It was almost exactly one year ago that quarterback Tua Tagovailoa had suited up for the Alabama Crimson Tide as he ran onto the field, leading the fifth-best team in the country into a conference matchup against Mississippi State.
Alabama was up 35-7 over the Bulldogs with about three minutes remaining before halftime. Tagovailoa went out for his final series of the game to practice the two-minute drill. On a third-down play during that drive, Tagovailoa had rolled to his left, trying to extend the play with his legs before throwing the ball out of bounds.
He was brought down by two Bulldogs defenders and immediately rolled in pain. The tackle had left him with a broken nose, dislocated right hip and a posterior wall fracture. Tagovailoa was carted off the field, effectively ending the Heisman Trophy candidate’s final season with the Crimson Tide.
“If I would have known – known that anything bad was going to happen, certainly I wouldn’t have put him in that situation,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said following the game. “We hate that he got injured. We hate it for him. We hate it for his family. I hate it when any player on our team gets injured.”
Football fans can remember an injury similar to Tagovailoa’s in former Oakland Raiders running back Bo Jackson, who suffered a career-ending hip dislocation and fracture back in 1991. But back then, Jackson tried playing through the injury, which made things worse and led to him suffering avascular necrosis – death of bone tissue due to blood loss – after the injury, which ended his four-year football career.
The medical field has advanced significantly since then and player safety in the NFL has been prioritized more now than in previous years. Doctors predicted he would make a full recovery and return to football activities in four to six months.
On Jan. 6, 2020, Tagovailoa made the announcement to forego his senior season at Alabama and declared for the NFL draft. The doctors’ diagnosis meant he wouldn’t be able to participate in the NFL scouting combine in late February or Alabama’s pro day in March. After COVID-19 cancellations, there were no private pre-draft workouts with any teams either.
Uncertainty about Tagovailoa’s draft stock led analysts to project him anywhere from a top-five pick to slipping out of the first round. The severity of his hip injury left many wondering if he would ever be the same player again.
It was rumored that Miami was Tagovailoa’s preferred destination, but the Dolphins’ plans involving the fifth overall pick were unclear. Some analysts projected Miami taking an offensive tackle over the Alabama quarterback, while others had Miami selecting another top quarterback. There were even rumors that the Dolphins would trade away the fifth overall pick in a blockbuster trade to gather more picks. But in the end, none of that came true as Miami held onto their pick and selected Tagovailoa.
“It means everything to me and my family,” Tagovailoa said when asked what it would mean to see his name on the back of a Dolphins jersey. “That’s really big in the Samoan culture; your name and what you represent. So to be able to go out there and represent my family in a Dolphins jersey is a blessing.”
Getting drafted by the Miami Dolphins was the best possible scenario for Tagovailoa. He had the opportunity to redshirt as he continued to regain mobility and strength from his hip injury. Ryan Fitzpatrick, the savvy veteran who knows the key to longevity in the league, would be the starting quarterback who could mentor Tagovailoa about the fast-paced game that was different from the college level. And that’s exactly what happened for the first six weeks of the regular season.
Fitzpatrick started each of the first six games, leading the Dolphins’ offense out on the field while Tagovailoa watched from the sideline. During the week, Tagovailoa had meetings with head coach Brian Flores every Tuesday to learn the defensive side of the game. And in Week 6, the wait was over.
In a blowout game against the New York Jets, Flores sent Tagovailoa out onto the field with a little more than two minutes to go to close out the game, giving the rookie his first NFL action. Tagovailoa only played a total of five snaps and completed two passes, but the limited Miami fans in attendance erupted while Fitzpatrick hyped up his teammates along with the crowd. It was a moment that Tagovailoa likely will not forget as photos surfaced of him returning to the field after the game was over and the crowd had left, talking to his parents over video chat about everything that had just transpired.
Some shocking news came out of Miami during the team’s bye week as ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that Tagovailoa was named as the starter beginning in Week 8, despite his only NFL action being a very small sample size. The Dolphins had seen enough of Tagovailoa in practice and meetings where they believed he could be inserted as the starter to lead the team.
The news came at an odd point in time because Fitzpatrick was playing well and coming off a two-game winning streak with the team in second place in the AFC East.
“We just felt like this was the best move for our team,” Flores said. “Look [Fitzpatrick] has done a great job. He’s been productive. His leadership has been great. It’s not an easy decision for me or for us as an organization, but we felt like for the team right now this is the move we needed to make.”
It was a high-risk, high-reward gamble that has paid dividends for Miami. The team has surrounded Tagovailoa with offensive pieces and a game plan that maximizes his skillset every drive. He is now 3-0 since being named the starter with wins over the Los Angeles Rams, Los Angeles Chargers and Arizona Cardinals.
He’s thrown for 519 passing yards, five touchdowns with no interceptions through three games with a 104.8 quarterback rating. The Dolphins are currently 6-3 and in a good position to make the postseason for the first time since 2016.
A complete recovery from a career-threatening injury did not guarantee that Tagovailoa would be the same athletic quarterback as he was in his Alabama days, but Tagovailoa pulled through his biggest test to date. And now he has an opportunity to play at the highest level, serving as a beacon of hope for a Miami franchise that has had an enormous void at the quarterback position since Dan Marino retired in 2000.
“Well it’s definitely been a journey,” Tagovailoa said in his first press conference after he was named the starter. “I definitely think of that injury, when I got hurt, and the process leading up to being able to walk, being able to do football drills, and just do things in general. I definitely do reflect on that process I went through. I’m definitely blessed to still be here and play the game that I grew up dreaming to play.”
Editor’s note: The featured image of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) appears courtesy of the Miami Dolphins