Not Just Tua's Little Bro: Taulia Tagovailoa Could Be a Future NFL No. 1 PickMay 30, 2018
Since Jan. 8, nothing has been the same. The moment Tua Tagovailoa heaved that 41-yard touchdown pass to win Alabama a national championship, everything changed.
Not just for Alabama, winner of its fifth national title in nine years. Or for Georgia, which seemed almost destined to make its own history before Tagovailoa entered the game after halftime. Or even for the true freshman quarterback, who in an instant became the face of the sport and earned a legacy of being talked about in Alabama for decades no matter what comes next.
But for a family, which had relocated 4,000 miles from its home in Hawaii and become local celebrities in Alabaster, Alabama, facing unanticipated greetings at Walmart and photograph and autograph requests.
And for the younger brother, who was merely a spectator that night but whose life changed as the ball flew through the air toward the outstretched arms of DeVonta Smith.
Taulia Tagovailoa, Tua's younger brother, can barely recall anything about that moment, even though he was in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium stands with his father, mother and two sisters.
"It's all still such a blur," he says, nearly five months after Alabama's 26-23 overtime win.
But he knows exactly what that game meant for his own life.
"This is forcing me to be good," Taulia says. "It's pretty much mandatory now. To me, it wouldn't make sense for Tua to be this good and his brother to be so-so. Now that I'm in it, I love it. I feel like I could be as good as him or maybe even better."
Taulia was already coveted by programs around the country after he accounted for 41 touchdowns and threw for nearly 4,000 yards as a junior at Thompson High. After Tua made "Tagovailoa" a household name that night, the interest—from those programs and the media—in 247Sports' No. 8-ranked pro-style quarterback became all the more intense.
Then in April, Taulia committed verbally to Alabama, where he could very well join his brother after he plays one more high school season.
Some might be scorched by that bright a spotlight or even try to hide from it.
Taulia is running right into it.
Here off Exit 256, in a gas station parking lot tucked away in Homewood, Alabama, Galu (pronounced NA-loo) Tagovailoa is having lunch from the Tacos Dos Hermanos food truck.
Since moving to Alabama from Oahu—Hawaii's most populous island—last April, this has become one of his favorite spots. He rarely gets recognized, and it's on his way home from work. The food is also delightful.
Today he's having chorizo and pork belly tacos along with tacos de sesos—cow brains—for the first time.
"This is pretty good," he says with a smile after only a few bites. "I should've gotten two."
All this is still so new. The food. The culture. The daily commute, which typically begins before 4 a.m. The ritual of being recognized and appreciated by perfect strangers.
"When Tua threw that ball, it changed everything," Galu says between bites. "At the same time, it didn't change us as a family. We took the blessings and have moved forward. We're not running around thinking we're special."
When Tua enrolled at the University of Alabama, Galu knew both of his sons would likely play major college football stateside. The family moved to the small town—a brisk hour-and-10-minute drive from Tuscaloosa—to ensure it would see those games.
Back in Hawaii when Tua's recruitment began, things were different.
"With Tua, I think they were exposed slowly," 247Sports director of scouting Barton Simmons says. "He was a Hawaii quarterback who was mainly insulated from the recruiting world. It wasn't until we saw him in person that we knew what he was. Taulia is in Birmingham. He's in SEC country and committed to Alabama. This is totally different."
The Tagovailoas are people-pleasers by nature, so what interview and media requests they received while Tua was starring at the Saint Louis School, they naturally accommodated.
"With Taulia, we changed a lot," Galu says. "We've been much more guarded."
Shortly after Taulia enrolled at Thompson High, the SEC Network requested an interview with him. Taulia agreed to do it under one condition: He wanted the team's backup quarterback, Sawyer Pate, to join him.
"I saw that, and I told my coaches later on that night that we have received one of the biggest blessings we could have possibly received," Thompson head coach Mark Freeman says. "As a person, it was over. I knew what we had."
Here in Ontario, Canada, a week before CFL training camp begins, Hamilton Tiger-Cats head coach June Jones isn't reveling over the recently signed Johnny Manziel. Instead, he is fixated on four simple words. Even now when he speaks to Taulia, whom he coached for one season at Kapolei High in Honolulu, the conversation ends the exact same way.
"He'll tell me, 'I love you, Coach,'" Jones says. "That's why I do what I do. To work with kids like this."
Jones has coached at the high school, college, CFL and NFL levels. He coached the University of Hawaii for nearly a decade. After a stint at SMU, he returned to Hawaii, where he stumbled upon a rising high school senior: Tua Tagovailoa.
Jones, widely regarded as one of college football's brightest offensive minds, worked with Tua on limited occasions. He advised him to stay in the pocket longer, which was difficult given the success he had running the ball.
"He was also probably the best running back in Hawaii when he pulled it down," Jones says.
When Jones met Taulia, he saw a different player—maybe not the same athlete his brother was but a powerful, accurate quarterback with a unique sense for the position.
"He has the instincts and the accuracy that the great ones have," Jones says.
Jones was so intrigued about the possibility of working with Taulia that he phoned Kapolei High head coach Darren Hernandez, a longtime friend, about serving as the team's offensive coordinator. He migrated into that role, replacing Galu, who was glad to finally be able to watch his children play rather than coach them.
Jones' unique, pass-heavy play-calling jelled with Taulia's playing style. Taulia threw for 3,919 yards as a sophomore—just 66 from the single-season state record. He once attempted 73 passes in a single game.
"I'm putting some pressure on him, but I really believe he can be a No. 1 draft pick by the time he gets done," Jones says of Taulia. "Even though he's probably only going to be 6'1" or 6'2", he's going to be a special player. ...
"And he's going to keep getting better."
When the family moved to Alabama, Freeman was thrilled. He had previously spoken with Galu about coaching Tua for his senior year, and he saw the same qualities in Taulia that Jones had: a smooth quarterback with a remarkable arm and a remarkably quick throwing motion.
Freeman also knows what it takes to produce a successful collegiate quarterback. He has worked with gifted signal-callers over the past 15 years, including Jameis Winston before he won the Heisman Trophy at Florida State. In Taulia's first year playing for him, he had 3,820 passing yards, 36 passing touchdowns (with only eight interceptions) and five rushing TDs.
On down the line, coaches keep lining up to sing his praise—three from the Power Five approached Freeman after a recent practice.
"They all said the same thing," Freeman says. "They have never seen a release as quick as his."
Here on the Thompson High practice field, with the temperature nearing 100 degrees, Taulia greets coaches from three major college football programs who have come to watch him during the tail end of spring practice.
He is grateful, even if he is still mighty comfortable with his commitment to Alabama. But rather than make this moment about himself or his lifelong competition with his brother, he introduces these coaches to Pate, his backup, and starting running back Shadrick Byrd.
The hope is that such encounters will elevate his teammates' recruiting statuses.
"He wants everybody to get better, and I think that's one of his best qualities," Pate says of Taulia. "I'm shadowing him, and I want him to teach me everything he knows. It's just an honor to have Taulia in front of me."
For some, he will always be the younger brother of the quarterback who beat Georgia in the national title game. A shadow of some kind will always exist.
But to Pate and others, Taulia will be something more. Something bigger than the biggest play on the biggest stage. Bigger even than his brother, whose football reputation right now feels larger than the sport itself.
Whether or not he stars at Alabama after Tua has moved on is of no importance.
To them, he will always be the superstar quarterback who made time to do right by those around him.
Here inside the enormous shadow, Taulia is trying to celebrate and emulate all that his brother is capable of—while also carving his own path.
Celebrating Tua has never been something he's had to force. It has come naturally for the little brother who served as the big brother's center until sixth grade.
"I really admire the way Tua plays," Taulia says. "In my eyes, I believe he's the best quarterback in college football. Of course I will say that because he's my brother, but I try to take a part of everything he does and put it into my style. He taught me everything I know and how I play."
There has always been competition between the two, as well—from checking box scores in the local paper to trying to understand each other's playbooks.
"When Tua would throw, Taulia would throw," Galu says. "When Tua would eat, Taulia would eat the same thing. When Tua would speak, Taulia would try to sound just like him."
It wasn't until Taulia saw what his brother was capable of that he decided to give the position a try. And as Taulia's profile grew, there was always Tua and the reality of trying to match his older brother.
"He's been in this shadow his whole life, not just now," Jones says.
And maybe that explains why he hasn't shied away from it.
Alabama—once it had Tua locked in—made Taulia a verbal scholarship offer when he was just a freshman. While that kind of offer typically jump-starts interest from other coaches, many programs assumed Taulia would follow his brother after his family's move.
But since Taulia verbally committed to Alabama this spring, teams have started to recruit him harder. With his senior year still to come, they want to see if they can change his mind.
"It was challenging for me," Taulia says of his commitment. "I want to make a name for myself, and I don't always want to be in Tua's shadow. But it came down to family. My parents won't have to travel far to see my games, and Tua and I are also really close."
Taulia has taken in his share of his brother's games at Alabama, and Tua has returned the favor. Because they play so close to one another, Tua will often come home and attend Taulia's Friday night games—creating quite the spectacle.
Through it all, their relationship has not budged. If anything, they've grown closer with the frenzy swarming around them.
And Taulia, set to participate in a flurry of camps and opportunities for exposure this summer—a stretch that cemented Tua as one of the elite prospects in the country two summers ago—is slowly but surely establishing a reputation based on his performance rather than his last name.
It is strange to think a player entering only his sophomore year of college—one who has not yet even been named the starter—would have such an impact on the lives of those close to him. But in football country, that can very much be the case.
"I feel blessed, but at the same time I can feel a lot more pressure," Taulia says. "I have big shoes to fill. But to me, that's motivation. I know now I have to have a big senior year, and I am ready for it."