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Tua soon: No one wanted it to end this way

Tua Tagovailoa‘s entrance into the college football consciousness may never be matched, for both drama and flair, in the history of the sport. Thrust into the third quarter of the College Football Playoff title game, Tagovailoa managed the moment with an uncommon grace and poise that has defined his career.

That night in Atlanta in January of 2018, Tagovailoa threw a walk-off, game-winning overtime touchdown pass, entrenching him deep in Crimson Tide lore before ever making his first career start.

On Saturday, Tagovailoa likely made his final career start at Alabama, as an injured hip will sideline him for the rest of the season. There’s no reasonable person that expects him to return to Alabama, especially with the spate of health issues he’s endured during his three-year college career.

Tagovailoa appears to have exited college football amid a similar din of shock that accompanied his arrival. Just like we weren’t ready for the start of Tagovailoa’s college career, we weren’t prepared for the end, either. The news is crushing, first and foremost, for Tagovailoa and his promising professional future. The best moment of a dark day came when Alabama released a statement from its team orthopedic surgeon that included this phrase: “Expected to make a full recovery.”

There will be plenty of time to ponder whether Tua can still be a high pick in the NFL draft. For now, let’s appreciate all that Tagovailoa crammed into 24 starts and the most iconic relief appearance in the history of the sport. His on-field legacy is clear, as he helped transform being Alabama’s quarterback into a glamour position. He’s this generation’s Joe Namath for the Crimson Tide, the Hawaiian kid from Ewa Beach bringing Broadway lights under center in Tuscaloosa.

Off the field, he’ll be remembered for carrying himself with a regal grace. How many players have defining moments that come with cheering on a teammate who has replaced them because of injury? That’s exactly what happened in the SEC title game in 2018, as Tagovailoa emanated joy as Jalen Hurts rescued the Crimson Tide in the fourth quarter to topple Georgia. From monster start to painful finish, Tagovailoa has remained as classy as any star in the sport’s recent history.

Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa is helped off the field after being injured on a play in the first half against the Mississippi State Bulldogs. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa is helped off the field after being injured on a play in the first half against the Mississippi State Bulldogs. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa is helped off the field after being injured on a play in the first half against the Mississippi State Bulldogs. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

Alabama confirmed on Saturday night that Tagovailoa’s season is over. With that comes the cruel coda of a career that began with a flourish leaving with a sense of longing. Even after the national title, the 22-2 record as a starter and the Heisman runner-up finish last year, there’s still a sense that more could have come from this program’s first elite quarterback talent this generation.

For as much as he gave, part of Tagovailoa’s legacy will always be what was missed. They’ll be no Iron Bowl this season, no final playoff chase and no Heisman Trophy. There won’t even be a return trip to New York, as Tagovailoa’s Heisman candidacy is incomplete having played just one full game in essentially the last month. There will be no second national title, which felt like an inevitability after the surge that accompanied the first.

Amid Nick Saban’s five national titles at Alabama, he’s managed to thrive despite the quarterbacks, not because of them. A.J. McCarron and Greg McElroy are the only two quarterbacks drafted by the NFL in the Saban era, fifth- and seventh-round picks who had modest professional careers to match evaluators’ projections.

If Tagovailoa lives up to his pre-injury promise as a first-round pick, it will be the final position group under Saban to produce a first-rounder. Tagovailoa committed to Alabama amid the program’s offensive overhaul under former coordinator Lane Kiffin, who finally convinced Saban to join this era of relentless offense.

And while his immediate predecessors performed with aplomb and helped Saban’s teams evolve offensively, the likes of Blake Sims, Jake Coker and even Jalen Hurts haven’t captured the imagination the same way that Tagovailoa did. Simply put, Tagovailoa will leave Alabama as one of the most transformative players in program history. His left-handed follow through will be synonymous with unmatched production.

Consider all he shoehorned into those 24 starts. Tagovailoa broke the NCAA record for passer rating last season, finished second to Kyler Murray in the Heisman Trophy race and smashed an assortment of Alabama records, including for touchdown passes in both career and single season. He was on pace for similar — and even increased — production this season before he ended up under Mississippi State linebacker Leo Lewis on Saturday afternoon.

Ponder the statistical stratosphere where Tagovailoa’s production will end up, as he finished this season with 33 touchdowns and three interceptions. Last year, he finished with 43 touchdowns and six interceptions. He finished this season completing more than 71 percent of his passes, keeping Saban’s trademark efficiency and transporting it to the space age of offense.

As searing as Tagovailoa’s entrance will be in Alabama lore, his exit will linger as equally painful. Tagovailoa’s magical half back in January of 2018 — plus overtime — secured Alabama its last national title. His early exit this season likely cements a second consecutive Crimson Tide season without a national title. The case for one-loss Alabama making the playoff, simply put, takes a precipitous hit without a healthy Tagovailoa.

The visuals on Saturday were raw. The hit itself late in the second quarter of Alabama’s 38-7 victory didn’t appear extraordinary. But the aftermath proved telling — the cart driving him off the field, the ambulance taking him from the stadium and the helicopter ferrying him back to Alabama. When ESPN sideline reporter Molly McGrath reported that Tagovailoa was heard screaming in pain on the field, it felt like the beginning of the end.

And it ended in the same type of mad flourish, just on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. There were Alabama staffers scrambling to shield media from viewing Tagovailoa’s entrance into the ambulance. There were vocal second guesses of Saban keeping Tagovailoa in the game with the Tide already up 35-7.

In the end, Tagovailoa left a sense of despair that matched the visceral power of the shock upon his arrival — dueling blunt forces only matched in raw power by wanting to experience more.

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