The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The secret, ‘Rocky IV’-inspired recovery of Tua Tagovailoa, the NFL draft’s most important prospect

Tua Tagovailoa has spent the past three months working with former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer to recover from a severe hip injury suffered Nov. 16. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

Not long before Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa declared for the NFL draft, his father, Galu, called Super Bowl-winning quarterback Trent Dilfer with a request. Would Dilfer train his son to get him ready?

At first, Dilfer refused. He has spent the past year trying to build Lipscomb Academy, a tiny Christian high school in Nashville, into a national football power, and he didn’t want to add another project. He told Galu that Tagovailoa already had been coached well by Vinny Passas, his private coach back home in Hawaii, as well as Alabama’s coaches. Dilfer suggested the names of several personal quarterback trainers, all of whom would beg for the chance to work with a passer some believe to be the draft’s best.

But Galu told Dilfer that everything had changed the moment Tagovailoa was driven to the ground last Nov. 16 in a game against Mississippi State, dislocating his hip and ending his junior season. Once presumed the draft’s top pick, Tagovailoa had been flown to Houston for emergency surgery and faced an arduous recovery. Galu, who had known Dilfer since Tagovailoa was a teenager and part of the Elite 11 competition that Dilfer coaches, said he needed someone he could trust to train his son — someone who Dilfer would later say “would not kiss his Tua’s butt.”

“We will come to Nashville,” Galu told Dilfer.

Finally, Dilfer agreed, but with one condition: Tagovailoa’s training would be veiled in secrecy. He could not tell anyone where he was, and he could not post photos on Instagram or tweet his workouts. “The Rebuilding of Tua,” as Dilfer called it, would be “old school,” with none of the self-promotion that swirls around young athletes today — and it would be inspired by the isolated training regimen from the movie “Rocky IV.”

Perhaps the most audacious part of Dilfer’s plan, which has not previously been detailed publicly, was to hide Tagovailoa — a college football megastar whose recovery has the potential to change the shape of this year’s draft — in plain sight on a high school campus filled with students armed with smartphones.

And yet it worked.

“Nobody knew,” Dilfer says.

Why is Trent Dilfer coaching high school football? One reason is the son he lost.

For weeks, Tagovailoa worked in secret at Lipscomb’s football facility, sweating for hours on the school’s weight machines. Outside, LSU’s Joe Burrow had all but seized the draft’s top spot that had once been his, and everywhere the question bounced from NFL scouting meetings to talk radio shows: What about Tua’s hip? Will he be able to play? The Internet buzzed with speculation. Stashed away at Lipscomb, his only response came in the muffled crash of the weight room’s machines.

Now, almost a month after doctors proclaimed Tagovailoa’s hip healed and cleared him to start doing football drills, Dilfer is fielding calls from scouts, coaches and executives, all of whom have questions about the quarterback but have been unable to see him because of travel restrictions resulting from the novel coronavirus pandemic. Every time, he tells them the same thing.

“Tua’s 100 percent. He can play in a game tomorrow and be completely safe,” Dilfer says.

Tagovailoa arrived at Lipscomb in mid-January accompanied by Galu, his mother, Diane, and his personal trainer, John Ligsay. On the first day, Dilfer called a meeting with them and Lipscomb’s director of human performance, Luke Richesson, a former NFL team strength coach whom Dilfer had hired last year.

“Who here has seen ‘Rocky IV’?” Dilfer says he asked.

Tagovailoa, who was born 13 years after the movie’s 1985 release, said nothing. So Dilfer told the quarterback about how fighter Rocky Balboa’s best friend, Apollo Creed, had been killed in the ring by a towering, emotionless Soviet fighter named Ivan Drago, and that Rocky had to avenge Creed’s death by fighting Drago in Moscow. He described how Rocky went to train in a remote Russian cabin that Dilfer believed to be in the Ukraine, where Rocky ran for miles in the snow, did situps off the side of a hayloft and cut huge logs with a handsaw.

“He went to the Ukraine and he gets away from everything to build himself up to fight Drago,” Dilfer says he told Tua. “I don’t think you know what you are asking for in coming here, but we are going to literally rebuild you.”

At the time, the group had two goals: a March 9 appointment with hip doctors who could clear him to start running, and a personal pro day-style workout Tagovailoa planned to hold April 9 because his rehab would keep him from Alabama’s pro day. But to Dilfer, it was going to take a lot of work to hit those dates, especially because Tagovailoa was continuing to take classes at Alabama and needed time to study.

John Clayton's three-round NFL mock draft: Projections for 106 picks

So Dilfer set up a schedule. Tagovailoa would drive from his apartment near downtown early in the morning, long before Lipscomb’s students arrived, and study in Dilfer’s office inside the field house, only leaving twice a day: to work out with Richesson and Ligsay in the weight room located across the driveway, and to do football work with Dilfer in the field house. Then it was back to Dilfer’s office until it was time to return home to the apartment at night. Dilfer even brought in a local chef, David Fults, to make all of Tagovailoa’s meals, turning an adjacent storage closet into a temporary kitchen.

“If you put a GPS on Tua, you would see it was straight from his apartment to Trent’s office to the weight room,” says a person who has direct knowledge of Tagovailoa’s training but is not authorized to speak publicly about it.

The work was grueling. Tagovailoa spent 2½ hours each morning in the weight room and another 2½ in the afternoon, always avoiding the notice of Lipscomb’s football players who also use the weight room. He had to slide with resistance bands wrapped around his shins, did pushups from his elbows and pulled his legs in the air while dangling from the top of a weight machine. All of the drills were designed to not only heal his hip and an ankle he injured in college but to make them stronger than before.

“He went through torture,” Dilfer says.

To replicate passing work, Dilfer had Tagovailoa throw while sitting in a chair. For a while, he could only toss the ball 10 yards. So Dilfer brought in former Arizona Cardinals and Tennessee Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt to drill him on the nuances of modern NFL offenses. For most of January and February, this is how Tagovailoa spent his 2½ hours of football workouts — watching film and diagramming plays on a whiteboard with Whisenhunt, preparing him for meetings with teams.

One day, Tagovailoa told Dilfer he had finally watched “Rocky IV.”

“This is the Ukraine,” Dilfer remembers Tagovailoa saying.

In late February, Tagovailoa went to the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, where he mentioned Dilfer at a news conference but revealed little about his workouts.

“Mentally, it’s been a grind,” he said that day. “The rehab process has been a grind.”

Back in his personal Ukraine, the rebuilding of Tua ground on. In early March, Dilfer began to worry about the looming pro day, only a month away. Because Tagovailoa had not met the doctors yet, he couldn’t really do throwing exercises. Would Dilfer have enough time to get him ready?

Finally, on March 9, the doctors cleared him. Two days later, Tagovailoa took his first real throws. As Dilfer watched that day, his worry disappeared. Tagovailoa’s throws rolled perfectly off his fingertips, rocketing with precision. Soon, he was scampering across the field, firing passes while leaping into the air. With each session the throws got longer, the tasks more challenging, until Tagovailoa was completing most of the throws he would need in an actual game.

The other day, Dilfer says he noticed that Tagovailoa was actually throwing harder at the end of his sessions, which is rare.

“If he would have never gotten hurt there would have been no discussion about who the best player in the draft is,” Dilfer says. “He throws the football better than anyone throws the football. He throws better than Aaron Rodgers and Dan Marino. Whoever gets him wins the draft because you are getting a Hall of Fame player.”

Then he adds, “There are some really, really good quarterbacks in this draft, but the best one is Tua.”

Dilfer isn’t the only one with a positive assessment. A few weeks back, ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said that if Tagovailoa were healthy, McShay would rank him higher than Burrow, who is widely expected to become the first overall pick of the Cincinnati Bengals.

Where Tagovailoa will be drafted remains unknown, in part because teams won’t be able to have their doctors do in-person checkups of his health because of the pandemic, which has also altered Tagovailoa’s routine. The April 9 pro day was canceled, and his workouts now often just consist of him, Dilfer and someone to catch passes.

“Tua looks terrific,” Dilfer says. “But that’s what the Ukraine is for. It was to build him back up.”

Read more:

NFL appears poised to scrap rule that made pass interference reviewable by replay

Read between the lines of Tom Brady’s Players’ Tribune essay: He’s unhappy with Bill Belichick

With NFL front offices working from home, the draft process looks a lot different this year