Tua Tagovailoa Still Has Much to Prove—For His Name and His Culture
This story appears in the Dec. 31, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
The dreams started coming to Seu Tagovailoa almost 20 years ago, these visions that unveiled the prophecy of a boy whose greatness would be revealed on the football field. Seu would prop his infant grandson on one knee and tell the child known as Tua, “Your name is everything. And one day, it will be known all over the world.”
Seu had moved from American Samoa to Hawaii years earlier in search of more opportunities for his six daughters and three sons. He left behind his status in the village and his job as a police officer and became a hotel security guard and the head deacon at their small family church in working class Ewa Beach on the island of Oahu. He prayed every day and ministered every weekend, ferrying the young children in his small car, making the rest of his family take the bus.
More than anything, Tua’s grandfather sought to influence future generations of Tagovailoas by sowing fearlessness in their souls. He would tell them that they were lions, strong and daring and capable of transforming sheep into mighty warriors. This was Tua’s destiny, of that Seu was certain, and if the prophecy of his oldest grandson seemed to border on delusion or hyperbole, he assured Tua that if he did only what was asked of him, the nonbelievers would know his name in time. “My father saw in Tua something the world is just starting to see now,” says his aunt, Sai Amosa. “That he’s playing for God and playing for the universe. An audience of one and an audience of all.”
For years, as the boy became a star quarterback and his renown began to spread, Tua tales sometimes sounded closer to fable than truth. Seu passed away in 2014 from pneumonia, but three years later his laid-back and lefthanded grandson landed a scholarship at college football’s premier program. Tua played sparingly throughout his freshman season, in 2017. Not yet a savior, he was relegated to spot duty, the lion now in waiting, backing up Jalen Hurts, the reigning SEC offensive player of the year.
And then it happened, without a warning, on a stage so large only Seu could have envisioned it 20 years ago. At halftime of the national championship game last January, Georgia leads 13–0. Alabama can hardly move the ball. Coach Nick Saban gathers the quarterbacks in the locker room. “Tua, you’re going to start the second half, and we’ll see how it goes from there,” he says. “We’ll rotate if we need to.”
Tua’s parents, Galu (Na-LOO) and Diane, sit nervously in the stands at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, next to the Bama band. They’re praying and frustrated, at least until they see Tua kiss his hand and point to the sky. Galu turns to his wife. “Hon,” he says, “I think he’s going in.”
Their son plays the second half like a quarterback with limited experience and limitless potential, mixing touchdowns with interceptions, following the unforgettable scrambles with unforgiveable sacks. He fearlessly draws the Crimson Tide even. Diane can no longer watch, choosing to sing church hymns instead. On Alabama’s first play of overtime, trailing by three, Tua takes a sack for a 16-yard loss. He gathers his teammates in the huddle and voices his own vision: that they will win if only they believe. On the very next play he unleashes a rainbow spiral down the left sideline to wideout DeVonta Smith. The 41-yard touchdown, says college football maven Paul Finebaum, is “the greatest singular moment I’ve ever seen.” Or, as Tide legend Joe Namath calls it, “The throw that changed everything.”
The throw did change everything and marked the exact moment—Jan. 8, 2018—when the world came to know the name Tua Tagovailoa, just as his grandfather predicted. So green was Tua that he didn’t know the Tide had won the title on that play. His mom never even saw the pass. Walking out of the stadium, his father says, “It felt like we were floating.”
That night marked the beginning of Tua’s new story, before he confronted a more complicated reality in 2018. Before he transformed the Crimson Tide into an offensive juggernaut, went undefeated and advanced to the College Football Playoff. Before he limped out of the SEC championship game. Before right-ankle surgery. Before he narrowly lost the Heisman Trophy to Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray. Before his family had to defend their way of life, the traditions of the past clashing with the perfection of the present, from the prophecy to this new reality, in only 11 months.
In the third quarter of that national title game, after Tagovailoa threw a pick, he sauntered over to Nick Saban, threw an arm around him and said, “It’s going to be O.K., Coach.” Saban glared back, thinking, “I’ve been coaching for 40-something years, and this kid ...”
Saban laughed as he retold the story in his office in November, then spit back Tua’s phrasing, his voice dripping sarcasm. It’s going to be O.K., Coach.
After the confetti fell and the celebration started, Saban cornered his quarterback in the locker room and told Tua he could not, under any circumstance, take that sack. Tua joked he needed more room to throw. “That s--- ain’t funny,” Saban responded, half kidding but still coaching, even after winning his fifth national title since 2009.
It’s easy, like with those two anecdotes, to frame Tagovailoa’s breezy island nature and too-blessed-to-be-stressed vibe in diametric opposition to the ways of college football’s favorite curmudgeon. But that’s not true. Saban recalls when Kobe Bryant spoke to his team one afternoon earlier this season. The NBA legend implored the players to clearly understand what motivates them, then seize on that motivation to separate themselves. Saban won’t venture to guess what drives Tua, but it seems obvious: the same thing as his coach.
Finebaum recalls when Saban won his first national title at Alabama, over Texas in early 2010. They bumped into each other at a cocktail party and Saban turned a perfunctory How ya doin’, Coach? into a screed over how many problems the championship promised to create for him, like the recruiting days he lost. “Saban is 67 years old, and to this day, he wakes up trying to prove to his father that he’s worthy,” says Finebaum, a self-described Sabanologist. “There’s always a reverence there. He knows he’s still trying to win his father’s love and respect.”
Saban says he finds his quarterback’s personality “pleasant, pleasing and upbeat; never much negative, very respectful.” He draws a direct line there to Tua’s parents and a child-rearing philosophy he describes as “unusual in this day and age.” He’s asked what he means by that. “I just think everybody grows up a little different now,” Saban says, choosing his words carefully. “My dad used to have a reckoning every time we had dinner together. Did you cut the grass today? Did you sweep? I just think that as people grow up [now], they don’t have the same sense of values that us old-fashioned folks have. I think my dad was a lot like his.”
That’s not only true, but Saban reminds Tua’s aunt of both her father and her brother, Tua’s dad. “When I see him yelling at Tua on the side, I giggle,” Sai Amosa says. “They’re no different, to be honest.”
Tua doesn’t disagree. Both his father and his coach come from a more rigid generation that shaped their approach to life. He says his parents reinforced the tenets of their culture—listen to elders, focus on content rather than delivery—and that’s the same approach he uses with his coach. Asked if his father holds more in common with Saban than is visible on the surface, Tua says something jolting: “Well, see the coaches here, they can’t hit us.”
The night after the championship, the Tagovailoas celebrated at the team hotel, singing and praying and taking pictures. None of them could sleep, as they recalled Tua’s grandfather and his impact on his grandson. Tua finally crashed around noon the next day, after returning to Tuscaloosa with his family, which had moved to Alabama to support him. But his father woke him later that afternoon. “Time to train,” he told Tua, and they ran through agility and footwork drills, then conducted a 90-minute throwing session.
Throughout the winter Tua worked with Galu in addition to his commitments at Alabama, even the night of the team’s championship parade. As he prepared for a season in which he’d be one of the most celebrated and talked about players in the country, he leaned on those values his parents had instilled in him from an early age. Asked if he can remember the last time he spent a full week away from football, he says, “I’ve never had a week off. Ever.”
But what made Tua into Tua and perfect for Saban also birthed unintended consequences. Suddenly, Tua was playing for God, the universe and his Samoan culture, all at once.
Galu dabbled in powerlifting in Hawaii, taught himself how to coach football, and met Diane at church. They bonded over their faith, their large families (combined, they have 17 siblings) and their Samoan heritage. They had four children and named their firstborn Tuanigamanuolepola, after a sports fanatic uncle whose playing days ended when he tipped the scales around 500 pounds. “One day, you’ll see your name in the paper,” Galu told his brother, sounding much like their dad.
Others weren’t as sure at first. Young Tua was “a rascal boy,” according to his maternal grandmother, Paiau Faavi. He was the first awake and the last to bed and his uncles nicknamed him Chronic, because he oozed endless energy. He broke windows, door screens and light fixtures with errant throws and slept with a football tucked under the crook of his arm. Only the movie The Lion King seemed to calm him.
“Respect was the biggest thing,” Tua says. “Discipline as well and our faith. We grew up reading the Bible and learning about God, and within our sports, within our schooling, we’d get disciplined if we didn’t do things the right way. Even around the house.” His parents referred to their methodology by a simple phrase: the Bible and the belt.
It’s jarring to hear Tua says he was “beat” when punished but both he and his parents say he was disciplined for the same transgressions as other Samoan children, not for throwing interceptions, or having a bad game. The respect that Tua mentioned was the most important factor there. If he exhibited disobedience, or if he brought shame on his family, he got the belt or spankings. No one in his family or family friends in Hawaii saw this discipline as unusual, even when outsiders did. He’s asked if that ever made him fearful. “Nah,” he says. “We were forced to do things. If we didn’t, we knew the consequences, and the consequences were bad.”
Tua said something similar to ESPN for a video feature that ran the morning of the SEC championship. The backlash was intense, the segment described as tone-deaf, his parents painted as out of touch. Tua, speaking after the conference title game, says of the reaction: “There’s just a big lack of knowledge with our culture compared to other people’s culture.”
“Culture is different everywhere,” he adds. “People are raised different. [I] believe lots of kids in our culture thrive because of respect they give their parents and others in authority.”
Asked about his younger brother, Taulia, another star quarterback who is a senior at Thompson High School in Alabaster and has committed to play for the Tide, and their two sisters, Tua says they all served the same purpose. “Outside of all our sports lives, we’re just children to our parents,” he says.
While many condemned the Tagovailoas’ methods as unnecessarily extreme—or abuse—the family stands by them. Their ancestors lived in Samoan villages where if they started a fight with another family they might have to feed the entire village for a week as punishment. Disgrace the family’s name and they could be banished. Act out at school and teachers could legally spank or hit them. Galu and Diane dismiss the notion that Tua could have learned the same values with the Bible but not the belt.
Tua doesn’t know any other life. Someday, perhaps he will resent and reject the methods, and conclude they inflicted emotional damage. Maybe he’ll agree with those who say the cultural explanation sounds more like an excuse. Today, at 20, he says the ease he showcases on the field is rooted in the discipline that defined his upbringing. He says it allows him to be more creative, to play more freely, says he was more nervous in high school than in the title game, because his parents had prepared him, because his life had pointed to that moment. “You could put a billion people out there to watch us play, and I’d still be in the comfort zone,” he says.
“Remember when Marcus Mariota apologized to reporters?” says Jesse Sapolu, the first Samoan football player to win four Super Bowls, with the 49ers. “That came from his parents. It’s just what’s normal. It’s endearing to us. Put it in American culture and it’s looked at as abuse.”
Diane says Tua learned from their example, how they “loved on and honored” their parents, cultivating their family name. She says she can’t remember the last time she expressed disappointment in her oldest child, or disciplined him.
Sapolu worries that the lessons from the old world will be lost on future generations. On the night he signed with Hawaii in 1979, his father told him to scratch his back, then take out the trash. Even when he won those rings in San Francisco, his mom told him, “When you walk into this house, you’re my son,” and when an elder entered the room, the Super Bowl winner gave up his seat. To see Tua not just handle the spotlight but also thrive there, Sapolu says, “It just gives me a lot of hope that maybe what I’m fearful of is still a ways away.”
The first time Lane Kiffin traveled to Hawaii for Alabama, he heard all the Tua tales. How, at age 13, the Saint Louis High coaches threw him into a live practice and he snapped off a 70-yard bomb. How in his sophomore season, he didn’t start the opener but still tossed five TDs, three in the second quarter alone. And how, in the state-title game as a senior, Tua launched a pass that mirrored his magical throw in the national championship.
The stories sounded apocryphal to Kiffin, who also heard whispers that Tua was better than any of the numerous college quarterbacks produced by Saint Louis. That list featured Mariota, who won the Heisman Trophy in 2014, noting in his acceptance speech that he hoped young Polynesian athletes would follow in his footsteps. Tua plastered a Mariota poster on the wall in his family’s living room.
As Kiffin watched Tua throw—not to his normal receivers but in drills at a passing camp—he started to understand. “It was like watching a Jugs machine,” Kiffin says. “He put the ball in the exact same spot 50 times in a row.” In an email to Saban & Co. he wrote, “This kid is Steve Young.”
“At that age, Tua was ahead of Steve in terms of reading defenses and accuracy,” says Sapolu, who played with Young in San Francisco. “That throw in the title game? Steve didn’t have that throw the first two years he started for us.”
Saban scoured tape back in Alabama, trying to verify the breathless reports that had landed on his oak desk. He saw in Tua that elusive quality he refers to as “athletic intuition”—a combination of instincts and feel that he believes quarterbacks can hone but not learn from scratch. “Sometimes that gets underrated a little bit,” he says, while comparing Tua to Drew Brees and Joe Montana in that regard.
Not to Saban, who called the family two years ago to offer Tua a scholarship on a rainy afternoon in Hawaii. Diane had to pull the car over, while fighting back tears. Father and son had long rooted for USC, but Galu knew in that moment what school Tua would attend. He also knew who else would be moving over 4,000 miles to Tuscaloosa: the entire Tagovailoa clan. Galu liked the number of churches in the area and the lower cost of living, along with the training resources at Alabama, the elite teammates and the coach who reminded him of himself. Tua had zero choice in where he went to college, but accepted his parents’ decision without complaint. “We’re so grateful that he’s obedient,” his mother says.
Before moving, the Tagovailoas ate one final dinner with Diane’s extended family. One brother begged her not to go, told her she could leave her other kids with his family, which ranks among the greatest honors a Samoan can bestow. Diane explained that Tua needed them, that too many athletes left the islands and failed and returned home. They couldn’t afford to send Taulia back-and-forth to the mainland for recruiting exposure. “A total leap of faith,” she says.
Tua missed his extended family, the food back home and the beach. Sometimes people forget he’s only 20, still the boy who begged his grandmother to visit him in Alabama. Tua still drives home to do laundry and snack on Samoan comfort food (Portuguese sausage, brisket, taro, pork hash—“all the unhealthy things,” Galu says). He jams with his family in their living room or the Alabama players’ lounge, singing hymns, playing the ukulele or strumming one of his guitars. (Tua even played tuba as a child.) “When he comes home we see the kid in him,” Galu says. “Sometimes, he just lays down with my wife.” You’re still my baby, she tells him.
This familial cocoon keeps Tua from changing as the world around him shifts dramatically—autograph requests from classmates, text messages from NFL Pro Bowlers like Russell Wilson and a thoroughbred named after his title-winning throw, complete with down and distance: Tuaandtwentysix. Of the idea that this might limit him and his horizons outside football, he says the move instead keeps him “rooted in who I am.”
Proof? Early into his career at Alabama, Tua called his parents. Frustrated by his lack of playing time, he wondered if Southern Cal might still have that scholarship it offered him. “No, they don’t,” his mom told him.
She also said something else after he won the national title: “It doesn’t matter if you won. The trash still needs to be taken out.”
The revolution at Alabama started after the 2013 season, or the rare year when Alabama didn’t play for the national title. Saban wasn’t happy; his offense was losing ground. He hired Kiffin and told his new OC, “I need to change; we’re a Ferrari going over a cliff.” A more open offense began to net more explosive recruits. When Kiffin left after the 2016 season, subsequent coordinators Brian Daboll and Mike Locksley opened up the scheme even more.
This season, as the Tide rolled to wins behind Tua’s skill and poise, the refrain grew louder: he was the greatest quarterback in Alabama history, manning the school’s greatest offense—and at Alabama, the dynasty of all dynasties. Longtime SEC coach Pat Dye went a step further when this fall he called Tua the best QB in conference history. Saban had built his Crimson empire on winning the same way: run the ball, protect the ball, stop the ball. But this season was different and those differences were obvious. “The game changed,” Namath says, “and Coach Saban changed with it.”
Early into practices this summer, tight end Irv Smith Jr. noticed something he’d never seen before at Alabama. “We were killing the defense, and they were not happy,” he says.
Tua exceeded even the most outlandish expectations. His accuracy alone, says the former NFL executive Phil Savage, netted an extra 50 yards a game. Tua meditated with his offense before kickoffs, game plan in hand, visualizing greatness for the Tide as his grandfather had for him. He fought through injuries to his right knee and right ankle. The team won so easily that he didn’t take a snap in a fourth quarter until November. In the first nine games alone Tua threw 27 touchdown passes, then already good for fourth on the school’s all-time single-season list.
While the undefeated record was familiar, the Ferrari had been upgraded, the dynasty modernized by the quarterback schooled in the old ways. The fine-tuned offense averaged 47.8 points, second to Oklahoma (49.5), and a full 10 points higher than the average of their three previous seasons combined.
Then came another twist, in December—against a familiar foe, in a familiar place. There was Georgia, again occupying the opposite sideline in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, again taking an early lead. Though the teams were playing for a conference championship this time, the script had flipped. Tua started this game but did not finish it, exiting for good in the fourth quarter with an aggravated high right-ankle sprain. Instead, Hurts took over, sparking the offense and rallying the Tide to a 35–28 win.
Tua’s future, his draft prospects, the questions this season raised about his durability—all of that could wait. After a performance and injury that may have cost him the Heisman—he lost to Murray a week later—Tua hobbled off the field. A year after throwing his arm around Saban and telling him not to worry, this time around, in the same building, he threw his arm around the quarterback he replaced and thanked him for saving their season. It seemed fair to wonder if there were reasons to worry now.
Tua had surgery the day after the game and began treatment immediately, even between events at the Heisman ceremony, where he wheeled around the awards banquet and through the streets of Manhattan. Five days after the procedure, he started walking again, then running, then practicing, then trying to emit that typical copasetic vibe. All would be fine, he said, over and over and over.
On Saturday, Alabama will play the Murray-led Sooners in the semifinals. Everything has changed from a year ago. Tua is famous rather than unknown; he’s expected to start, rather than hoping to get in. He is no longer just the laid-back superstar from the islands, nor is he the boy who became the lion. Everything is different from even just weeks ago. Once seemingly invincible, he is limping into the Orange Bowl and will not even be the most celebrated quarterback on the field. The fable has turned into his new reality, with Tua on the verge of another moment, and perhaps with so much more at stake.