Let’s set the scene.
It was 20 minutes or so after Sunday’s 24-0 Dolphins victory over the New York Jets, and the field was empty, except for one person: Tua Tagovailoa, still in uniform, laying on the 15 yard-line, his back facing the west end zone.
He had just taken his first live snaps in a football game since suffering a catastrophic, career-threatening hip injury 11 months ago.
Hawaii’s Tagovailoa did what he always does after playing: He spoke with his parents, Galu and Diane. They were unable to attend Sunday’s game, so he FaceTimed them from basically the exact spot where he made his NFL debut.
“I think the biggest thing that really stands out to me is just being able to make my parents proud,” Tagovailoa said afterwards. “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 also what I do.”
Pride probably doesn’t begin to cover the gamut of emotions Tagovailoa’s parents — and anyone else who cares about him — felt Sunday.
“My parents usually never miss my game,” he said. “I think the most important thing that came out of my conversation with my parents was just that they were happy to see me out there playing again, especially with what happened last year prior to the injury and whatnot.”
This was the realization of a lifelong dream, one that could have been derailed by a broken and dislocated hip at Alabama.
Tagovailoa waited five games and some 58 minutes before finally returning to the field. Although the Dolphins selected Tagovailoa with the fifth choice in the NFL Draft on April 23, they’ve stayed with 16-year veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback through the first six games. On Sunday in front of a crowd of 10,772, Fitzpatrick threw three touchdown passes. Then a roar went up when Tagovailoa trotted on the field, with Ryan Fitzpatrick trying to hype the crowd from the sideline.
“I definitely could hear it,” Tagovailoa said of the ovation. “There’s nothing else playing in the stadium, so I could hear that. That was awesome. But to just be out there with my teammates, being my first time and getting the support and love from them, I think that was super-awesome.
“And then you have a 16-year vet like Fitz who has no animosity towards it as well, who’s just been supportive the entire time. Good drive, bad drive, he just comes to the sideline and talks through his process of why he did something. I’m very fortunate to have a mentor like him who is just very encouraging on the field, and then this guy is like — he’s just very personable off the field as well. I could say a lot about him, but just won’t have enough time.”
But they didn’t simply have him hand the ball off and get to the locker room. Tagovailoa threw two passes — including a designed rollout to his left with defenders pursuing — for 9 yards in five snaps. (“Everyone can say that I can roll out and throw it to someone who’s 2 yards down the field,” a self-aware Tagovailoa said jokingly.)
Given the reaction to the 10,000 or so in attendance, you would have thought he completed the Immaculate Reception.
But fans — and even the Dolphins’ sideline, which went wild when he entered the game — know the significance of the moment. What Tagovailoa has overcome to get here. And what could await him in the years to come.
“I think he was happy to be out there,” said Fitzpatrick, who is Tagovailoa’s mentor and friend. “It was nice to get a couple of throws in, too. The naked in your own end zone isn’t the easiest of plays and he went in and completed that one and then completed the third-down so I think that was a cool moment for him. Just the reception, too, of the fans that were here. And everybody on the sideline. We’re all excited to see him get out there.”
The Dolphins (3-3) reached .500 for the first time under second-year coach Brian Flores and moved into second place in the AFC East behind Buffalo. The Jets (0-6) became the NFL’s only winless team and continued their worst start since 1996, increasing the heat on embattled coach Adam Gase.