our faith, and it’s a leap of it.”
To a question about how many NFL general managers and owners he queried for clues, he began by seeming to say, “Probably two.”
In actuality, he was saying, “Probably too,” then a pause, then, “many.”
They view it “like a knee injury, almost,” he said, and they wonder about whether he’ll be able to perform at a pro day (those days when universities welcome NFL evaluators), and, in sum, “Really the biggest thing they want to see is just see that we can move and be back to how we were playing prior to the injury.”
After a “really hard decision,” he said, “I don’t know how I feel right now” except, he did say, “content.”
Yet as the nation prepared to spend three months yammering about the unfamiliar, Alabama readied to adjust to the familiar: replenishing itself. It tends to master that, and it will hold a day-to-day quarterback competition bustling with rising junior Mac Jones (who excelled against Auburn and Michigan after Tagovailoa went down); rising sophomore Taulia Tagovailoa (Tua’s younger brother); and an incoming freshman from Santa Ana, Calif., named Bryce Young, a former Southern California commit whom Rivals ranks No. 3 among all prospects and No. 1 among dual-threat quarterbacks.
“As I wrap this up, there will still be a Tagovailoa here playing football,” Tua Tagovailoa said while making sure to tout the other two, amid remarks strewn with such decencies. Those included how he wanted to “honor and thank Coach [Nick] Saban for allowing me the chance to play for him;” how he said of teammates, “I’m going to miss you all, from the starting lineup to the scout team;” how he thanked much of the athletic department; to when he quoted McGraw’s 2016 interpretation of the song Lori McKenna wrote, “Humble and Kind”:
When you get where you’re goin’
Don’t forget to turn back around
Help the next one in line
Always stay humble and kind
That rang with the very beginning of this yarn when, on May 2, 2016, Tagovailoa chose Alabama on TV in Honolulu, lending a further and powerful signal of Hawaiian footballers’ increased willingness to venture deeply into the mainland. Operating from Honolulu’s Saint Louis School, with its gasp-worthy views, its bougainvilleas, its titan of a hula program and its Heisman Trophy-winning alumnus in Marcus Mariota, the four-star Tagovailoa had placed No. 53 among all prospects and No. 3 among dual-threat quarterbacks, behind Kellen Mond (who would go to Texas A&M) and Tate Martell (Ohio State, then Miami).
To explain his early paring of his choice from six finalists to Alabama, Tagovailoa said: “I felt it was important for me to make this decision, because it gives coaches the opportunity to be able to recruit. If a coach was looking at me, and they were to wait, expecting me to sign with them, and then I didn’t sign with them, things don’t work out, that’s going to ruin relationships, and you don’t want to do that.”
From way back there on, then, it figured that as Saban heads for Alabama season No. 14, he would stop off to extol a presence from Nos. 11, 12 and 13. He called Tagovailoa’s impact on Alabama pretty much unsurpassed, called him “an unbelievable positive spirit” and said, “There’s a spirit about him that has impacted myself and everybody around him in a very, very positive way.” Added Saban, “I don’t think he’s ever been in my office one time, the whole time he’s been here, for anything but something that’s positive for helping him or helping the rest of our program.”
That time as a player concluded on New Year’s Day at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, where Tagovailoa cheered from the sideline, then made his one-crutch walk-off, a Citrus Bowl cap on backward as he entered the tunnel and heard professions of love from Alabama fans.
Together, the Hawaiian and the Alabamians had shared one national title (2017), one national runner-up finish (2018), one SEC title (2018), a Heisman Trophy runner-up nod (2018), and the 87 touchdown passes dwarfing 11 interceptions, the 7,442 passing yards, the dreamy passer ratings and the 340 rushing yards with nine touchdowns. They had shared a night to light up the memory, that of Jan. 8, 2018, when a freshman Tagovailoa appeared in the pinch after halftime, threw three touchdown passes, then cemented a dramatic overtime win over Georgia with one of college football’s all-time passes, a 41-yard beauty to DeVonta Smith that seemed to scream and sing as it traveled.
By Monday, it seemed their time together had been briefer than hoped while even more meaningful than imagined.