From career in peril to Miami Dolphins’ future: Inside Tua Tagovailoa’s journey back from injury

  • Covered the Broncos for two seasons with the Denver Post
  • Graduate of the University of Houston
  • A native of Jackson, Miss.

DAVIE, Fla. — Watching Tua Tagovailoa wiggle on a crucial fourth-quarter third-down play, delivering a dead-leg juke on Arizona Cardinals safety Budda Baker last Sunday, it’s easy to forget all that the Miami Dolphins rookie quarterback has endured to get here.

Monday will mark one year since Tagovailoa suffered a scary hip injury at Alabama that could have ended the career of a player who might become one of this generation’s best. The journey began with a helicopter ride off the field to the hospital and continued through months of rehab and outside uncertainty about whether Tagovailoa would ever be the same football player.

“Tua’s ability to overcome adversity speaks for itself,” Alabama coach Nick Saban told ESPN. “I don’t think that anybody has had to work harder or do more to get back to playing relative to his situation.”

Stephania Bell, a senior writer and injury analyst at ESPN, said Tagovailoa suffered a traumatic injury rarely seen in sports. The immediate worry when it happened was blood flow getting to his hip. Bell said the action by Alabama’s head physician, Lyle Cain, in putting Tagovailoa’s hip back in place at the stadium was important to preserve any hope of Tagovailoa playing football again. Dr. Chip Routt performed successful surgery within two days, and Tagovailoa followed strict orders to rest for several weeks.

“It’s a freak-type injury,” Bell said. “It’s what we call a high-energy injury, meaning you’re more likely to see something like this in motor vehicle accidents.”

Tagovailoa has shown no visible effects from his injury. In Sunday’s Week 9 victory at Arizona, Tagovailoa, who is 2-0 since surprisingly being named the Dolphins’ starter after Week 6, had 283 total yards and two touchdowns. But, the 22-year-old quarterback said this week, “I don’t know if I’ll ever be my old self.”

His teammates and coaches say Tagovailoa has regained his athleticism.

“It looks like it to me. I can’t see a real difference,” Dolphins offensive coordinator Chan Gailey said. “Physically is the one thing you had the concern about and I think he kind of relieved all our thoughts about that.”

Let’s revisit Tagovailoa’s yearlong journey and how he went from wondering if he’d play football again to leading the Dolphins in a second-half playoff chase.

The injury

With Alabama leading 35-7 at Mississippi State late in the first half, Saban was ready to pull Tagovailoa, but the young signal-caller asked for another drive. That’s when it happened.

Tagovailoa rolled to his left, trying to extend the play before finally throwing the ball out of bounds. He was driven into the ground from behind by two Bulldogs defenders and immediately rolled over, writhing in pain. He suffered a right hip dislocation and posterior wall fracture coupled with a broken nose and concussion.

“It was one of the most devastating feelings I’ve ever had as a coach,” Saban said. “You hate to see anybody get injured, but you certainly hate to see guys get those sort of injuries, especially at that station of their career. I can’t tell you how bad I felt for him, his family and our team and how bad our team felt for him.”

Tagovailoa’s final college football season — with national championship and Heisman Trophy potential — was over. His pro football career was now in peril.

The immediate thought of an injury similar to Tagovailoa’s was former Raiders running back Bo Jackson’s career-ending hip dislocation and fracture in 1991. Cain made clear to ESPN’s Laura Rutledge that it was not a fair comparison because Jackson’s hip worsened as he tried to play through the injury, unaware of the severity. Jackson suffered avascular necrosis — death of bone tissue due to blood loss — after the injury, which ended his four-year pro football career.

Tagovailoa said he spoke to Jackson, who stressed to him the importance of not rushing back, protecting his football longevity and explaining the differences in their injuries. Because there was an immediate reaction by medical professionals, Tagovailoa’s doctors said there was an “excellent” chance for the quarterback to fully recover.

Even with an optimistic outlook, though, Tagovailoa leaned on his family to face the most difficult challenge of his life.

“The most important thing to us was him. We weren’t thinking football, we weren’t thinking NFL,” Galu Tagovailoa, Tua’s father, said this week in a phone interview with ESPN. “We wanted to make sure his mind and soul was right. It became clear that it was. He had no thoughts of not playing football again. He just had to go through the long process. It was tough, but through faith he made it through.”

Six-month journey

Much of Tagovailoa’s next six months were behind the scenes, outside of a few notable public appearances. He spent more than a month resting, avoiding weight-bearing activities on the advice of doctors and Alabama athletic trainers. Shortly after he shed his crutches, he walked to an Alabama lectern on Jan. 6, 2020, and declared his intention to enter the NFL draft.

Doctors projected it would take Tagovailoa four to six months to get back to football activities. He wouldn’t be able to participate at the NFL scouting combine or Alabama’s pro day and, after COVID-19 cancellations, there were no private pre-draft workouts with teams.

The uncertainty about Tagovailoa’s draft stock had analysts projecting him anywhere from a top-five pick to falling out of the first round. Ultimately, he had his own private pro day on April 9 with a personal quarterback coach, Trent Dilfer, and a handful of wide receivers. It was an impressive 75-throw display, showing in a one-hour session he had regained much of his movement and throwing ability. It checked an important box for several teams, including the Dolphins.

“He had a very serious injury, which was a very difficult rehab. With all his dreams of playing at the next level, it seemed like all of a sudden it’s going to be an uphill struggle to get back to where [he] was,” Saban said. “Those types of things make you stronger. He has a strong will, a good work ethic and he’s certainly demonstrated it.”

Tagovailoa can only smirk and nod his head thinking back to that period — the calls to his dad asking why everything seemed to be going wrong in the pre-draft process, not knowing if he would ever be the same and the stress of not wanting his football career to end.

“When something dramatic like that happens, it’s just a continuous process for me,” Tagovailoa said. “Continuing to focus on what I need to do to continue to strengthen the muscles around my hip. And just continue to stay on rehab. But I mean it’s been a journey.

“Looking back at that whole process. Literally almost a year from now, we were making a decision to decide if I was going to be able to play again or not, so I’m just blessed to be here.”

NFL draft

Players have no say in where they get drafted, but Tagovailoa saw Miami as a preferred fit. The Dolphins kept their intentions close to the vest, and as the draft drew near, it was unclear where he would land.

Tagovailoa sat on the couch at his family’s home in Alabaster, Alabama, alongside his parents, Galu and Diane, with his three siblings — Taulia, Taysia and Taylor — sitting behind them. All of them except Tua wearing traditional Hawai’ian leis around their heads and shoulders as in-home cameras followed their every move. They stared straight ahead at the TV, not knowing which team would change their lives.

“The one thing we’ve talked about as a family is no matter what pick he went or what round he got drafted, he just wanted to be on a team that wanted him for him,” Galu Tagovailoa said. “We tried to not be worried about the outcome and stay focused on us.”

As usual, rumors were flying leading up to draft weekend, with many analysts saying Miami preferred Oregon’s Justin Herbert to Tagovailoa. Then it was that the Dolphins preferred an offensive tackle over Tagovailoa, or that there would be a trade up. None of it happened as the Dolphins stayed at No. 5 and selected Tagovailoa.

The Dolphins assigned Thomas Byrd, a hip specialist in Nashville, Tennessee, as an independent evaluator for Tagovailoa’s combine medical recheck, sources told ESPN’s Chris Mortensen. Tagovailoa’s X-rays looked “pristine,” and the player “looks as good as [he has] ever seen five months out after similar injuries,” Byrd told ESPN. The Dolphins felt comfortable betting on whom they perceived as the better prospect.

“Football is a violent game. Guys are going to get hurt,” Dolphins general manager Chris Grier said in April. “We felt very comfortable and our doctors and trainers did a lot of work on him, so for us, it wasn’t that difficult of a decision.”

The waiting game

Tua-mania spiked in late April after the Dolphins drafted him, with his jersey immediately becoming the NFL’s bestseller. He became the face of the Dolphins with the potential to become the team’s biggest star since Dan Marino. But Tagovailoa didn’t have the keys to the franchise, yet. He was a backup to veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick, a place he would remain for the next six months.

The waiting game began. Fitzpatrick, Tagovailoa’s self-proclaimed “placeholder,” started the Dolphins’ first six games and served as the rookie’s mentor by answering his questions and hyping him up. On game days, Tagovailoa had an earpiece in, listening to Gailey’s playcalls. During the week, Tagovailoa spent extra time with quarterbacks coach Robby Brown figuring out what makes him comfortable in the Dolphins’ offense. He also had weekly Tuesday meetings with head coach Brian Flores to learn the defensive side of the game.

In practice, teammates saw dramatic improvement. Every week, Tagovailoa flashed athleticism and playmaking ability that looked closer to the quarterback who led Alabama to a national title.

“I’ve seen a lot of him in practice and how athletic he is, how incredible of a player he is,” Dolphins defensive end Shaq Lawson said. “That’s why I think he’s so dangerous and he’s athletic. His IQ for the game — you wouldn’t think he’s a rookie if you watch him in practice. He looks like he’s been around the game a long time.”

In Week 6, the anticipation ended. With a little more than two minutes left in the fourth quarter in a blowout home victory against the New York Jets, Flores called Tagovailoa’s number for his first NFL action, in garbage time with the Dolphins up 24-0. Tagovailoa played five snaps with two completions, but the Miami crowd erupted, with Fitzpatrick leading teammates in hyping up the moment.

It was a moment that meant everything to Tagovailoa.

Minutes after his first football action since Nov. 16, 2019, Tagovailoa returned to the field in full uniform, sat down on the 15-yard line and soaked in the moment. He called his parents on FaceTime. Diane cried. Galu and Diane told Tua how proud they were of him — he had survived a journey that might have broken others. He had made it to the NFL.

“It was a very special moment for me,” Tagovailoa said. “The biggest thing that really stands out to me is just being able to make my parents proud. So whether that’s Tua as a football player, Tua as a person, Tua as a son, I think that’s what brings me the most joy is seeing how happy my parents get and then seeing how happy my family gets, as well, with who I am and then also what I do.”

First start

The timing of Tagovailoa’s first start came as an even bigger surprise than his first NFL action. Going into a bye week on a two-game win streak with Fitzpatrick playing well, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Oct. 20 that the Dolphins were naming Tagovailoa the starter beginning in Week 8.

After a week of national debate about “why now?” and “will this disrupt the locker room?” coupled with Fitzpatrick’s emotional response, the attention eventually shifted to Tagovailoa making his first NFL start against two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year in Aaron Donald and the Los Angeles Rams.

“I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t sleep at all,” Galu Tagovailoa said. “Knowing they were playing one of the best defenses in the NFL with the Rams and Aaron Donald, it was awesome to see him face that challenge and win. He told me, ‘Dad, I want to get my first hit. I want to get hit. I want to get the feel back.’ So, he got his welcome to the NFL hit and it was good.”

Tagovailoa wasn’t satisfied with his performance but said he was ecstatic his team — led by a defensive score and a Jakeem Grant punt-return touchdown — carried him to a victory.

After that game, Tagovailoa celebrated the accomplishment at his home with a large family contingent who had watched from a suite at Hard Rock Stadium. But his eyes were still on performing much better.

“He’s just getting started,” Flores said. “I’ve been around a lot of young players. Every game is an experience. Good plays, bad plays, you learn from them and hopefully you get better. Again, he’s still young. … The way he practices, the way he prepares, how much he cares about it; it gives him a good opportunity to have some success.”

Second start

Success has come quickly for Tagovailoa. In his second start against Arizona, his 87.6 QBR was eighth among all quarterbacks in Week 9. But after the win, Tagovailoa insisted Flores accept the game ball.

“For me, it was like, ‘Thank you for taking the shot on me,'” Tagovailoa said. “Because, like I said, a year ago, who would have known. I could have had a season-ending injury, but the Miami Dolphins decided to take a chance on me. So … that was awesome.”

As Tagovailoa reminisces about a special moment, everyone else raves about his play. Dolphins wide receiver DeVante Parker said Tagovailoa’s open-field elusiveness surprised him. Flores concurs. It’s clear through their words that they believe Tagovailoa is their franchise QB.

“He has a tremendous feel for the game,” Gailey said. “That allows him to see some things and do some things and throw the ball in some spots that other people might not do. He just went out and played the game. He didn’t care who was there or who wasn’t there. He was playing the game and that’s what you like about him. He doesn’t think about adversity. He thinks about, ‘OK, how can we go be successful?’ That will carry a person a long way.”

Flores added: “He made a lot of plays for us, a lot of big plays, especially down the stretch when we needed it. … The stage wasn’t too big for him.”

As Tagovailoa prepares for his third NFL start Sunday against Herbert’s Los Angeles Chargers (4:05 p.m. ET, CBS), it’s worth reexamining his journey from a potentially career-ending hip injury to being the heart of the Dolphins’ hope.

Like Flores said, Tagovailoa is just getting started.

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