April 29, 2020 – Tua Tagovailoa is the quarterback of Miami Dolphins fans’ dreams, which is fitting because his greatness and fame came to his grandfather in a vision back when Tua was just a tot.
Long before the ukulele-strummin’, beach-vibin’, record-breakin’ icon became the biggest college football star since Tim Tebow and probably the most-hyped Dolphins draft pick ever, Tuanigamanuolepola Tagovailoa — or Tua, thankfully, for short — was a football-crazed kid from Hawaii who slept with a football under his arm.
Tua’s “Papa” Seu Tagovailoa had 28 grandchildren, but only one he dreamed would someday, as Sports Illustrated reported in late 2018, would go on to greatness and that his name “will be known all over the world.”
Seu, sadly, passed before his prophecy came true. Even he might be surprised how right he turned out to be.
Tagovailoa isn’t just in the conversation for greatest college football quarterback of all time.
He’s also a cultural phenomenon, a perfect combination of talent, charisma and timing.
Tagovailoa was the best player at the best college football program in the country. Alabama, led by former Dolphins coach Nick Saban, produced another four first-round picks — and nine draft selections in all — in 2020, but none produced a fraction of the national attention as Tua, whom the Dolphins took with the fifth pick.
“Every team needs a building block, and every fan base needs a jolt after years of mediocrity,” said Miami-based brand guru Tadd Schwartz, owner of Schwartz Media Strategies. “A first-round quarterback may be exactly what the doctor ordered. Is Tua a once-in-a-generation talent? Maybe; it’s too soon to tell. But he’s got the pedigree coming from Alabama, the college stat line and championship chops, the unforgettable name, and the comeback story after being carted off the field last year with a career-threatening injury. All of that makes for a compelling story that fans can rally around.”
Tagovailoa also has nearly 700,000 Instagram followers, and effortlessly uses the platform to drive local and national coverage. Dolphins fans went nuts in January when Tagovailoa shared images of him in South Beach; he did the same this week when he teased his jersey number reveal.
Tagovailoa can’t wear his college number, 13, in Miami. That jersey belonged to Hall of Famer Dan Marino and will never be worn again.
COMPARISONS TO MARINO
“Dan Marino — he’s the GOAT,” Tagovailoa said, using the acronym for Greatest Of All Time. “He’s like the mayor out there, and I have much respect for him.”
Marino might be the mayor of Miami, but Tagovailoa already deserves at least a seat on the county commission. He was the quarterback Dolphins fans wanted their team so badly to select, some threatened to boycott the team if they went in another direction.
Miami gets knocked for being a front-running, buzz-chasing sports town, but there’s truth to the slur. We need to be thrilled, to be inspired, to be given a reason to turn on the TV.
Dolphins television ratings have consistently been among the worst of NFL teams that don’t share a market with another club. And they bottomed out in 2019, when a seven-game losing streak to start the season caused an unprecedented number of fans to tune out.
That won’t be a problem going forward — assuming there’s football this fall.
Before he even puts on a jersey, Tagovailoa might be the face of Miami sports — with apologies to Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. Every marketing mind south of Jupiter should be thinking of ways to capitalize on Tagovailoa’s arrival. Funky Buddha co-founder Ryan Sentz told the Miami Herald he is already planning to produce a Tua-themed brew.
“I was so excited when we picked Tua,” added Sentz, who made sure to mention he wants Tagovailoa to be given time to learn behind Ryan Fitzpatrick. “I’m an eternal Fins optimist, but I think with him and what this organization is building we are going to be legitimate title contenders for a while.”
The funny thing about Tagovailoa is, for all his buzz, he doesn’t say all that much when he speaks to reporters.
TUA’S QUIET CONFIDENCE
Take, for instance, draft night.
Tagovailoa spent his entire young life preparing to hear his name called by the NFL’s commissioner — and the moment was doubly sweet because he ended up with his preferred team.
And yet, there was no victory lap, no big boasts when he met with reporters. Instead, humility and eagerness to fit in.
When asked about the massive fan excitement and expectations that accompany his arrival to Miami, Tagovailoa responded:
“I think that’s something that is out of my control,” he said. “I can’t control whether the fans like me or whether the fans dislike me; and so for me, I’d say it’s all about worrying about what I can control. … It’s what you do from here on out. You just look forward to getting your playbook, understanding it, trying to get good at it, and if an opportunity is presented …”
Tagovailoa added: “I would say that I’m very grateful, and I’m honored that the fans think so [highly] of me. It’s a different ballgame. What I did in college can’t translate to the NFL. It’s a clean slate. What I’ve got to do is I’ve got to go out there and earn my respect and earn the trust from my teammates. It’s how you go about doing things.”
HAWAII’S YOUNG PHENOM
None of this came as a surprise to Vinny Passas, who has known Tagovailoa since he was nine years old.
Passas is a professional quarterback tutor, and Tagovailoa is his prized pupil.
His instruction began when Tagovailoa was just 9 years old, and Passas knew immediately he had something special.
Tua was so much better than his peers at Passas’ quarterback camp that he got thrown in with high school and college kids — which didn’t go over that well, particularly when the elementary schooler was making throws the older kids couldn’t.
“Everyone’s wondering, ‘Why don’t you go back to your age group?’ Passas said. “But he’s matching their throws; 25-, 30-yard outs on a dime, to a moving target. Pretty amazing. He’s challenging all of these guys around the camp. They’re all trying to scare him away. He was a competitor back then. … At age 9, 10, he was throwing like a college kid. It was a sight to see. You wouldn’t believe it unless you saw it. A rare breed, a rare gift from God.”
But it was more than Tagovailoa’s ability that foreshadowed his greatness. It was his attitude. He carried himself like he belonged with kids six, seven years his senior.
Passas recalled: “Just confidence. He knew what he was doing, what he wanted. He wasn’t afraid of anything. Felt comfortable around us. For a 9-year-old to hang out with high school guys, you usually don’t speak that same language. Not him. He was in conversation. Challenging guys. ‘Can match this throw?’”
It got so embarrassing for the varsity athletes that they wouldn’t want to go after Tagovailoa out of fear that they couldn’t.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Tagovailoa’s personality is reflection of his Samoan heritage and his loving, but demanding parents. Galu and Diane Tagovailoa have directed their son’s football career from the start. When Alabama offered a the four-star prospect scholarship, Tua barely had a say in the decision. Not only would he make the move to Tuscaloosa, the whole family would relocate there. (Efforts to reach Galu Tagovailoa for comment for this story were unsuccessful.)
Galu’s demanding methods — including his admitted use of corporal punishment on Tua — have drawn national criticism, but not from their son. Family and faith are the cornerstones of his identity, and he even brought his parents to Super Bowl’s radio row in Miami Beach back in January. Tua, of course, was the center of attention even there, shuttling from TV set to radio booth in an attempt to build his brand and make his draft case.
With Tagovailoa, the question has never been about ability, but rather his durability after three surgeries in two seasons. His gifts were obvious from an early age, but it wasn’t until the second half of college football’s 2018 national championship game that most of the country learned what friends and family long knew.
Tagovailoa was largely an unknown curiosity for most of his freshman season at Alabama, sitting behind incumbent starter Jalen Hurts for most of the year.
But the favored Crimson Tide trailed the Georgia Bulldogs by 13 points at halftime of the title game, and Saban made one of the boldest coaching decisions in recent sports history. He benched Hurts and put in the kid.
“He gave everybody just an energy,” said defensive lineman Raekwon Davis, who was Tagovailoa’s teammate at Alabama and will be again in Miami after the Dolphins took him in Round 2 of last week’s draft. “He gave everybody hope, and he told everybody that the game wasn’t over and that we’ve got to take over and just finish the job.”
That belief paid off.
The result: A spirited Alabama rally, capped by a 41-yard, game-winning touchdown pass from Tagovailoa to fellow freshman DeVonta Smith on the last play of the game.
In an instant, Tua went from a regional star (and pride of Oahu) to a national phenomenon.
“Everybody knows what he did in that game,” said Dolphins rookie offensive lineman Solomon Kindley, who was a backup for the losing Georgia team in that game.
“He was tremendous. … I can already tell the type of personality he’s got and the type of person the he is in the locker room, so I’m just blessed for the opportunity to play with him.”Adam Beasley has covered the Dolphins for the Miami Herald since 2012, and has worked for the newspaper since 2006. He is a graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Communications and has written about sports professionally since 1996.