MONTGOMERY, Ala. – He’d driven 90 miles to watch his granddaughter in the band. And he was enjoying a dazzling show.
From a perch high in the old stadium, Winston Massey watched Taulia Tagovailoa throw the football, feathering spirals and firing darts, and declared:
“He may be as good as his brother, right now.”
At this point, we should mention that Tagovailoa’s older brother is Tua Tagovailoa. And we should note that Massey was wearing a crimson trucker’s cap with the phrase: “2nd and 26.”
“It was the last play of the national championship game,” Massey started to say – but no explanation is necessary.
Tua Tagovailoa’s 41-yard touchdown pass in overtime brought home Alabama’s latest title and propelled him into an offseason quarterback competition that continues to captivate the entire state, and perhaps college football. Like many, Massey thinks Tua, a sophomore, will emerge with the job over Jalen Hurts, a junior. Like many, he salivates over the potential.
Alabama with a dynamic talent at the game’s most important position? Saturdays could be spectacular.
But on Friday nights this fall, there is salivating for a sensational undercard.
Taulia Tagovailoa, who plans to join Tua at Alabama, threw for 385 yards and four touchdowns in Alabaster (Ala.) Thompson High’s 38-7 victory over James Clemens High, a Huntsville-area school (they played in Montgomery as part of the “Champions Challenge”.) He wasn’t satisfied afterward — his father said, “We’ll go back to the drawing board.” But plenty of fans at the old stadium seemed to be.
Rated a four-star recruit by 247Sports, Taulia (5-11, 203 pounds) is a little shorter than his brother. Unlike Tua, he isn’t considered a dual-threat quarterback. But his passing skills seem very similar. In Friday’s season opener, he prompted cheers from the Thompson fans – but sometimes, the reaction was a collective “oooooooh,” and it was apparent that many were watching to see what he would do next.
So, what’s it like being Tua’s little brother?
“A lot of people ask me that,” Taulia said. “It’s good. It’s a blessing, for sure.”
The family moved from Hawaii to Alabaster, a Birmingham suburb, when Tua enrolled at Alabama – meaning Thompson coach Mark Freeman got a very nice gift dropped in his lap.
“No, the good Lord brought him in,” Freeman said, and there’s a little more to the story.
Galu Tagovailoa, Tua and Taulia’s father, originally called Freeman a couple of years earlier to inquire about having his older son enroll at Thompson. Freeman, who’d spent several years working with Jameis Winston in football and baseball, googled Tua and thought, “Son of a gun! I hope we get that guy right there.” The family remained in Hawaii. But then Galu called again. Taulia arrived. The show started.
“What a blessing,” Freeman said.
As a junior last season, Taulia threw for 3,280 yards as Thompson reached the state semifinals. An hour or so down the road in Tuscaloosa, Tua waited for his chance, playing in games after they’d already been decided. But with Alabama trailing Georgia 13-0 at halftime of the College Football Playoff national championship game, Tua replaced Hurts and jump-started a dormant offense to help the Crimson Tide rally to win in the most dramatic fashion imaginable.
When Tua’s pass dropped into the hands of DeVonta Smith for the winning TD, Taulia was in the stands. “It was crazy,” he said, adding that he jumped into the arms of his sister, Taysia.
“That was a big blessing,” Taulia Tagovailoa said. “We feel like it was God’s plan for our family. Tua trained hard the whole season for that moment, and came through with it.”
But the blessing might also have created more of a burden for the younger brother. Taulia would have gotten plenty of attention – a future Alabama quarterback lighting up scoreboards in the state. But now?
“Not too many people can say they have a brother that won the natty,’” Taulia said. “It’s pressure. It’s a good pressure for me. It forces me to get better.”
Said Freeman: “We love Tua and we’re proud of Tua. But we want Lia to make a name for himself, also.”
At least in the state of Alabama, that’s already happening.
“He looked like a junior in college,” said Massey, the grandfather with the “2nd and 26” cap, after watching Taulia play for the first time. “He looks like he could play college ball tomorrow.”
That’s a bit much, sure. For now, Taulia promises to be a Friday night fixation.