February 17, 2020
The start of this story, you’ve heard before.
Nick Saban had this freshman quarterback that he knew he might need at some point. So here and there, in 2017, he’d try and get him extended playing time—against Fresno State and Vandy, and then for the whole second half against Tennessee, even after this 19-year-old’s first possession ended in a pick-six. Then, in the team’s regular season finale, Auburn held the Tide to 112 yards passing and out of the end zone for the game’s final 27 minutes.
Alabama lost its place in the SEC title game. Saban made a decision.
“The thought after that game in my mind was, ‘If this is an issue for us moving forward, there may be a time when we have to put him in, so we can take advantage of some of the skill players we have,’” Saban says now. “So we go into the Georgia game, the national championship game, with the idea, ‘Hey, these guys have a really good run defense, they’ve got really good players, it’s gonna be hard for us to not throw the ball effectively and win.’”
The idea was prescient. Georgia went up 13–0 at the half, holding starter Jalen Hurts to 21 yards on 3-of-8 passing. Bama needed a spark. And Saban thought to himself, This is the situation when you said you’d put the other guy in and give him a chance.
The other guy went in and the rest is history.
Tua Tagovailoa wasn’t perfect the rest of the way. He threw a pick to DeAndre Baker on a call that, per Saban, wasn’t even supposed to be a pass play. Then, there’s the sack he took in overtime, losing 16 yards on the Tide’s first offensive snap of the extra period, prompting Kirk Herbstreit to say on the broadcast, “Throw it away, nobody’s open, you gotta give up on the play.” But as we know now, all of that was just a set-up to what was coming.
On second-and-26, Tagovailoa uncorked a moonshot to fellow freshman Devonta Smith, streaking down the sideline for a 41-yard touchdown. Saban won his sixth national title, and fifth in Tuscaloosa. The young Hawaiian was etched in Tide lore forever.
Now, for the part you don’t know.
Saban found Tagovailoa in the locker room postgame and, in a quiet moment, approached him in a way only this particular coach could.
“Tua, man, you can never take a sack in overtime. Especially when it’s a three-point game—the game is already tied,” Saban said to his quarterback. “But when we get sacked, we’re out of field goal range. I don’t know what you were thinking about. But you can’t do that.”
“No, coach,” Tagovailoa responded, “we just needed more room to throw the ball.”
Saban laughs now, “Just to show you what kind of personality he has, and how he’s affected by the game, or the way you said it, the size of the game, the impact, the consequences.”
The point in Saban telling the story—25 months later, with Tagovailoa’s collegiate journey having become much more complicated in the interim—isn’t hard to figure out. One, it shows how Tua changed Alabama’s program as much as any single player has in Saban’s 13 years there. Two, it shows how his star has been ready for what’s next for quite some time.
By now, you know the end of Tagovailoa’s Alabama story isn’t nearly as happy as storybook beginning two years ago in Atlanta. That’d be Tua’s only national title at Bama, and the two seasons to follow would alternate from on-field brilliance to bad medical luck and back around again. He had two ankle surgeries over his last 13 months in the program, and that was just the prelude to something much worse.
On Nov. 16, with three minutes left in the first half against Mississippi State, Tagovailoa rolled left and, as he threw the ball away, was yanked to the ground. He stayed down. The cart came out. Screams of pain were audible on the sideline as doctors popped his dislocated hip back into place. The damage was done. He suffered the hip injury, a fracture of the posterior wall, and was at risk for AVN. That’s the condition—which leads to the death of bone tissue due to the interruption of blood supply—that ended Bo Jackson’s football career.
Dire enough was the situation that Tua was taken by helicopter from rural Mississippi to a hospital in Birmingham. Two days later, he had season-ending surgery in Houston.
“It was probably one of the most difficult things for me ever as a coach,” Saban said. “You never like to see anybody get hurt, first of all. I know it’s a part of the game, but as hard as these guys work, the goals and aspirations they have, you hate to ever see anybody get hurt. But a guy of his caliber, the future that the injury could impact in some way, the impact that it has on future, our team. It was really, really difficult.”
Saban then paused, and repeated himself, “Really difficult for me as a coach.”
The Tide wound up falling to Auburn two weeks later, effectively ending any shot Bama had of a sixth consecutive playoff berth. And thus, a lot of eyes were trained on Tagovailoa’s next move. He had to decide whether he’d stay for his senior year or declare for the draft, despite an injury that would shelve him for, at best, the great majority of the pre-draft process and rob him of a real shot to prove to teams he’d be OK coming back.
The decision was agonizing, as Tagovailoa said himself. And on a lot of days, Saban, for good reason, prepared himself to talk to a depressed kid. That wasn’t what he got.
“I would call him every day when he first got hurt. I’d called him that Saturday night, and I was down and out about him getting hurt. And he would be positive and upbeat,” Saban said. “I was calling him to lift his spirits, and he would lift mine. And I’d call him the next day, and say, ‘I’m gonna lift Tua, support him in every way.’ Again, calling him to lift his spirits and he would lift mine. All through that process, he was so positive.
“He just had a great outlook about the whole thing and was just looking forward to what he had to do to try to get better. He wanted to go to the games and support his teammates. He did more to help me through it than I helped him. And it was my job to help him.”
Saban’s not a doctor, and he wasn’t going to get into the specifics of the injury. I’m not either. All anyone knows at this point is that, thus far, Tagovailoa’s checked all the boxes he’s needed to check, roughly two months out from surgery.
There’s also some not-so-great history here among prior first-round quarterbacks. Every situation is different, but almost uniformly, the guys who’ve come into the league with serious injury histories this decade (Sam Bradford, Jake Locker, Robert Griffin III, Marcus Mariota, Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson) have gotten hurt again in the pros.
So here’s what Saban does know: The guys he’s had in the past who have overcome injuries and gone on to long and prosperous NFL careers have had similar makeup to Tagovailoa. And he knows specifically about Tua’s because he saw him come back from the two ankle surgeries.
“He’s a very positive person,” Saban said. “I think when it comes to injuries, guys that have a real positive attitude about it, look at their rehab as a positive thing, they always seem to bounce back and do better physically and emotionally than guys who get down and out about it, get depressed about it and think about what they’re missing, rather than what they need to do to get back—worried they’re not gonna be the same as they were before.
“He was always really positive about whatever he had to do to approach getting back and being able to go back out and play and compete and help his team.”
And some team will gamble that Tagovailoa can do it again, because he was good enough as a player at Bama to justify it.
Saban won five national titles, four at Alabama, before Tagovailoa arrived in early 2017. As such, it’d be hard for any player to be considered a program-changer—but that’s what the coach soon found out he’d be getting in the product of Honolulu prep powerhouse St. Louis.
The teenage quarterback arrived with a trio of future NFL receivers—Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs and Devonta Smith—joining a roster that already had 2018 first-round pick Calvin Ridley on it. Saban had started the move from his old pro-style offense to a spread three years earlier. And it didn’t take long for Saban and his new OC, Brian Daboll, to recognize they were getting the triggerman and the burners to supercharge it.
“Football’s a great team game, except for one position, and that’s quarterback,” Saban said. “That guy can impact the game more than anyone else. We won a lot of games here where we had really good quarterbacks, but never a really dynamic guy you build things around and change what you’re doing to accommodate his skill set. And it really accommodated the other players that we had because we had such good skill players at wide receiver.
“We changed the culture a little bit, to be a little bit more wide open, because that’s what our players on offense could do. He certainly was capable of making it work—and he did.”
The production speaks for itself. Tagovailoa threw 25 touchdown passes before throwing his first pick of 2018. He tossed 26 touchdown passes before his first pick of 2019. He was a Heisman finalist as a sophomore and was neck-and-neck with Joe Burrow for the award going into November of this year. He had the injuries, sure. But he kept winning (23–2 as a starter) and kept showing exactly what you’d want an NFL quarterback to show.
Through Saban’s eyes, all of that went well beyond the field, and into a dynamic personality that paired nicely with his playing ability. “He’s so well-liked by not just his teammates and the people internally in this program, but I think externally. Fans love him, everybody loves him. He’s just that kind of kid.” And that wound up rubbing off on everyone.
“Because he’s not a selfish guy, none of our players on offense were,” Saban said. “We had four really good receivers. They all rooted for each other, he rooted for all of them. They all made plays. None of them ever looked over their shoulder and said, ‘Why aren’t I getting more balls?’ And I think that probably started with him being such a positive guy that was team-first, that they all followed the same lead.”
It’s paid off for everyone. Jeudy’s a sure-fire first-rounder going into next week’s scouting combine, Ruggs might sneak into Round 1, too, and Smith went back to Bama and will be one of the best receivers in America, along with the fourth guy Saban referenced, rising junior Jaylen Waddle.
Tagovailoa’s wait won’t be long either.
As a player, physically, there’s not a whole lot about Tagovailoa that jumps out. He stands 6-feet tall and his arm is good but not great. Everything else made him different than any quarterback Saban’s ever had.
“Really can rid of the ball quickly, and his accuracy is unbelievable, which, to me, is the most compelling thing a quarterback can have,” Saban said. “It’s good judgment about where you throw the ball, get it out of your hand when you need to get it out of your hand, and be accurate with it so the people that are catching it can catch it and run with it. That’s what he is. He makes a lot of really, really good throws in tight windows, which is the biggest difference between college quarterbacks and pro quarterbacks.
“Pro quarterbacks have to do that because there’s a lot more man-to-man. I think he’s proven that he can do that in his college career here.”
Then, I presented Saban with what I’ve heard: That scouts who’d gone through Tuscaloosa the last few years were getting Drew Brees as a comp from guys on Saban’s staff.
“I think he’s a lot like Drew Brees. I always thought Aaron Rodgers was a lot like that as a player too,” said Saban. “Not overly big, accurate with the ball, really good judgment, decision-making. Those guys are the style of player. I would never say the expectation should be he would accomplish what those guys have, I’d never wanna put that on a guy. But that’s the style of player he is.”
Which explains a lot.
It explains why Saban was comfortable putting a 19-year-old kid in that spot against Georgia in the national championship game in January 2018. It explains why Saban went with Tagovailoa the following season, and why he’s still seen as such a viable NFL commodity, even after all the injuries.
And there’s still room for growth there, too, something that was proven out back during that freshman year of 2017. Earlier that season, months before his big-stage heroics, Saban and Daboll saw a quarterback who was letting mistakes compound themselves in practice. He was a perfectionist, and he’d get down on himself when things went wrong.
Per Saban, they’d tell him, You can’t do this, man. You gotta be able to overcome adversity, bounce back. Everybody has bad plays, the best thing you can do is learn from your mistakes.
The proof they got through to him? Instead of letting the 16-yard sack in Atlanta turn into another bad play, it led to a championship—because he had more room to sling it.
“He’s a pretty simple, this-is-the-play, this-is-my-read, this-is-what-I’m-supposed-to-do kind of guy,” Saban said. “He’s not thinking about winning a championship, he’s thinking about, ‘What do I have to do to give us a chance to win a championship?’ He stays pretty much focused on that.… He’s not one of these guys that gets overwhelmed with things.”
Considering the circumstances in front of him now, that’s a pretty good trait to have. And good reason to think, with an uncertain situation ahead, he’ll ready for whatever’s next.