When Alabama’s Tua Tagavailoa went down and didn’t get up last week my heart sank. Head down, on his hands and knees, he was bleeding from the nose and mouth, obviously in great pain. He was fighting back tears. I was terrified.
I prayed out loud about football for the only time in my life that didn’t involve a game I had money on. Oh, God, don’t let him be dying. That’s how bad it looked.
Full disclosure: I graduated from The University of Alabama and worked for the athletic department when I was in school. I hope I developed a reporter’s professional distance in a long career of being a reporter, but I am still grateful to the University, its athletic department and the people there who helped me grow up – sort of – and are largely responsible for every honest dollar I’ve made in my life, few though they may be.
So when I’m not on the clock, I’m for Alabama. That’s my alma mater. I’d be a disloyal, sorry individual unworthy of anybody’s respect if I were not. That’s how I was raised. That’s the world I live in, and I’ll own it.
I admire athletes who play to win and honor the game, and I like the college game more than the NFL, which lost me several years ago. I like Joe Burrow, I like Bo Nix, and that Trask kid from Florida for stepping in when the starter went down. Justin Fields, at Ohio State, Jalen Hurts, of course, at Oklahoma. I really liked poor, old Johnny Manziel, and hated to see his own demons consume him.
But Tua was special. Not only because he was crazy talented, and not just because he was playing for Alabama, my home state that doesn’t get a lot of good ink for a lot of good reasons.
A kid from Hawaii ended up here and brought the family. It was cool. After the game, when the stands were empty, they all went down to the field and sang hymns together. As somebody who has always related religion to football, I like that.
Tua showed those of us in his adopted state the spirit of Aloha, which means hello and goodbye, of course, but which literally means “divine breath:” love, peace, compassion, kindness.
Never more than when, while he awaited major surgery to fix his mangled hip, a video surfaced of him playing the ukulele and singing. That’s how you do it.
He lives in joy and reminded us that football is, after all, just a game – but sometimes is can be something more. Football was his platform, which he used to demonstrate a really good way to live.
He was a great ambassador for his team, his school, and the college game itself. He was admired by his oft-beaten opponents – when he was carted off the field for the last time, Mississippi State fans stood and gave him the “cowbell salute,” standing up and cheering and clanging those damned bells. I heard they’d never done that for a player not wearing their team’s uniform. That’s a hell of a thing if you think about it.
Tua’s the only person who could make me want to give Nick Saban a hug. The coach, who is, you know, kind of a bastard, was heartbroken and hurting, and said as much in a wavering voice at his Monday news conference.
The bottom line, Tua’s got class, something sorely lacking today in sports and America in general.
He was born to it. He’s a champion, and he shared his gifts gladly to all.
They say he’ll be all right. That he’ll get well, and may be able to play again. Hey, God. Me again… A little help.