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For Maryland QB Taulia Tagovailoa, being Tua’s brother isn’t a burden

Taulia Tagovailoa has high expectations entering his second season as Maryland's starting quarterback. (Craig Hudson/For the Washington Post)

Taulia Tagovailoa had hardly played a meaningful snap at the college level before he joined the Maryland football program, yet he represented a fresh burst of optimism. New quarterbacks often provide that boost to middling teams, and Tagovailoa’s standout high school career gave credence to the hype. But that wasn’t the primary source of belief. That came from his last name and a permanent descriptor: Tua’s brother.

For years, Taulia has calmly navigated this dynamic — the way he’s following in the path of his older brother, whose national title-winning touchdown pass in overtime made him an Alabama hero before he went on to deliver one of the most prolific seasons in college football history. Taulia started his high school career in Hawaii as Tua developed into one of the nation’s top recruits. When the family moved to Alabaster, Ala., Taulia played his final two high school seasons in a football-obsessed area an hour up the road from Tuscaloosa, where Tua soon became a star.

Even at Maryland, where Taulia is more independent than ever — roughly 1,000 miles from Tua, now the Miami Dolphins’ starting quarterback, and a two-hour plane ride from his parents, Diane and Galu, who still live in Alabama — he’s asked about Tua all the time. As Taulia begins his second season as the Terrapins’ starter, with the opener Saturday against West Virginia, he’s guided by leaders his parents trust, Coach Michael Locksley and offensive coordinator Dan Enos. They earned that assurance based on their time with Tua as coaches at Alabama.

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This jarringly similar setup — those two offensive minds guiding a quarterback with Tagovailoa on his jersey — prompts even more optimism than a year ago, when there was already a heaping dose of ready-made comparisons.

But Taulia doesn’t view his brother’s shadow as a burden. When he could shy away from Tua-related conversations, he leans in. After Taulia won his first game as Maryland’s quarterback — perhaps the first time in college he made a name for himself with his own exceptional performance — he wore his brother’s Dolphins jersey afterward. He did so again the following weekend. That’s how he decided to celebrate.

“Any chance I get to talk about him,” Taulia said, “I love talking about Tua.”

Tua and Taulia have two younger sisters, Taylor and Taysia. The elder family members set the example — that their lives should center on their Christian faith and relationships with one another. Diane has nine siblings and Galu has eight. All together, Taulia has around 70 cousins, and they grew up with tight bonds in Hawaii. The kids, who never wanted to disappoint their family, attended school together and everyone gathered at church and potlucks.

Many of the cousins played in the same youth football league, where Taulia started out as Tua’s center because he was a self-described “chunky” kid inspired by an uncle who played that position in college. Eventually, when Tua went to private school for seventh grade and couldn’t play with the little league team anymore, Taulia took over his brother’s position. He expected it to be easy because Tua made it seem that way. He learned the position was more complicated than it looked but caught on quickly, solidifying his status as the next great quarterback in the family.

Faith comes first for the Tagovailoas, and “the second-biggest thing is family,” Taulia said, “being together, right or wrong, no matter what.”

Their Samoan culture, as well as this premium on time spent together, which has only intensified since the two oldest left home, forged a tightknit family. Diane and Galu plan to attend each of Tua’s and Taulia’s games this season, which will often require busy travel weekends hopping from a college town to an NFL city.

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When Tua enrolled at Alabama, more than 4,000 miles away from Ewa Beach, Hawaii, the family moved, leaving behind all those relatives, their traditions and culture, so they could be closer to their oldest child during his college career. They found Thompson High, a football program fond of passing the ball, so Taulia could thrive, and settled into the community. Last week, even with Taulia three years removed from high school, Diane texted the football coach, Mark Freeman, to wish the team luck in that week’s game.

The family could have moved again, following Taulia to Maryland, but they decided to stay put. Taulia, who lives in his own apartment, is accustomed to seeing his parents watching practices, so now everything feels different. Diane wishes she could greet him at home at the end of each day, and she particularly misses being there on the first day of training camp and when school starts.

Taulia talks with his parents and Tua every day. His relationship with his brother hasn’t wavered — “Tua’s the man,” Taulia said — and his mom laughed while admitting her younger son would rather spend his time off with Tua in Miami than with his parents in Alabama.

“This move for Taulia in Maryland has made us all stronger as a family,” Diane said. “It's provided great growth, just really enhanced our trust and our faith, because him being away, us not being there, it's so foreign for us as a family.”

Taulia never visited Maryland before he committed to transfer. The closest he had traveled was to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony, when Tua finished as the runner-up after his record-setting 2018 season. “It’s so hard for us to trust anyone with our kids,” Diane said, and that made the Maryland program led by Locksley an obvious choice.

Locksley served as the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator during that 2018 season, and he says now, “I probably wouldn’t be here as the head coach at Maryland if it wasn’t for the job that his brother did at Alabama.” Last season, Tua joined Locksley and Taulia’s meetings via FaceTime most Thursdays as they prepared for upcoming games.

“I don’t necessarily see the shadow or the last name creating any type of anxiety for him because he’s here in Maryland,” Locksley said of his 21-year-old quarterback. “He’s got a great last name. He comes from a great family.”

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Taulia downplays any pressure he might feel. He says just playing quarterback, the position most often criticized and praised, carries significant expectations, no matter who his brother is. But Taulia admits that Tua set the standard — for Alabama quarterbacks, for his family and for himself.

When asked whether Taulia felt additional pressure because of his brother’s accomplishments, Freeman, his high school coach, said: “Who wouldn’t?” But Freeman, an Alabama graduate, never went out of his way to avoid mentioning Tua. That’s not what Taulia wanted.

Tua helps Taulia manage these never-ending comparisons. He has dealt with them, too, just in a different way. Before graduating high school, Tua was already considered the next Marcus Mariota, another quarterback of Polynesian descent. Tua and Taulia’s support for each other fills their parents with pride. Taulia is an engaged viewer when the Dolphins play, and Tua attended all the Thompson High games he could.

“That's how we were raised — to celebrate each other always,” Diane said.

Taulia wants to be viewed as his own person, and his parents ingrained in their children that they shouldn’t aspire to be like someone else. Taulia is more sensitive than his brother, Diane said, and leadership roles come more naturally for Tua because he’s the oldest. Freeman thought Taulia had a more serious demeanor, but on the field, the similarities were at times striking — the way both brothers look to extend plays and how they understand the big-picture vision of the offense.

“I feel like every time I touch the field, there are going to be a lot of comparisons,” Taulia said. “But I just try to play football and have fun.”

This season will bring heightened expectations. Taulia showed flashes of promise in 2020 but sometimes struggled. The hope is that, after a year of practice in this system, those positive moments will become the norm. At Alabama, where Taulia spent his freshman season as the third quarterback, it was hard for outsiders to view him as anyone but Tua’s brother. His move to Maryland helped magnify the difference between the two.

As his career progresses, Taulia has noticed more people referring to him by his first name rather than as Tua’s little brother. But he quickly notes, “I’m okay with both.” His last name will always hark back to that connection, and his family’s values make it so he hardly minds. If there’s a looming shadow brought on by Tua’s career, Taulia doesn’t feel a need to push it away, because that’s his brother, a member of his family. Any celebration of his success isn’t only about himself.

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