The biggest difference for quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa between the All-American Bowl, which he played in over the first week of January, and the Polynesian Bowl, scheduled for Saturday, comes down to two concepts: home and family.
“It’s good to be home,” he said. “Getting to spend some time with my family, spending time in Hawaii where I grew up. It’s only the first day, but I’m pretty sure this is probably the best bowl out there.”
Like many in the bowl, Tagovailoa is of Samoan descent. Other athletes in the game include Tongans, Hawaiians and Takolauans, along with some players that do not have Polynesian ancestors.
Talking about culture is a complex topic – to put it succinctly, there are similarities between the groups of people in the Polynesian Triangle, but each is very different.
“There’s so much similarities … but it’s like apples and oranges,” Tagovailoa said, thinking carefully as he tried to encompass the vastness of the subject. “We’re both kind of the same people, but we’re not, you know what I’m saying?”
For Samoans in particular, the letters on the back of the jersey are everything.
“In my culture, the biggest thing is your last name,” he said. “For me to be able to represent my last name on a big stage like that is a huge blessing for me.”
The Polynesian Bowl, which will take place at Aloha Stadium in Oahu, is about 45 minutes from Tagovailoa’s home through his sophomore year of high school, when he attended Kapolei High School.
The last two years is a story most are aware of: His brother, Tua, went to play at Alabama, so the whole family went along.
“It was a big culture shock,” the younger Tagovailoa said. “I wasn’t used to the south and all that. Football’s different out there, it’s really big. This was a big adjustment to me and my family.”
But that concept of family came back into play. Family throughout the community is a key part of Polynesian life.
In Hawaii, everyone’s a family.
“My family’s real loving, caring, if you were to come down here, we would just take you in and you’d feel just at home,” Tagovailoa said. “I feel like that’s not only how my family is, but also everyone’s family in Hawaii. To me, that’s the crazy thing – well, not crazy, but that’s just how Hawaii is. We’re all family out here. That’s what it’s about.”
He experienced similar kindness at his new home.
“The people out there, they’re super nice and they helped us adjust, by just their hospitality and stuff like that, so they made everything more easy,” he said.
Even while adjusting to the new culture and grand scale of high school football in Alabama, Tagovailoa’s game wasn’t hampered. He thrived at Thompson High (Alabaster, Ala.), throwing for 7,504 yards and 71 passing touchdowns with only 13 interceptions in his two seasons. He said he got faster and increased his knowledge of the game.
Now, his friends and family in Hawaii can see that growth in person.
This week is the first time Tagovailoa has been back to his home state since moving.
“It’s extra special for me to play in front of hometown,” he said.
“The main thing is just getting to spend time with my family, getting to see them, my little cousins who don’t get the chance to go up to the mainland,” Tagovailoa said. But of course, there’s still football to be played, which he quickly remembered.
“And also winning the game. I know that my family’s here, but I came here for a reason and that’s the bowl.”