Opinion: For Tua Tagovailoa, the only decision was to leave Alabama for the NFL

Opinion: For Tua Tagovailoa, the only decision was to leave Alabama for the NFL

Dan Wolken


Published 2: 18 PM EST Jan 6, 2020

It would have been impossible to watch Tua Tagovailoa in an Alabama uniform next season without both a guilty conscience and a sense of dread.

The stakes for someone of such prodigious talent were simply too high. The risks to his future, while present for all college football players, were exponentially more obvious given the serious hip injury he suffered in November. 

So while Tagovailoa’s decision to enter the NFL draft was the right one for him, it was also the right one for the rest of us who watch college football. As fun as it was to see him zipping passes all over the place wearing crimson and white, the burden of knowing he was doing it for free would have been too much to bear knowing how fragile his football future might be.

“I think this is the best thing for me and my family to do,” Tagovailoa said Monday at a news conference in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. 

While Tagovailoa talked at length about this being a difficult decision, it’s only because of his emotional connection to the University of Alabama and the football program he helped transform. Because from a risk-reward perspective, this was really a no-brainer. 

Because of the year LSU’s Joe Burrow had, it’s unlikely Tagovailoa will be the No. 1 overall pick. And it’s certainly possible that his injury history — surgically-repaired high ankle sprains each of the last two seasons and now a dislocated hip and posterior wall fracture — will cause a couple teams drafting in the top 10 to shy away and let some other general manager assume the risk. 

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But in the final analysis, quarterbacks are too valuable and Tagovailoa’s college film is too good to come to any conclusion other than he’ll be a very high draft pick and make millions of dollars right away. Even if he can’t do much before the draft physically, even if he has to sit out the 2020 season to get fully healthy, someone is going to decide he’s worth the long-term investment.

“It pretty much boils down to one thing – and I think that’s faith,” Tagovailoa said. “And coming from a family that has a lot of it, I’m definitely willing to take that challenge.”

Make no mistake, there are some unknowns here. Tagovailoa didn’t suffer a common type of injury, and he said doctors have told him they won’t be able to tell for at least another month or two what the next steps are and how quickly he can try to play again. 

Though the prognosis is promising, and it should probably be taken as a good sign that he walked into the press conference without crutches or any other type of assistance, it’s hard to know whether Tagovailoa will be the same player he was. But in a sense, that was all the more reason to leave. 

If Tagovailoa isn’t going to ever be fully healthy, how would another year in college really help him?

Instead, he leaves college football as one of the sport’s rare, almost universally beloved players. Though he didn’t win a Heisman Trophy, Tagovailoa did something even more difficult: He made Alabama a fun team to watch.

When Nick Saban finally made the quarterback switch from Jalen Hurts to Tagovailoa in the national championship game to finish the 2017 season, the Alabama that won by asphyxiating opponents and bleeding the clock became almost unrecognizable, turning itself into the most dynamic offense in the sport for much of the 2018 and 2019 seasons. 

For the first time in the Saban era, Alabama actually seemed like a pretty fun, freewheeling place to play. Had he been healthy this year, he almost certainly would have thrown for more than 4,000 yards after going for 3,966 and 43 touchdowns as a sophomore. That’s not classic grind-you-down Alabama football, but it sure was great to watch. 

“Tua has probably has as much of an impact on our program here as any player we’ve ever had, and I’m not just talking about as a football player,” Saban said. “He’s got great character, he’s a great leader, he’s done a wonderful job in the classroom. There’s a spirit about him that has impacted myself and everyone around him in a very, very positive way.”

And, in the end, it would have been selfish for college football fans or anyone affiliated with Alabama to ask him for one more year. After trying so gallantly to come back and play against LSU this year, then suffering that brutal hip injury the next week against Mississippi State, it was obvious he’d done enough.

Now Tagovailoa enters the NFL as a mega-watt personality who, whether he becomes a terrific pro or not, will make a lot of money in the process of finding out. And none of us will have to feel guilty about watching it happen.

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