Insight, News, and Opinion by Nick Abramo
  • January 19, 2022
Six Years Ago, Tua Tagovailoa Entered The Spotlight As The Saint Louis Crusaders’ Starting QB

Everybody knows who Tua Tagovailoa is now. On Sunday, he will be in uniform for his first NFL regular season game as a backup quarterback for the Miami Dolphins.

But six years ago, he was just starting to become known in Hawaii high school football circles.

I remember being at Ewa Villages Golf Course on Sept. 10, 2014, with some colleagues from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser (and Hawaii Prep World) sports department. On the 19th hole, just as we were ordering beers, I remembered I needed to call Cal Lee to check on who his starting quarterback was going to be in an upcoming game.

Tua Tagovailoa will be a backup to starter Ryan Fitzpatrick in his first game Sunday at New England.
Tua Tagovailoa will be a backup to starter Ryan Fitzpatrick in his first game Sunday at New England.

A sophomore at the time, Tagovailoa had been platooning with and had compiled better stats than senior starter Ryder Kuhns, who had already made a name for himself at the position by being named to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser All-State football third team in 2013.

Still, it was kind of a bombshell what Lee said that day for “Saint Louis’ Tagovailoa Spirals Into Starting Job,” a story I wrote that was published that same day.

“Tua is our guy at quarterback,” Lee said on the phone that afternoon, a Wednesday. “Ryder is supportive and that’s the way it has to be.”

Think about that: “That’s the way it has to be.” Amazing in retrospect.

Tagovailoa went on to a national championship with Alabama, making a historic winning throw to beat Georgia 26-23 in overtime in 2018. He was then drafted by the Dolphins with the No. 5 overall pick in April, and he has the potential to be an NFL superstar.

Those colleagues and I at the Star-Advertiser (and Hawaii Prep World) got to see Tagovailoa’s greatness early and often. By the end of his sophomore season, we couldn’t recall seeing anyone better in Hawaii as far as accuracy was concerned — and he and Mililani’s McKenzie Milton (now trying to make a comeback at UCF after a career-threatening knee injury) were both showing that they already belonged near the tippity-top of pure talent among an already great list of Hawaii QBs through the years. The argument would go back-and-forth. Who’s better, Tagovailoa or Milton? Different QBs. Both dual threats. Perhaps, we thought, Tagovailoa (now 6 feet, 217 pounds) might go further up the levels than Milton (now 5-11, 185), based strictly on size.

Tagovailoa was uncannily on the money with his throws, and with heat, throughout his high school career. And so was Milton, for that matter. Milton could run like the wind, too. Tagovailoa was elusive and tough as a runner.

When Milton led the Trojans to the state title in 2014, it looked like it could have led to another spot in the championship game in 2015. But an injury to Milton curtailed that possibility of going against Tua, whose Crusaders wound up losing to Kahuku in the 2015 top-tier state final.

The very next year, in 2016, I recall leaving the press box at a game the night before the Kahuku vs. Saint Louis rematch for the Open Division state championship, and all the reporters I spoke with thought the Red Raiders were going to win. I wasn’t so sure, but I remember thinking I was smart enough to not count Saint Louis out. Winning it one year does not guarantee you will win it the next — as so many teams at all levels and all sports learn.

And then there was the Tua factor. And he eventually got it done. Leading by 2, Tagovailoa went up the middle for a 30-yard TD to make it 23-14 with just 4:44 left in what turned out to be a 30-14 win over Kahuku.

That gave legendary coach Lee his first state title since 1999 and it was the first of four straight. Lee had returned to the Crusaders in February of 2014 (after coaching in various places from 2002 through 2013). It was seven months later when he tabbed Tagovailoa as the starter. The renewal up at Kalaepohaku was just starting.

Now, all eyes are on Tua to see how his first season in the NFL and beyond will go.

A documentary about his life — “Tua” — was supposed to run on FOX on Sunday, but was postponed due to an NHRA drag race that ran long due to weather problems. The documentary has been postponed to Saturday, Sept. 12, at 10 a.m. in Hawaii.

So how did Tua do at the Dolphins’ training camp this summer?

Here’s what Josh Houtz of PhinInsider.com, wrote in his report card of Miami draftees while giving Tagovailoa an A+ on Aug. 30: “The Dolphins have needed a quarterback for the last 20+ years. And after a masterful smokescreen from Chris Grier and Brian Flores, Miami got their superstar of the future. Tua is the perfect trigger-man for Chan Gailey’s offense. And if Tua can stay healthy, the Dolphins found their nextgreatquarterback.”

It’s interesting to note — very interesting as a matter of fact — what one person wrote in the comments section of that Sept. 10, 2014, article about Tua becoming the Saint Louis starter. You can’t make this stuff up. Are you ready for this: “Absolute JOKE. Cal Lee has lost it.” Well, that wasn’t the first time someone commenting on social media turned out to be wrong.

Tua was a huge story throughout his high school years, getting offers from 23 FBS Division I schools. Even Lane Kiffin, an assistant under Nick Saban at the time, came to visit a Crusaders’ practice.

I recall being there at Saint Louis School on May 6, 2016, while Kiffin visited. I got his thoughts and recorded video of him meeting assistant coach Ron Lee (now the head coach) and watching Tua throwing some passes.

And for the record, it never hurts to get into the mind-set of why Alabama was hot on the trail for Tua in the first place. This story I wrote from March 8, 2016, shines some light into what the Crimson Tide brass was thinking.

The NFL world and Dolphins fans found out earlier Monday that Ryan Fitzpatrick was named the Dolphins’ starter for Sunday’s game. The NFL season begins in two days — with the Houston Texans visiting the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.

The Tagovailoa impact on college football is not done. Tua’s brother Taulia, who played two seasons at Kapolei before finishing his high school career on the mainland, transferred from Alabama to Maryland in mid-May.

This is what Galu Tagovailoa told AL.com at the time: “It’s really tough and it’s nothing against Alabama. But my boys are competitive and Lia is such a competitive kid. And he wanted an opportunity to compete. He was told that he was going to come in and compete and he didn’t really get that opportunity, so he wanted to use the spring to do that. But with the COVID-19 thing going on, he didn’t really have the opportunity to compete. He’s a competitor. He likes to work. He likes to compete on the field. And just, going into the season this year, he just felt that he wasn’t given that opportunity and he wants to take it somewhere where they’re going to give him the opportunity to make the best of his skill set.”

Maryland’s season has since been cancelled, and Taulia will be a sophomore when the Terrapins return to action, hopefully in 2021. In 2019, Taulia played in five games for the Crimson Tide.

Taulia’s next football escapades are at least a year away. For those who want to follow the next step in the career of his big brother, tune in first on Saturday to the “Tua” documentary on FOX at 10 a.m., and then watch Tua in his NFL debut against New England on Sunday at 7 a.m. on CBS.

On the phone Monday, Cal Lee took some time out of his Labor Day holiday to answer questions about what it was like back in 2014 when he made that decision to start Tua and what led him to make that call.

“We had Ryder, the returning starter, but we also had this young kid Tua that I didn’t know much about,” Lee said. “The thing I liked about him, he was very competitive. Nobody was asking what year is he? For me, it’s performance on the field and that’s who’s going to start. The big thing about him was he was a competitor. He wasn’t afraid. He wasn’t thinking, “I’ve got time. I’ve got two years to wait.’ It was nothing against Ryder. Tua had that ability to make the other players play harder just because of his interaction with them. They fed off of his interactions and it would make them play even better. He was talking to the guys like, ‘We gotta go out and do it.’ You could feel his confidence and it all starts with him being a competitor.”

Lee also talked about how he sees Tua’s future as an NFL player:

“I really think because of his competitiveness, talent and skills as a quarterback that he has bright future ahead of him. And when he has a chance, he’ll get out there and prove himself. I can see that it would be tough starting him right out of the locker room — no preseason games. This (COVID-19) is a situation that is tough for everybody.”

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