There was a post on Reddit in the aftermath of Alabama landing the No. 1-rated high-school quarterback in the nation for 2016, Tuanigamanuolepola Tagovailoa, of Saint Louis High School in Hawaii, that read: “I haven’t heard it mentioned so I thought I would address the elephant in the room. He seems like a smart kid, so I’m wondering how his transition to the States has been as far as communication goes? Are we doing anything different like special playbooks or relying on signals more when he’s in the game?
“I thought I saw him point to receivers a couple of times (in the Spring Game) and thought the defenses might catch on if he’s pointing to who he’s going to throw the ball to. The only time I’ve been out of the country is when I was shipped to Vietnam and I was as confused as a yankee learning to square dance.”
As he looked off Georgia’s strong safety Dominick Sanders and ripped a beautiful strike to fellow freshman DeVonta Smith for a walk off 41-yard touchdown in overtime to win the Crimson Tide their 17th National Championship and fifth under Nick Saban, it was fairly clear to everyone that Tua Tagovailoa could square dance.
Tagovailoa was eight years old when he first appeared on the radar, showing up one afternoon at a passing camp in Honolulu. Chided by the older kids, he told them he needed to warm up for his Pop Warner game so they indulged him, letting him take a snap or two. Receivers ran short routes figuring that was about as far as he could throw it. But one ventured 30 or so yards downfield towards the goalline more in hope than in expectation. Tagovailoa ignored the underneath runners and instead threw a frozen rope into the end zone, perfectly in stride. Coaches and players stopped what they were doing and stared in disbelief. The kid ignored them, bent down and picked up another ball.
Eleven years later, he would come off the bench for an ineffective Jalen Hurts and rally Alabama from 20-3 down, throwing three touchdowns and offering Saban the sort of passing quarterback he has never had as a head coach. So what drove the young man from the islands to perform with such presence in the very biggest moment? He would say God, whom he thanked three times in a 93-second postgame interview with ESPN. Others would say his mentor, Marcus Mariota, another Saint Louis alum who rose from relative anonymity to become college football’s best player, lifting Polynesia firmly into the football spotlight. “He set the foundation,” Tagovailoa said after Mariota won the Heisman Trophy in 2014, “for me and everyone else from here.”
Mariota’s association with Tagovailoa runs deep. The Tennessee Titans passer was one of those who stood and watched that first day in Honolulu as the older kids sniggered. He wanted no part of the ridicule, and instead introduced himself. The pair talked for a while and then he stood and watched Tagovailoa throw, occasionally correcting his technique. A bond was formed and over the years they’ve stayed in touch. “I do believe there’s different kinds of leadership,” Mariota told reporters after winning the Heisman. “Sometimes showing you care for somebody means so much more than yelling at them.”
That night, his young protege watched on the big screen in the hall of Saint Louis High School along with hundreds of others. Mariota was everything he wanted to become, both as a quarterback and in representing the island of Hawaii. “To the Polynesian community, I hope and pray that this is only the beginning,” Mariota said as he accepted the award that night. “Young Poly athletes everywhere, you should take this as motivation, dream big and strive for greatness.” That message struck a chord with Tagovailoa. “Listening to his speech not only gives kids in Saint Louis hope but the whole state of Hawaii hopes that we too can accomplish bigger and better things that kids on the mainland can accomplish,” he would say shortly afterwards.
First impressions are important to Tagovailoa. KHON TV’s sports director Rob DeMello initially encountered him at a 2014 quarterback challenge for local youngsters. Mariota was there, along with local passing guru Vinny Passas, UCF’s current starting QB McKenzie Milton (who then played for Mililani High) and the University of Hawaii starter Max Wittek. And standing alongside Mariota was a mystery kid that nobody had seen throw.
Word had spread that he was sophomore at Saint Louis but, because island kids can’t play varsity ball as freshman, he was an afterthought. A large crowd was on hand as each passer took turns throwing it down the field, to loud cheers from the crowd. “Marcus was the penultimate guy to throw,” DeMello tells Gridiron. “And, remember, he was a junior at Oregon, about to go back for his senior year, his Heisman year. He was a big deal. And so he throws and the crowd go wild. And then this kid steps up. And he rips it down the field further than Marcus did, this tight spiral that made a noise like a rocket as it came off his hand. Nobody knows what to say. And then there’s these ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from the crowd, almost in disbelief. Like ‘did that just happen?’. And the more they threw that day, the more it was clear to everyone that Tua was head and shoulders above everyone throwing the ball that day. Even Marcus.”
As the day petered out DeMello wandered over to talk to the kid who’d stolen the show, who by now was standing with his parents ready to leave, and struck up conversation that soon became a close friendship which endures to this day. “He’s just a great kid. A great kid. I mean, he announced live on my show his college destination. No. 1 high-school quarterback in the nation says he’s going to the biggest school in college football on my show. Loyalty and first impressions are everything to him.”
Competing is also very important. As DeMello reminisces about Tagovailoa on the phone to Gridiron from Hawaii, he tells us about the first game Tua ever played at Saint Louis, ironically coming off the bench at halftime down 40-10 against McKenzie Milton’s highly ranked Mililani. “Tua launched this fierce second-half rally, throwing the ball all over the field,” he said, “and finally losing 65-48. He had more than 300 yards passing and five touchdowns. A week later, Josh Rosen’s in town with St. John Bosco High. Tua started again and hung up a bunch of points and big numbers. If people didn’t know he was special before, they did then.”
DeMello speaks as if talking about one of his own sons. And perhaps, in a way, that is what he is. A son of Hawaii at least. “This place is really important to us,” says DeMello. “You see it through Marcus and now through Tua. We have a Napoleonic complex over here. We always need to prove that we can keep up with the continental United States. Hawaii gets forgotten. But because of Tua, no-one’s forgetting us now.”
One of the island’s greatest sporting sons is June Jones. The run-and-shoot guru has been coaching in college, the CFL and the NFL since 1983 and has seen just about everything in his career. But Tagovailoa is something different. “The kid is special,” he tells Gridiron just hours after the National Championship Game. “I mean right away I’d put him in the Steve Young category in terms of comparison, but with a better arm. That’s who he reminds me of a little bit. He can move and lead like Steve could, but he can make more throws. And he’s got a much bigger arm.”
Jones, who worked with Tagovailoa in 2015 as a consultant with Saint Louis and then coached his brother Taulia in 2016 at nearby Kapolei High School, says that Tua “has the ability to be the best passer I’ve ever seen. He’ll need to prove it, but he’s got absolutely everything.” And Jones would know. In his 35-year coaching career, he has worked with the likes of Jim Kelly, Warren Moon, Rodney Peete, Brett Favre and Jeff George in the NFL and two of the most prolific passers in NCAA history, Colt Brennan and Timmy Chang.
“When I worked with Tua, what stood out is how accurate he was with the ball,” said Jones. “I mean it’s unerring. You just don’t see that advanced ball placement in a kid of his age. And he’s hungry for coaching. I remember when I went and coached his brother at Kapolei for a season, Tua would come and sit in our quarterback meetings because he just had this thirst for knowledge. He wanted to learn so much about the game. I’ve never seen that before. Ever.”
And Jones isn’t the only former NFL alumni who believes Tagovailoa is special. Trent Dilfer, who coached him at the Nike Elite 11 Camp in 2016, where Tua won the MVP award, is equally smitten. “The ball looks like Aaron Rodgers’ in the air. It spins more, it has more energy to it,” he said. “And then he kind of reminds you of some Russell Wilson. He’s not the tallest guy but he’s super athletic. It’s just a really unique skillset that he has and of all the kids I’ve ever coached, I’ve never seen one improve more rapidly than him.”
It was there at the Nike Camp that Alabama’s recruiting staff first laid eyes on him. “He was heavily leaning towards schools on the West Coast,” Jones adds. “And I was with him every step of the way during that process. We had Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA. They all had shots. And USC was the heavy favourite. But I’d worked with Coach Saban in the NFL and when he saw him he knew there was something special about this kid. And there is.”
Yet Tua may never have ended up in Tuscaloosa but for strange twist of fate: Jake Fromm, who played against Alabama in the National Championship for Georgia, was firmly committed to the Tide during the process. Tagovailoa, meanwhile, started leaning heavily towards the Bulldogs. But when Fromm flipped his commitment, Tagavailoa did the same. “We wanted to wait and make it official here and make it special because it’s something that no Hawaiian kid has gone through,” he told DeMello during his announcement.
“Nobody at any position and no one in general, as far as I know, has gotten the opportunity to play at Alabama or even just attended the school. It’s such a blessing. And you can’t really lose yourself if you’re a kid going to Tuscaloosa. Things down here in Hawaii are very similar. We go to church every Sunday. People are treated like family there just like here. There’s many similarities and you want to be somewhere that feels like home and that’s what Alabama feels like.”
An early entrant with the Tide, he very much looked the part of a major recruit during the spring, but never came close to challenging Jalen Hurts – who was coming off a spectacular freshman season. In practice his snaps largely came against Alabama’s second string defense and, as Saban noted after the spring game, he failed to get a first down going against the starters. He played sparingly during the season, appearing in mop-up duty with mixed results. Against Tennessee, for instance, he threw pick six for the Vols’ only score of the game. “You probably don’t know Tua very well,” said Saban afterwards. “But we knew he’d bounce back. He felt bad, but we stuck with him so he could see that we had confidence in him.”
And it was Saban who showed the ultimate confidence in him, dramatically benching Hurts – who’d lost only twice in two seasons and carried the Tide to back-to-back championship games. Yes, he was struggling, having completed just three-of-eight passes for 21 yards and, yes, Bama trailed by 13 – but he’s a former SEC Offensive Player of the Year with 61 career touchdowns. It was a call for the ages. “Coach brought the quarterbacks together at the half,” Tagavailoa told ESPN after the game. “And that’s when he made the statement, ‘Tua, you’re going to start out the second half and we’re going to see how things go’. And that was it really. We just went from there.” Hurts confirmed what happened. “Ain’t no conversation, it was all business,” he said. “It was a decision he made. He’s a boss and he made a great choice. The only choice.”
Ask Saban, and there was never a doubt. The offense was struggling, he knew Georgia had prepared all week for a run-heavy gameplan and a curveball seemed in order. “I just didn’t feel we could run the ball well enough,” he said after the game, “We had this in our mind that if we were struggling offensively, that we would give Tua an opportunity. No disrespect to Jalen but I thought Tua would give us a better chance and a spark, which he certainly did.” Ask his players, and there was never a doubt, either.
Bradley Bozeman, the starting centre who proposed after the game (she said yes!), tells Gridiron: “Coach Saban told us he was switching quarterbacks and we knew we just had to get on with our job. We believed in Tua.”
Smith heard the call come in – Seattle – and knew he had a chance to make history. On second-and-26 in overtime, with Alabama trailing Georgia 23-20 and with doubts surrounding their kicker after he had just missed a chip-shot game-winner, the freshman receiver was going to run a go route into the end zone.
He smiled and looked over at his quarterback. There was no concern about communication or special playbooks or reliance on signals. No pointing at receivers. Just three words.
“Trust me, bro,” Smith told him.
Tagovailoa didn’t say a word back, he simply nodded his head. This was the moment he’d waited a lifetime for. That his island history demanded of him. Seconds later, the game was over.
This article originally appeared in Issue XXXVI of Gridiron magazine – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE