Just blocks from the Heisman of oceans, members of Tua Tagovailoa’s extended family gathered as they do all year for all things Tua and Alabama — even for those 6 or 7 a.m. Hawaii time kickoffs — on an outdoor porch, next to the house that belongs to everybody in the gigantic family. Per usual, they had their large TV on the wall, near the posters of Tua such as the one with the family slogan, “Give ’em heaven.” As Tua’s aunt Nona Tagovailoa-Etse said: “We don’t speak negative things, like, ‘Give ’em hell.’ Everything, we turn into heaven. So it’s always the same. No matter the outcome, we speak life.”
They did lack several of their own. To New York had gone Tagovailoa’s parents, who reside now in Alabama, plus his uncle and aunt (both pastors), another aunt, another aunt, another uncle — at least. Even given that, the quarterback’s late grandparents, Seu and Leaniva, had nine children, 35 grandchildren and by now four great-grandchildren. About 20 people had arrived by around 3:30 p.m., halfway through the show, when Tua’s Aunt Nona muted the TV and his Aunt Rama led a pre-food prayer in which she said, “Thank you for the three awesome men that are there [as finalists].”
By the time the annually interminable Heisman ceremony had gotten around to naming the winner, the guests had grown to about 40, including more relatives, friends, infants, tykes and members of the local youth football program the family runs, the Sabers. As the last, nervous minutes arrived, a big laugh came when the Heisman trustee charged with announcing the winner hesitated, hesitated and then mispronounced “Tagovailoa.”
Once Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray became the winner, a few guests gave an audible but happy, “Awww,” and then Tua’s Uncle Seu, the ninth of the nine children, exclaimed, “Right on, Kyler!” Just a week prior, with ESPN writer Wright Thompson visiting for the Alabama-Georgia SEC championship game, the family had cheered on Tagovailoa’s replacement, Jalen Hurts, to whom Seu referred as “nephew.”
“Love you, Tua!” shouted his cousin, Tichael.
Then, hands held in a giant circle, on the other side of the world, they had a post-Heisman prayer, conducted by family friend and pastor Lui Imo. “No sadness; let there be continued joy,” he prayed at one point, and several others hollered, “Yeah!” He said also, “Thank you for allowing Tua to be in this time and place,” and, “You have raised one of our own, from Ewa Beach, to be in the spotlight.”
The kid they had known since birth, most of them, had hoarded the most votes ever for a runner-up finisher.
Much as it had four years ago when the trophy went to the Hawaiian from Tagovailoa’s Saint Louis School, Marcus Mariota, the Heisman had gone way out west, even this time even farther west: west of Honolulu, beyond Pearl Harbor and then a slight tuck south, where you can sit at the state beach and look back across at the skyline of Waikiki.
It had come into a working-class neighborhood by the ocean sporting campaign signs with the candidates gloriously in Hawaiian shirts, with an inflatable Santa above a house looking as crazy as it always does in 78 degrees, with plastic icicles dangling from another house, to a corner house where people drive by during football events and honk horns, aware of the concern ongoing on the porch behind the palm trees.
It’s a house with three banners near the roof: Alabama, Navy and Notre Dame, for this family also has Tagovailoa’s cousins, Navy offensive tackle Adam Amosa-Tagovailoa and Notre Dame defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa. (That means Seu Tagovailoa, who dreamed of grandsons playing football, will have two in the College Football Playoff.) Some partygoers wore mixed, front-back, Navy-Notre Dame jerseys.
Children played on outdoor sofas. The crowd began to gather and reveal an astonishing array of the available Tua T-shirts, plus that curious sight of Hawaiians wearing Alabama gear. One of Tua’s uncles by marriage, Junior Moega, wore a shirt with a passage on the back honoring the departed Seu Tagovailoa (1943-2014). In the house where Tua Tagovailoa grew up, one side of the kitchen bears an astounding bounty of trophies. Given the breeze outside, one of the canopies was held down by a rope wrapped around, fittingly, a dumbbell. More people arrived. Tichael brought flowers for the tables.
They served sushi, poke, fried chicken, sweets. A fine December butterfly happened by.
The family and friends watched with a knowledgeable silence. They listened as Tua’s mother, Diane, told of her son’s high school days with, “No pressure, son, but everybody’s going to be at your game tonight — all 50 of us.”
A big laugh came when Tagovailoa told how the mainland coaches had realized of Hawaiians, “We’re not just big kids, just big guys that can play lineman, defense.” Another came when Tagovailoa said of the idea of Alabama Coach Nick Saban surfing, “Let’s just say Coach needs to stick to coaching.”
While a slight disappointment seemed palpable moments later, and the prayer and the song that followed dredged a few tears here and there, it remains a family amazed that the things the grandfather used to say when his son, Seu, drove him to Tua’s youth games somehow have reached fruition, all these Earth-curvature miles away.
Said Seu, the younger: “I’ve been a part of Tua’s life since he was born. Just seeing him on a big stage. I just think this generation, my dad really impacted [his grandchildren]. My dad always spoke highly of his kids; he always told them his kids were going to be successful in life. And just to see him on TV like this . . . ”