Illustration special to SEC Country
Taulia Tagovailoa always has been compared to his brother, Tua. But he has made a name for himself.

Out of the Shadow: How Taulia Tagovailoa went from Tua’s center to heralded quarterback

Taulia Tagovailoa committed to Alabama on April 21, 2018. That day was 630 days in the making from when he was offered by the Crimson Tide on July 30, 2016. Taulia wanted to commit to Alabama immediately but held off for nearly two years. Taulia ranks as the nation’s No. 7 pro-style quarterback for 2019. No one, not even his father, could have seen this coming.

Prologue

It’s impossible to write a story about Taulia Tagovailoa without mentioning Tua — a lot. They had the same introduction to football and their storylines are eerily similar. To understand Taulia’s rise, you must understand the family’s path to mastering the quarterback position.

Chapter I: Ewa Beach Sabers

Three years before Tua Tagovailoa cemented his name into college football lore by completing a 41-yard touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith to give Alabama its 16th national championship in January, Taulia Tagovailoa had his own championship moment.

It was on a much smaller stage in the Junior Prep Sports league on the island of Oahu. But Taulia’s path to carrying the Ewa Beach Sabers to the seventh-grade title mirrored his brother’s national championship story.

The Sabers’ starting quarterback either got hurt in the semifinals or in the championship game, according to coach Tuli Amosa, Taulia’s uncle, and Galu Tagovailoa, the patriarch of the Tagovailoa family. They can’t pinpoint which game it was.

What’s clear is that Taulia, the second-string quarterback, won a championship game with little experience that season.

Taulia Tagovailoa started his quarterback career with the Ewa Beach Sabers. Tuli Amosa knew that Tua was destined for stardom, but it took some time for him to look at Taulia that way. (Tagovailoa family photo/courtesy)

“I guess all good things start with a quarterback going down and then they [the Tagovailoa brothers] come in and finish the game,” Amosa said with a laugh. The Ewa Beach Sabers won back-to-back titles with the brothers.

The Sabers used a run-and-shoot offense, and Taulia was the perfect quarterback for that system because of his quick release. It was his composure that set him apart. He was calm. He could be trusted.

Amosa believes that calming feeling when you’re around Tua and Taulia has to do with how fast they matured. Seu, the late paternal grandfather of the Tagovailoas, played an instrumental role in discipline, along with the brothers’ parents, Galu and Diane. The family would visit Seu daily to read the Bible and learn spiritual wisdom.

He visualized great things for each of his grandchildren, but no one could have imagined quarterback was in Taulia’s future.

Taulia wasn’t the most athletic kid. He was chunky. He was the Sabers’ center until the sixth grade. The quarterback was Tua. It wasn’t until the sixth grade when Tuli, who was coaching the sixth-graders at the time, asked Taulia to be his quarterback. He had a mental note in his mind from when he saw Taulia throw the ball around with his son when Taulia was in the third grade. Taulia, like his brother, had an unusually strong arm for his age. So when he needed a quarterback for his team, he asked Taulia.

Tuli was the first to believe.

“He had a vision that I was also going to be a quarterback like Tua,” Taulia said. “God works in mysterious ways, right? I told myself that I was going to eat a lot and be a center. I don’t have to do that now.”

Taulia essentially was immobile when he started playing quarterback, and that was perfect because the whole point of the run-and-shoot is getting the ball out of the hands of the quarterback quickly. He excelled at that because he didn’t have a choice.

Teams quickly took note that in order to beat the Sabers, you had to pressure Taulia.

“He was one of those quarterbacks that defensive linemen loved to go up against because he couldn’t run,” Tuli said. “They would blitz him every game. Through that process, it made him a better thrower because he had to get rid of the ball quicker.”

Taulia started to look like a quarterback during that championship season in the seventh grade when it was clear that his days as an offensive lineman were over. He was training with his father’s brother-in-law who was a lineman at the University of Hawaii.

When the kids would go to the park, Tua would play quarterback, Galu snapped the ball to Tua and Taulia was the wide receiver. Taulia would try to mimic Tua’s mechanics when he threw the ball back to his father. It just didn’t occur to him that Tua’s receiver would one day be an accomplished quarterback in his own right.

“I never in my life thought he would be a quarterback,” Galu said. “I never had a moment when I thought that Taulia would someday be like his brother. People would tell me to not sleep on Taulia. I would have people tell me that Taulia could spin the ball, too. That’s when things started to get serious. We started training hard. I got on Taulia just as hard as I did with Tua.”

Chapter II: Push and stay active

Galu was a nose tackle for Nanakuli High School in Waianae, Hawaii, before attending Santa Rosa (Calif.) Junior College from 1989-1991.

“I loved hitting quarterbacks. I loved sacking quarterbacks. That was my favorite thing,” Galu recalled. “And now I have two boys who are quarterbacks. It’s funny how it all worked out. I never played quarterback in my life.”

Galu, having zero quarterback experience, engineered two of Hawaii’s all-time best high school quarterbacks. The great quarterbacks, lots of times, come from a lineage of predecessors who played the position. Tua and Taulia are anomalies. The majority of the family is made up of linemen.

Years before Marcus Mariota gave his speech after winning the Heisman Trophy in 2015, inspiring young Polynesian athletes to use his victory as a reason to dream big, Tua already had started his path — on defense.

Polynesians are known for producing players who just want to hit somebody. Samoans and Tongans have strong, thick bodies, so when Galu signed up Tua for flag football, he made sure his son was a defensive end and outside linebacker. If he was going to make it one day, it had to be a position that required brute force.

But Tua’s team’s quarterback ended up getting hurt. The coach, after seeing Tua throw the ball around during warm-ups, asked Galu if it would be OK for him to play quarterback.

Galu (center) trained Taulia (left) and Tua as hard as he could because he knew that one day the work they put in would pay off. He never thought he would have two sons who would be the future of Alabama football. (Tagovailoa family photo/courtesy)

“I told him it would be no problem,” Galu said. “We got home and I told him that he would play offense and defense because I didn’t think he would end up being a quarterback.”

That day changed everything — for Tua and Taulia.

If Galu’s son was going to play quarterback, he was going to do it correctly. He started to learn the position so he could teach Tua. Tua was right-handed, but Galu would take the ball and place it in his left hand. Galu wanted Tua to be left-handed because that’s what he is. There are no left-handed people in the house other than Galu and Tua.

They soon met Vinny Passas, who was Tua’s throwing coach until he left Hawaii for Alabama. He took tips from Tom Martinez, Tom Brady’s mentor. Galu would listen to what every coach had to say and apply it to Tua’s training. He quickly became the best quarterback in his age group and was selected to travel to Virginia with a Football University team. Galu used that trip to talk to ex-NFL players who were in attendance and took notes on everything.

After the Virginia trip, they returned to Hawaii and got to work.

“Tua was the type of kid that if I told him something like, ‘Son, that’s too slow of a dropback — we’ll work on it tomorrow,’ he would go into the backyard of our house and throw on his own. He wanted to prove that he could do it the next day. That’s one thing I couldn’t teach.”

The training became an obsession for Galu. And once it was clear that Taulia would follow Tua’s path, it became more intense.

“It got to a point where my father would look at me and tell me, ‘Dude, are you crazy?’” Galu recalled. “Are you going to let your kids breathe?’ I would tell him, ‘No, dad, we have to work.’

“We would leave in between service to train. I remember my dad telling me that if I spent the same amount of energy and time throwing that ball with my kids as I did reading the Bible, I would be one of the best pastors. I would laugh. He saw my energy and how much I invested in my kids. People would think I was crazy with how much we would train because they didn’t think they were having fun. But part of the process is not having fun. Hard work is not fun a lot of times.”

Taulia, who was in the eighth grade, wasn’t having fun. Fresh off his first taste at winning a championship, Taulia was 100 percent going to be a quarterback for the rest of his career. He joined his father and brother for training and soon learned that the work Tua put in for several years wasn’t easy.

They would sometimes train seven days a week for three hours at a time. Their seasons would end and they would have a week to rest before hitting the field again.

Push. Stay active. Push. Push. Stay active.

Those were the words that Taulia probably hated the most. Galu would repeat those words to his sons because he wanted them to throw fast and to throw quickly. He wanted no wasted time from the moment they dropped back to how fast the ball left their fingertips. Tua, in particular, was almost too fast with his footwork that several coaches told Galu he needed to slow down. But Galu had the mentality that the quicker his sons were able to drop, the quicker they could make their reads. The key was the balance between dropping back quickly and maintaining technique.

But all of that drained Taulia. He was done with it. He told his father he was done playing quarterback. Galu didn’t want to hear it. Too many hours were spent on the field to quit.

“He stuck with it because I told him he needed to stick it out,” Galu said. “I felt like we put in a lot of work. I didn’t want to feel like I wasted my time. We weren’t going to stop. We put in too much work.”

Taulia’s name in Samoan, fittingly, translates to battle strong. So he continued.

Galu realized outsiders who knew the hours he spent training his sons would see him as demanding or overbearing, but they would not know why.

“It’s like writing for you,” Galu explained. “When you write a story and someone says, ‘You have a special talent or that was an awesome story, you tell us details about kids that no one else does.’ That was the kind of feedback I was getting about Tua and Taulia. I would hear how special they were, so we needed to train them harder.

“I didn’t want to hear about how good they were from my family. I wanted to hear from people on the island. Then it would be, ‘I don’t want to hear from people on the island, I want to hear from people on the mainland. I don’t want to hear from people on the mainland, I want to hear from Alabama.’

“It became a drug to me.”

Galu was getting those calls about Tua, but coaches slowly started telling him Taulia had potential, too. So, what did Taulia and Galu do once they received those same calls he got about Tua?

“We trained and trained and trained,” Galu said. “He would hear the comments that people thought he was good, and then it clicked to him that the non-fun part was done. People finally saw him as a quarterback and respected what he did.

“The fun part was about to begin.”

Chapter III: Taulia is his own quarterback

June Jones remembers his first conversation with the Tagovailoas was when Tua was a junior at St. Louis School in Honolulu. Jones, who is now the coach of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the Canadian Football League, helped out with St. Louis that season.

The former Atlanta Falcons coach first saw Taulia throw going into his freshman year. His plan was to stay at St. Louis to help out as Tua’s senior year was about to begin. On the first day of practice, he noticed Taulia wasn’t there. Galu told Jones that Taulia was going to Kapolei, where Galu was the team’s offensive coordinator.

Jones went to Kapolei several times during Taulia’s freshman year. He threw for 2,784 yards in 10 games with 22 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Kapolei never had a quarterback throw for more than 300 yards in a game until Taulia got there. He eclipsed 300 yards four times, including a game that saw him throw for a school-record 534 yards and 6 touchdowns.

Galu stepped down as Kapolei’s coordinator after Taulia’s freshman year in 2015 because he wanted to focus on watching his sons play and help train them. The timing was perfect for Jones because he was looking for his next job after stepping down as SMU’s coach in 2014.

Tua Tagovailoa (left) and brother Taulia aren’t the tallest of quarterbacks, measuring at 6-foot-1 and 5-11, respectively, but they can make all the throws. (Tagovailoa family photo/courtesy)

“I called [Kapolei coach] Darren [Hernandez] and told him I would love to coach that kid,” Jones said of Taulia.

Jones was hired as Kapolei’s offensive coordinator in January 2016. Jones’ offense at Kapolei was the same one he ran with the Atlanta Falcons, San Diego Chargers, Detroit Lions and Houston Oilers. The plays were the exact ones he had during his NFL days.

Taulia thrived in Jones’ quarterback-friendly offense — a similar run-and-shoot scheme he ran with the Ewa Beach Sabers. He threw for 3,919 yards as a sophomore. That mark ranks second in Hawaii high school history for most yards in a single season behind Timmy Chang’s mark of 3,985 yards. Taulia also threw 42 touchdowns and 9 interceptions.

“He showed that he could play football,” Jones said. “His accuracy and ability to run the offense was similar to the guys I had in the NFL, and he was only 15 years old.”

Jones believes what separates Tua and Taulia from other quarterbacks is their desire to be great. Their work ethic, he says, is “unbelievable.” He thinks that drive has a lot to do with Galu’s training methods.

Every 3-4 weeks, he talks with Taulia and they text periodically. It can be a text war at times because the Tiger-Cats are in their season and Taulia is busy with camps.

Jones only coached him for one year, but he saw enough to make himself a believer in Taulia.

“I do know this: He’s his own quarterback,” Jones said. “He was doing the same thing at Kapolei while his brother was the best in the state of Hawaii. The desire to be the best is there. He feels no pressure. He loves the game. He wants to play. He wants to work out. He wants to watch film. You have to love the game, and he does.”

Jones now is in charge of the most-talked-about Canadian Football League team because of his quarterback, Johnny Manziel.

Manziel lit up televisions across the country with his carefree style of play at Texas A&M. The one knock on the Tagovailoas’ potential as pro prospects is their height. Tua is listed at 6-foot-1 and Taulia is 5-foot-11, which is what Manziel measured in at the NFL combine.

Jones thinks that lack of height is overblown because, like Manziel, they have the luxury of playing against some of the best teams in college football. If they can make plays in the SEC, then they can do it in the NFL.

“The biggest thing for Tua and Taulia is they have all of the arm talent to play at the highest level,” Jones said. “Taulia is a little shorter than Tua and Tua is on the short side, too. But they have been making the throws for years. There aren’t going to be many people bigger than who they are going up against in the SEC. Johnny played in the SEC and in the NFL. It doesn’t matter what your size is if you can make plays, and they can.”

The relationship with Jones is so strong that the family considered staying in Hawaii so Taulia could continue getting coached by him. But once Jones left for Canada, the decision to migrate the family more than 4,000 miles away was easier.

Chapter IV: A new beginning 

Mark Freeman coaches Taulia at Thompson High School in Alabama. He received a call from an 808 number shortly after Tua committed to Alabama. Galu told Freeman that he was thinking of moving to Alabaster, Ala., for Tua’s senior season. Alabaster is roughly an hour from Tuscaloosa, and Freeman is one of the most respected high school coaches in the state and has trained the likes of the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Florida State’s Jameis Winston.

The Tagovailoas remained in Hawaii for Tua’s senior season. He would lead St. Louis to the state championship while Taulia and Kapolei fell in the semifinals. But Freeman would receive another call from Galu. This time, the Tagovailoas would move, and Freeman started digging up film on Taulia.

Shortly after Tua enrolled at Alabama in January 2017, the Tagovailoa family moved to Alabama in April. SEC Country caught up with Taulia just two weeks after moving to Alabaster.

“The people here have been treating us very well,” Tagovailoa told SEC Country at the time. “The culture here at Thompson is good. It’s a good culture to be in. I’m happy here.”

Freeman was hesitant to allow SEC Country to interview Taulia. The move brought a lot of anticipation and expectations. Taulia didn’t want any publicity.

Freeman made an exception when an SEC Network film crew stopped by the school. He talked to Taulia’s parents and told them that he would hate it if his quarterback missed the opportunity to be on the SEC Network. Galu and Diane agreed.

The film crew started setting up on the field, and when it was time for the interview, Taulia grabbed backup quarterback Sawyer Pate. Taulia wasn’t doing the interview without Pate by his side.

Taulia arrived at Thompson with lofty expectations because of his last name. (Chris Kirschner/SEC Country)

“You know at that point when you see a 16-year-old/17-year-old guy, who the SEC Network wants to do something on, and he grabs a teammate and one who plays the same position as you,” Freeman said, “it says everything you need to know. I knew what type of person he was then.”

Says Pate: “He just made me feel in that moment like I was his brother. He always brings me along. He teaches me all he knows. He always just wants to bring me along for the ride. He’s just really humble. He never takes the credit. He always throws the credit on his [offensive] line and the receivers for making him good. He’ll never say he led. He always just says his receivers were the ones who caught the pass.”

On Tuesday, Taulia and Pate were working on a familiar play to the Tagovailoa family. On the final play of the National Championship Game, Tua looked off Georgia safety Dominick Sanders, allowing DeVonta Smith to break free for the easy touchdown.

If Pate were in Tua’s shoes, he would have thrown the football to Sanders’ side of the field. That’s what he did in practice when he was quickly corrected by Taulia, who saw his brother make that throw look like perfection six months earlier.

“He told me that when the safety rolls that way, he can’t turn his hips quickly enough even if you threw a bad pass,” Pate said. “Always throw on the back side because he’ll never recover.

“When you look the safety off, that safety is going with your eyes — well, your facemask because you can’t see the eyes — so that throw is just an easy pitch and catch.”

Pate, who is in the 2020 class, said in the year he’s known Taulia, he feels like he’s become a better quarterback. The biggest difference he has seen within himself has come from off the field. Taulia has shown him how he’s supposed to act and carry himself. He now knows how to introduce himself to coaches and what to say. He learned that from Taulia.

“Galu has done a really good job training these kids to be quarterbacks,” Freeman said. “A lot of what goes into being a quarterback is how good of a leader can you be. These kids have those answers. They know what it takes to be a great teammate. They know what it’s like to be a great leader. A lot of times, really good players get lost because they don’t have the intangibles of being selfless and being a good teammate. Lia and Tua both have that, and a lot of that goes back to their dad’s training. It was built in them.”

Taulia is currently No. 8 in Hawaii high school history with 6,703 career passing yards. He would have eclipsed Tua’s record of 8,158 yards last season. At Thompson, he threw for 3,823 yards, which passed former Tide QB John Parker Wilson for third all time in the state in one season, and totaled 35 touchdowns. Taulia was named the Alabama Sports Writers Association’s Class 7A Back of the Year, and he finished third in the state’s voting for Mr. Football.

He led Thompson to its first win over Hoover High School, a perennial national powerhouse, in school history. Thompson won its first region championship since 2007 and won the school’s first playoff game in 20 years.

“He sees windows and opportunities that you can’t see,” Freeman said. “A quarterback has to anticipate windows opening. The great ones know how to react if they don’t open. In the offense we run, you have to anticipate those windows opening, and not everyone can react. The great thing about Lia is he anticipates really well and he usually anticipates correctly. If he doesn’t, he adjusts and reacts so well, and that makes him hard to defend.”

The expectations for Taulia and Thompson are only going to grow, but this is exactly what they have worked for.

Chapter V: Obvious comparison

Tua and Taulia were not always close. Tua would hang out with the receivers and running backs and any time Taulia would try to come around, Tua would tell his brother to hang out with the linemen.

They would argue. Taulia always gave Tua attitude because he wanted to hang out. Their relationship started growing when Taulia got his shot at quarterback. They could watch film and talk about how to beat different coverages.

And now they are very tight.

“If Taulia could go to Tuscaloosa every weekend, he would,” Galu said. “He would go every day if he could.”

Taulia has never been jealous. Even when he was his brother’s center, Taulia always loved watching his brother. Whatever Tua did, Taulia wanted to do. When Tua learned how to play the ukulele, Taulia followed. His brother has always set the bar.

Tua and Taulia are best friends. Taulia (right) is hoping he matches his brother this week with the Elite 11 MVP trophy. (Chris Kirschner/SEC Country)

“I don’t really compete with anyone else other than Tua when it comes to football and school,” Taulia said. “Even when we are at home just playing games, I want to win. God blessed me with an amazing brother who I can compete with every day in every aspect of life.”

Taulia has embraced being known as “Tua Tagovailoa’s younger brother.” In the beginning of the recruiting journey, Taulia loved it. To be compared with Tua was an honor. But Galu reminded him that if he wanted to make it to a big-time program, he would have to start thinking differently. Don’t just ride his wave. Work harder than him. Be better.

But the label of being Tua’s younger brother will not escape him.

“I told Taulia that eventually, you have to create your own name,” Galu said. “Get to the point where they only mention your name and not, ‘Taulia Tagovailoa threw 5 touchdowns today. He is the younger brother of Tua Tagovailoa.’ He respects his brother so much. He loves to compete against his brother. It doesn’t really bother him that people compare him or call him Tua’s younger brother because for Taulia, his brother means so much to him. He doesn’t want to be compared to anyone else other than his brother.

“He tells me, ‘I only compete against my brother because of how good he is. If I can beat him, then I can beat anyone,’” Galu said. “That’s just his mentality. He’s not trying to be Tom Brady or Troy Aikman. He wants to be like Tua.”

They will always be compared because they are brothers. They are also linked because they are Samoans in an uncommon position. They were both trained by their father.

The success of one has always fueled the other, especially for Taulia. If Tua would have flopped at quarterback and stuck with being a defensive end or outside linebacker, Taulia likely would have followed. Because Tua won the Elite 11 MVP, Taulia wants to match his brother.

Tuli, Taulia’s uncle and Sabers coach, said this summer is just the start of Taulia “being his own self.”

A big step takes place this week when Taulia travels to Texas for The Opening Finals. It’s the event that sent the buzz surrounding Tua into a frenzy after a dazzling performance that saw him complete nearly every pass in the 7-on-7 championship game.

“You have to win the Elite 11 if you want to be where your brother is at and then you have to win a national title now,” Galu tells Taulia. “Taulia has already bypassed Tua with the accolades and awards he has won in Alabama. Now there’s the Elite 11.”

His uncle, the one who gave him his first opportunity, thinks there’s a chance that Taulia, one day, can be called the best Tagovailoa quarterback.

“What he accomplishes may ultimately supersede what his brother did,” Tuli said.

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