On November 24th, 2019, as news trickled out that Tua Tagovailoa’s surgery had been wildly successful, and that no lingering issues were expected, there were two questions that immediately occupied the minds of Alabama fans: How the rest of the Crimson Tide’s season would pan out, and would he stay or would he go.
We know how the first inquiry ended, and today we now have an answer to the latter. Despite some drama, and more than a little speculation, fans have the answer to a question that seemed so clearly self-apparent for the last three years. Tua is heading to the NFL.
When the southpaw from Honolulu signed as an early enrollee in December of 2016, we knew we were on borrowed time. His tape was special. His rise up the depth chart that spring was meteoric. And, at the end of the day, his was a talent that was simply too good to keep on the bench, even as a freshman.
It was not until after Brian Daboll left, however, that we were aware that he had been the offensive coaches’ choice from almost the second he stepped foot on campus. So, for most fans, Tua really announced his presence on a beautiful September day in Nashville, where he flashed his escability, his nimbleness, his ability to keep his eyes downfield to make a play, and his great touch on the deep ball.
That day culminated with a positively Manziel-like play where he put it all together: a dip, a spin, eyes downfield as he stepped into the pocket, and then a 27-yard strike to Devonta Smith in the back of the endzone. It wowed fans. It wowed announcers. It famously wowed Vanderbilt fans. Those two would enter Alabama lore just four months later.
With Alabama’s offense a machine most of the season, and some of the best defensive talent in the nation, Tua only came on in relief his freshman season. But, when he did, it was alongside his 2017 NSD cohort, a ridiculous freshman blue chip bonanza that included the nation’s No. 1 running back and three true freshmen wide receivers — all of whom are making their own draft decisions soon. And the future looked bright.
And, that future came sooner than anyone expected. With the Alabama offense shut out in the Georgia Dome, and Jalen Hurts faltering down the stretch of the season, Tua came on in relief for the Tide at halftime of the College Football Playoff National Championship. What happened next was nothing short of miraculous. Trailing by as many as 20 points midway through the third, Tua and those magical freshmen wrote an ending so improbable as to be laughable.
It was the beginning of something special for No. 13. The man obliterated the record book, both in the NCAA and at the school. He made the impossible look attainable and the improbable seem routine.
His career was not without blemishes, of course. Tua suffered three separate ankle injuries, a badly sprained knee, and then of course a freakish injury in Starkville this season — all in just 24 starts. He exits with a career record of 22-2. But, in some of last season’s biggest games, he was ineffective against Georgia and then got the yips against Clemson for a half. We seem to forget, however, that the SECCG was just his 13th start, Clemson his 15th. He was still very much a freshman player.
But it was what he brought off the field and into the locker room that mattered just as much as what he was able to do on the field. He and Jalen Hurts were thick as thieves, eternally supportive of the other during a tough quarterback situation that could have and has derailed many other programs. When the least heralded walk-on scored or the biggest name on the marquee hit the endzone, the first one off the bench congratulating them was Tua.
Who can forget the most iconic recent photo in Alabama football history, after Jalen Hurts also improbably led his own second-half comeback against Georgia to claim the 2018 SEC Championship?
If I take any memory of Tagavailoa to my grave, it will be this one. It’s just the kind of person he is: All class, all character.
And we very lucky to have him, even if it was always just borrowed time.