TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Tua Tagovailoa walked into the University of Alabama's Naylor Stone media suite Monday without a crutch or even a discernible limp, belying the long-term work that still lies ahead for the most talked-about hip of the 2020 NFL Draft. In announcing Monday that he intends to take the plunge into pro football following a complicated hip injury that was examined by doctors in New York over the weekend, the most celebrated quarterback in Alabama history brought to a close a college football career he described as a roller-coaster ride.
In some ways, the ride has only begun.
With his parents, Galu and Diane, and younger brother Taulia, also a UA quarterback, looking on from front-row seats, Tagovailoa acknowledged his path to full health is still unclear roughly seven weeks after an awkward fall against Mississippi State threw his football future into question.
It wasn't supposed to be this way.
Not for a kid from Hawaii who traveled more than 4,000 miles from home to settle under one of college football's brightest, hottest lights in playing quarterback at tradition-rich Alabama.
Not for a gifted passer who, through no doing of his own other than outstanding play, inspired the #TankForTua hashtag, which once trended on Twitter and beckoned the Miami Dolphins to parlay a doomed season into the No. 1 overall draft choice in order to acquire him.
Not for a guy who pulled a College Football Playoff national championship from the fire two years ago as a second-half, freshman substitute for an ineffective Jalen Hurts, immortalizing himself to a frenzied fan base in the process. Tagovailoa threw 87 touchdown passes at Alabama despite starting for less than two seasons, and in many of those games, he played barely more than a half because the Crimson Tide held commanding halftime leads more often than not.
None of that will guarantee him a spot at the top of the draft board now.
He's still widely expected to be a first-round selection -- the threshold by which early entries into the NFL draft are often considered no-brainers -- and UA coach Nick Saban indicated last week that the quarterback was regarded as a top-15 selection by NFL evaluators. Still, his long-term injury prognosis has yet to fully unfold.
"I don't think any of the doctors can tell the forseeable future," Tagovailoa said on Monday. "I don't think the guys rehabbing me can tell me that. From what they've seen in New York, everything looks good. But you can't really tell until the three-month mark or the four-month mark."
The three-month mark since the injury, Feb. 16, will be just before the NFL Scouting Combine commences in Indianapolis. Tagovailoa will be there, to be sure, but his participation could be limited to interviews and, of course, medical evaluations. The four-month mark, in mid-March, will fall as NFL scouts are traversing the country watching draft prospects perform pro day workouts.
That's where Tagovailoa's focus holds for now, at least until he's advised otherwise by doctors and athletic trainers.
"I'm optimistic that I'll be able to play this upcoming season, but for me right now I'm more worried about getting better as soon as possible, see what I can do, if I can do a pro day, if I can't do a pro day," he said. "It all depends on what the doctors have to say with the teams and the results that come back."
NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah likened the circumstances NFL clubs face in the challenge of evaluating Tagovailoa to those they encountered in the case of former Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith, who suffered a severe knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State prior to his draft entry. Smith's injury not only rendered him unable to work out for scouts prior to the draft, but also included nerve damage, which left clubs questioning his availability as a rookie and uncertain about his prospects for a long-term career. He was drafted No. 34 overall by the Dallas Cowboys in 2016, and has started every game in each of the past two seasons, earning a contract extension prior to the start of the 2019 campaign.
However, the hip injury isn't the only one NFL teams will want to probe when it comes to Tagovailoa. He also suffered thumb, knee and ankle injuries over the course of his college career. A high-ankle sprain on each leg required surgery known as a "tightrope" procedure that allowed him to return to action during the season in each of the last two years. Still, he shattered school records and became one of the most prolific quarterbacks in the college game.
"He's got quick feet, a quick release, and he can really layer the football and throw with touch," Jeremiah said. "Everybody's like, 'Oh, he just throws a bunch of slants at Alabama.' Well, what they're doing at Alabama is what a lot of the best teams in the NFL are doing."
In front of a room packed with dozens of reporters on Monday, Saban gave Tagovailoa an impassioned introduction, saying his spirit had impacted both Saban and teammates like few players he has been around in more than four decades as a coach. Tagovailoa's character might be the easiest aspect of his evaluation by NFL clubs, but the toughest aspect will undoubtedly be medical. NFL team doctors will not only scrutinize Tagovailoa's prognosis to play in 2020, they'll also evaluate whether his hip injury could affect the length of his career. That's a consideration that can impact his draft status right along with his immediate readiness. Predicting the likelihood of a recurrence, Jeremiah noted, will be a relevant factor.
In deciding to test that evaluation with NFL draft entry, the 21-year-old is leaving a place where he'll always be remembered fondly, and entering a place where his value is about to endure heavy speculation, and where his legacy must start anew.
"It boiled down to one thing, and that's faith," Tagovailoa said. "It's a leap of it."