Sometimes, it pays to wait and watch, biding your time until you can show the world just what you can do.
For Tua Tagovailoa, his chance came on college football’s biggest stage, when Alabama coach Nick Saban decided at halftime to replace quarterback Jalen Hurts with his freshman from Hawaii, a guy who had been offered a scholarship only after Jake Fromm flipped his commitment to Georgia.
It was a wild ride from there, with Tagovailoa completing one of the best game-winning passes in college football since Doug Flutie in 1984 as the Crimson Tide won in overtime. But the glory of that 41-yard touchdown pass came after an ugly moment in which he took a sack. “Tua probably couldn’t have thrown that pass if I could have gotten ahold of him after the sack,” Saban said afterward, “but I couldn’t get out there fast enough.”
The legend of Tagovailoa was years in the making, of course, and has roots in Polynesia, with a nod to Marcus Mariota, the Heisman winner three years ago. “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, and dream big and strive for greatness.”
Tagovailoa had played only sparingly as a freshman, but Saban turned to him with the Tide down 13-0 at halftime and he threw two touchdown passes, along with an interception. He completed 14-of-26 passes for 166 yards and left everyone wondering why Saban hadn’t turned to him before.
“We’ve had this in our mind that if we were struggling offensively, that we would give Tua an opportunity, even in the last game,” Saban said. “No disrespect to Jalen, but the real thought was, you know, they came into the game thinking we were going to run the ball and be able to run quarterback runs, which we made a couple of explosive plays on. But with the absence of a passing game and being able to make explosive plays and being able to convert on third down, I didn’t feel we could run the ball well enough, and I thought Tua would give us a better chance and a spark, which he certainly did.
“I couldn’t be prouder of him taking advantage of the opportunity. We have total confidence in him. We played him a lot in a lot of games this year, and he did very well.”
But those opportunities came mostly in garbage time of blowout wins, even though Tagovailoa carried a reputation as the next great Hawaiian. His roots, though, go deeper than Mariota, whose Tennessee Titans will play the New England Patriots in the NFL playoffs Saturday.
Tagovailoa’s parents, Diane and Galu, told Sports Illustrated two years ago that Tuanigamanuolepola, the oldest of their four kids, slept as a child with a football in his arms. He was regularly scolded at his grandparents’ home for playing catch during prayers and, of course, he broke screens as he worked on his arm strength and accuracy, but managed not to break windows, thanks to his receivers. His paternal grandfather, Seu, is the one who predicted football stardom and went over every game with his grandson. Seu died of pneumonia in 2014, but his vision lived on.