On Monday, Tua Tagovailoa had one more aching part of his body.
Not his ankle. Not his hand. Not his hip.
Tagovailoa announced he was leaving Alabama to enter the upcoming 2020 NFL Draft. Any sound logic supports the decision. But sometimes making the best result based on clear cold calculation doesn’t mean you’ve chosen the easy path emotionally. You could tell that Tagovailoa, his head down as his head coach Nick Saban was speaking, was hurting. Just as there seems to be some unexplained magic that coupled his amazing football skills with a certain physical fragility, there is also a big, booming joy about his personality, a big heart that had to be breaking, at least a little bit.
At the core of that was probably the fact Tua had room not for just one family — his parents and his little brother, Taulia — but for two. Alabama football, in three years, has become the other. In a perfect world, there was room for both. But the world isn’t perfect and the one choice that wasn’t available in long weeks of “should I stay or should I go?” reflection was “both.” Tua knew college football would eventually come to an end for him — that doesn’t make it easier when you have to be the one ends it.
There were risks involved either way but Tua is gambling on a pretty sure thing: the NFL’s insatiable thirst for that magical franchise quarterback. Some teams might not have been willing to take a chance in the first round of the draft, but all 32? There is bound to be one. Quite probably, there is more than one. That means competition, and when NFL teams start competing for quarterbacks, that’s when NFL general managers get nervous that (a.) they will pass on the next superstar and (b.) someone else won’t. So unless some unexpected medical event happens in the next three months, Tua’s draft status will be solid. Is there risk? There is always some risk. But the highest-risk proposition on the board, for Tua and for Alabama, was a return to school coupled with another injury.
As Tua said, any path to the future comes down to faith — in his case, that’s both religious faith and a feeling that things are ultimately going to turn out well. There’s also another element: the faith that the people who have loved him and supported him for three years will understand. They should.
With all that in place, Tua’s decision was the right one.
There is a coda to this, though. When Tua hurt his hand, his ankle, his hip, the physical pain was his and the challenge to rehabilitate from those injuries could only be handled alone — with great medical and rehab support, of course, but with his own drive healing his own body.
Monday was different. This pain was shared by Alabama fans. For all the cynical notions out there that the Alabama program and its supporters wanted Tua back so they could “win more games” in the big-business, watch-the-scoreboard world, there was more to it than that. There was a different thrill in watching him play. Alabama has won, and won, and won over the years and will win more in the future, but not this particular way, with flair and panache that hasn’t been seen since Namath and Stabler, playing in times so different that it was almost a different sport. The years will go on. There will be great quarterbacks. But there will not be anything quite like Tua: appreciated as a player but loved like a brother or a son.
His heart was clearly aching on Monday, even as he chose what was best for his family. But so were thousands and thousands more, people who now realize that “aloha” has two meanings, “hello” and “goodbye” and that one career cannot have only one.
Aloha to Tua. And mahalo. Thank you for those three years.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @cecilhurt