The Warrior in the Warrior City
The Tide, Tua, and the Legacy Left Behind
by Patrick Norwood
Saturday, the college football world was rocked by the news out of Starkville, Mississippi. Tua Tagovailoa had been badly injured, and had been taken my ambulance and then helicopter to St. Vincent’s Hospital in Birmingham. Teammates, coaches, and media from around college football held their breath while waiting to hear news that most already knew was coming:
Tagovailoa had played his last game for the Crimson and White.
In the hours afterward, article after article had been written. Many talking about where Alabama goes from here, many talking about the legacy of the “Throwin’ Samoan,” and many more written about the decision of head coach Nick Saban to leave Tua in the game, being up 35-7.
“This was going to be his last series, we just wanted to get him some practice in the two minute drill,” said Saban. A small choke comes through as the usually robotic and stoic coach now looked terrified of the emotion that might swallow him whole.
After an uneventful second half, Saban faces the firing squad that is the national media, sits on a plane and rides home with his team, who are on pace to be his eleventh 10-win team in 12 seasons. He rides home from the airport, sits in his favorite chair, and contemplates the career of his star quarterback. Saban decides to give his young quarterback a call. During the call, Saban realizes he is laughing to himself in his large leather chair. Instead of cheering up what he thought would be a distraught Tua, the tables have turned. The 6-time national champion is the one whose spirits are lifted.
Tua Tagovailoa should be considered one of the top college quarterbacks of all time. He has set FBS career records for passer efficiency rating, yards per attempt, and touchdown rate. He holds the touchdown record at the best college football program to ever exist. As a true freshman he came in on the biggest stage in the second half of the 2017 national title, and won the game on one of the most exciting plays in college football history. He also notched and SEC championship, a Maxwell award, and countless other accomplishments. He will not be considered in the same tier as Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, or Deshaun Watson. More than likely, because of the school he attended. Whether or not we like that statement, it’s true. People are just tired of the Tide.
To say that Alabama could just plug in another quarterback is like stating the 1920 Yankees would be fine losing Babe Ruth because they had Bob Meusel. They won’t suffer by any stretch of the imagination, but the decisive halftime scores, the charismatic celebrations, and the no-doubter deep balls that soar through the air in a perfect spiral are now a thing of the Tide's past. Tua’s legacy should live as one of the greatest of all time. The statistics make that virtually inarguable. In his first 9 games as a starter, Tua never saw the field in the second half. Imagine what those statistics would look like if he had. Imagine he had stayed healthy his entire career. Imagine he continued to lead Heisman voting in every week he was healthy like 2018 and 2019. Imagine if he had the opportunity to play in two more games, a bowl game, or potentially a playoff. Imagine if he would’ve slung Alabama on his broad shoulders, drug them to the biggest redemptive stage in college football, and brought home yet another title to Tuscaloosa. Imagine how he would be heralded then. However, we will never know this world. It will wander aimlessly in fans’ minds like a ghost, and haunt their thoughts for the rest of their lives.
Football, like time, can be cruel. It gives moments of pure joy and ecstasy, then can rip a heart out with no warning. It creates a cruel sense of nostalgia that makes you ache for a time when you took moments for granted. Players come and go. Coaches come and go. Winning seasons come and go. Usually, college football is cyclical. Teams are good, then they are bad. Regimes change, and bring in new offenses, defenses, and characters. Normally, a great many of these can remind you of seasons in the not so distant past. But some players, coaches, and seasons are non-replicable. This Tagovailoa situation could serve as a microcosm for the entire Saban dynasty. It happened so swiftly, and ruled so dominantly, that many Crimson Tide fans never seemed to sit back and embrace the journey. They simply hungered for more. More wins, more recruits, more rings. Hopefully, this swift and brutal dimming of a bright light can serve one positive purpose: to help us realize that if we don’t enjoy something while we have it, we will miss it even more when it is gone. To avoid nostalgia, it is imperative to embrace every waking moment, much like the young quarterback who always seemed to be wearing a smile.
Pundits have teed off on Nick Saban and his decision making for years. That is something not new for most prolific coach in college football history. However, this one stings more than most. A decision that is just understandable enough to not be regrettable, yet just inexcusable enough to not be forgotten. So the head coach now sways in limbo, reminding himself that he can’t change the past, while also wishing it were possible more than ever.
Sunday night he sits in his office, listening to the aforementioned pundits. He had been watching film of Saturday’s game for the last 10 hours, taking breaks sparingly as he prepared for Senior day and the Iron Bowl. Towards the end of his marathon session, he removes his glasses, and with his tired hands, tried to squeeze out the headache that had started to creep in. He thinks again about the events from the day before, and again his heart becomes heavy. He eyes his phone, picks it up, and a voice extinguishes the ringing on the other end. Tua Tagovailoa picks up on the other end, and for a brief moment, the world doesn’t seem so gloomy anymore.