Seconds after Maryland Terrapins quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Jake Funk on Friday night for a 7-0 lead against the Minnesota Golden Gophers, Galu Tagovailoa’s cellphone rang in the stands at Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium.
“Tua called us and he was cheering, going crazy,” their dad said.
“That’s Tua,” his little brother said. “He’s probably my biggest cheerleader, other than my mom.”
Even from 1,000 miles away. But that’s not surprising, because somehow, the Tagovailoa family always finds a way to close the gap. Galu and Diane Tagovailoa, who moved their entire family from Hawaii to Alabama to be closer to Tua when he was playing for coach Nick Saban, traveled this past weekend to see both of their sons win in memorable fashion at the sport’s highest levels. During a pandemic. With the grandparents coming from Hawaii. And the brother-in-law who drove Tua’s two enormous pit bulls — Dallas and Star — from Alabama to Miami.
(“Those are not dogs to me,” Taulia deadpanned. “Those are me and Tua’s kids. Have you seen the dogs? They’re big boys.”)
Two days after watching Taulia orchestrate a thrilling fourth-quarter comeback to beat Minnesota 45-44 in overtime and earn his first career win as a starter on Friday night in College Park, Maryland, Galu Tagovailoa estimated there were 30 to 40 friends and family members who met in Miami to watch Tua’s first career NFL start — a 28-17 victory against the Los Angeles Rams.
That capped a whirlwind four-day, three-state, two-game Tagovailoa tour that encompassed more than 2,500 miles. It began on Thursday, when Galu and Diane, along with their eldest daughter, Taylor, and Diane’s parents, all tested negative for COVID-19 in Alabama before flying to Maryland. On Friday night, they watched as Taulia, an Alabama transfer, accounted for five touchdowns in an upset win over Minnesota, a stunning turnaround from his three-interception performance in a 43-3 season-opening loss at Northwestern. On Saturday, they flew to Miami, where they immediately went to the Dolphins’ COVID-19 testing facility, only to return to their hotel and await the results on Sunday morning.
Once cleared, they were able to watch Tua throw his first NFL touchdown pass.
The two brothers, once teammates at Alabama, are now carving their own paths with their respective teams, but they are forever bonded by Tua’s success — the barometer by which Taulia will, fairly or unfairly, always be measured — and a tight-knit family that has been there to support them every step of the way.
“They are stoked when they see us,” Galu said. “Everything is talking about family. [Tua] was talking to us about Taulia’s game and how happy he was for Taulia. Before we left, Taulia kept telling me, ‘Man, Dad, I can’t wait to see Tua play. I’m so excited.’ Because they’re so close. They want to be there to support each other, but they can’t because of everything that’s going on.”
Instead, the rest of the family found a way to support them both — during a weekend that was a win for everyone.
In search of more playing time — and frustrated there was no spring practice this year to try to earn it at Alabama — Taulia entered the transfer portal and ultimately landed with former Alabama offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, now head coach at Maryland. The relationship Locksley had established with the Tagovailoa family through recruiting and coaching both brothers, plus Taulia’s familiarity and understanding of his offensive system, made joining the Terps a natural fit.
“Once he made the decision and entered the portal, I hoped that we would have an opportunity because of the relationship piece, and knowing the type of numbers Tua put up in this system was what we tried to sell him on: If you come here, it’s the same system,” Locksley said. “We had no clue that he would end up here. They’re a close, tight-knit family. With Tua going to Miami, I thought maybe that would be a factor, but we recruited him really hard once he went into the portal and tried to sell him on the system, and I think because of how faith-based the family is, they had a lot of belief and faith in me and our system and our program.”
And Locksley continued to have faith in Taulia — in spite of that dreadful debut against Northwestern. On Friday night versus Minnesota, the quarterback looked calm, composed and capable of being everything that comes with the last name on his jersey. It wasn’t a flawless performance — Taulia had a turnover when a screen pass was tipped by a defender for an interception — but he finished with almost 400 yards and three touchdown passes, plus another two scores on the ground.
“Everybody was so shocked he played that way because of how he played at his first game. And what I told people was, I was more shocked by how he played in the Northwestern game than how he played against Minnesota because that’s how he’s practiced, that’s some of the same drills and plays he’s done at practice,” Locksley said. “Friday night was more of what I was used to seeing, and last Saturday against Northwestern hopefully was an anomaly.”
It wasn’t until around 11 p.m. on Friday, after the game, that Taulia saw his family for the first time that weekend, as everyone followed the program’s COVID-19 protocols and stayed separated on the night before the game.
They made up for lost time.
Taulia and his father talked endlessly — about the game, about Tua — and listened to music as they drove through College Park into the wee hours of the morning, stopping at a McDonald’s at one point because it was the only place open.
“We stayed up all morning,” Galu said. “From the time he got to the hotel, we talked about the game, we talked about the things he needed to work on; and he was telling me how his week went, how him and the guys have worked hard, watched film, going over reads and going over the game plan. It was awesome. I didn’t sleep ’til maybe Saturday night.”
The flight from Baltimore to Miami left Saturday at 9 a.m.
A loud smattering of cheers erupted as Tua concluded his on-field warm-up before his first NFL start on Sunday at 1 p.m. The video board at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, gave Dolphins fans a glimpse of their franchise quarterback uncorking a pass. Then a louder collection of cheers could be heard when Dan Marino, the Dolphins’ best player in franchise history who now serves as a team advisor, was shown on the screen watching Tagovailoa.
With that backdrop, the pressure of being Tua couldn’t be more obvious. Dolphins coach Brian Flores somewhat surprisingly elevated him to starter after Week 6 with the team sitting at 3-3 and veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick playing well. Many are expecting the team’s No. 5 overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft to be the savior of a franchise that has been mired in mediocrity and quarterback misery, for the most part, since Marino retired in 2000.
But Sunday was about Tua, not Marino.
It was Tua’s first start in a football game in 351 days, since suffering a devastating hip injury at Alabama that threatened to end his playing career. Tua admittedly didn’t play his best against the Rams, as he totaled 93 passing yards, but he still got his first win. Tua said afterward, “Thank God we’ve got a good defense.”
Tua would throw his first NFL touchdown on a tight-window pass to wide receiver DeVante Parker on a goal-line slant pass. The signal-caller said he would be keeping that ball. Tua also crossed off another milestone he had set for himself: play a full 60-minute game.
“It’s definitely been a journey. I definitely think of that injury, when I got hurt, and then the process leading up to being able to walk, being able to do football drills and just do things in general,” Tua said. “I definitely do reflect on that process that I went through. I’m definitely blessed to be able to still be here and play the game that I grew up dreaming to play.”
Tua’s first dropback on Sunday caused the stadium to go eerily quiet. He attempted to step up in the pocket, but Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald swiped the football free while fellow DT Michael Brockers lifted him off his feet — and, as Tua described it, he “pretty much body-slammed me.”
We might not have learned a lot about Tua in his first NFL start, but we did learn he and his surgically repaired hip can take hits.
“That was a good hit. It’s football,” Tua said. “I’m not going to lie — I did enjoy getting hit that first time. That was definitely a welcome.”
After his first NFL snaps came in garbage time against the New York Jets two weeks ago, Tua returned to the field in full uniform and sat at the 15-yard line in Hard Rock Stadium for 10 minutes to soak it all in. He then FaceTime’d his parents, who were not in attendance, and shared the emotional moment with them.
During that postgame video call, they told him they were proud of him, Diane cried and they all reminisced about the arduous journey. But on Sunday, both parents, along with agents, pastors and other family members, watched Tua get his first touchdown pass and his first win from a suite inside Miami’s stadium.
“When I got here [to Miami], I was excited for my other son,” Galu said. “I talked with him and went over his game plan and what he was going to do. It was good. The good thing about that whole situation was, Lia was in good spirits, Tua was in good spirits. They’re so supportive.”
After the game, Tua didn’t want to go out to a celebratory dinner because of COVID-19 concerns, so everyone went to Tua’s South Florida home to let the entire weekend soak in.
The Tagovailoa brothers are making their name known across the sports world.
“I look up to Tua,” Taulia said. “That’s the person I’m trying to be. Everything he does, I want to do. Everything he does, I feel like I can do. Tua, he’s the best quarterback ever in my eyes. The best big brother in my eyes, everything to me. All that stuff — it doesn’t matter — the comparisons and stuff like that. I can’t get caught up in that.”
Tua immediately became the Dolphins’ most well-known player when he was drafted in April before playing a snap. He burst on the scene at the 2018 national championship game as a freshman, leading Alabama to a title and helping transform the Crimson Tide from an old-school, run-first operation to the high-flying air attack we see today. But through all the early accolades and the elevated brand, Tua’s humility shines.
“What helps me is my family. My family is not too big on the hype and whatnot. It’s more so just being a good son for them,” Tua said. “A lot of the times, when I do come home and I talk to my parents on the phone, they don’t really necessarily want to know about how football went. They just want to know how everything is with me as a person.”
As for Taulia, this past weekend was a step toward him being known for his own name and not just as Tua’s little brother. Even as they continue to distinguish themselves separately, though, the brothers have landed in extremely similar situations — becoming the faces of programs desperate for a quarterback capable of elevating their teams from mediocrity. Much like Dolphins fans have yearned for the next Marino, Terps’ fans haven’t seen consistent play at the position since coach Ralph Friedgen was fired in 2010. Since 2016, seven different players have started at quarterback for Maryland.
“There’s no doubt that Lia has the ability and the skill set to succeed in this system, but he has to do it consistently,” Locksley said. “I believe he’s a franchise quarterback, but he’s got to go out and show it.”
Regardless of what happens next, the Tagovailoa family will always remember their 2-0 Halloween weekend.
“It’s a blessing,” Taulia said. “I feel like God works in mysterious ways. It just happened to be a great weekend for us. It was a great weekend for Maryland. I knew Tua was going to do his thing Sunday. The way it played out was a blessing. I know my parents are happy for us, and that’s the biggest thing for us.”