MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- The hype surrounding quarterback Tua Tagovailoa's first start for the Miami Dolphins has been significant, especially in South Florida, where the Dolphins have been searching for some semblance of steady quarterback play since Dan Marino retired in 2000.
What Tagovailoa's first start means to Polynesian football, the people of Samoa (Tua is Samoan) and the Polynesian islands, is hard to describe.
Polynesian football legends like former offensive lineman Jesse Sapolu (Samoan), running back/returner Vai Sikahema (Tongan) and quarterback Jack "The Throwin Samoan" Thompson have tracked Tagovailoa since his high school days. As has longtime coach (and Hawaii resident) June Jones. They said his popularity is like no other Polynesian football player, and that's saying a lot when you consider his company, including Pro Football Hall of Famers Troy Polamalu, Junior Seau and former Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, who was Tagovailoa's idol and mentor growing up in Hawaii.
So, I asked the three Polynesian Football Hall of Fame players and Jones to write personal notes about Tua before, during and after his first start Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams at Hard Rock Stadium. First, some background on these four guys.
When Thompson finished his career at Washington State in 1978, he was one of the most productive passers in NCAA history at the time and went on to become the third overall pick by the Cincinnati Bengals in the 1979 NFL Draft. A longtime college, NFL and Canadian Football League coach, Jones has resurrected several programs, including the University of Hawaii, and is considered one of the most innovative football people in Polynesia (he has lived in Hawaii for much of his life). There arguably is no one more influential than Sapolu in Polynesian football circles. The former University of Hawaii great and four-time Super Bowl champion center/guard with the San Francisco 49ers is a co-founder of the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame. Sikahema was the first Tongan to play in the NFL. The former running back/kick returner spent eight seasons in the league and became famous for punching the padding on the goal post like a boxer after the scored.
Here are their pregame thoughts:
Thompson wrote a personal pre-game message to the rookie quarterback: Tua, you've built your football career on a rock-solid foundation, always placing God and family first along with the work and dedication to maximize on all your incredible talents. You started at Saint Louis High, at University of Alabama and now it's "Tua Time" for the Miami Dolphins. I'll be rooting and praying for you every step of the way!
Jones: Ever since I first saw Tua playing 7-on-7 as a young kid in Ewa Beach, Hawaii, I knew one day he would play in the NFL. After watching and coaching him at St. Louis his junior year, (I thought) this kid is a winner!! For me, I wish it was 1975 where he wouldn't play until he was in his third or fourth year, but the money has accelerated the QBs to start sooner in this day and age. So with that said, today he is representing all of Hawaii -- Samoa and all of Polynesia -- and (I) can't wait to watch him grow into his place in the NFL. Great kid and great family.
Sikahema: QB is arguably the most important position in sports -- and a starting NFL QB is what the "heavyweight champion of the world" used to be. Tua for Polynesians is our heavyweight champ.
Tua represents for us what Tiger (Woods) meant to African-Americans and Asians when he won The Masters in 1997. We're proud of how he represents our people, our values and our faith in the most powerful and most important sports league on the planet.
Sapolu: Tua's starting is significant. Jack Thompson was looked at as an anomaly. Tua and a healthy Marcus Mariota with (Clemson quarterback) D.J. Uiagalelei and [Tua's] brother, Taulia, can start a wave of Polynesians believing we have the goods to play the QB position at the highest level.
At halftime, the Dolphins led 28-10 courtesy of four Rams turnovers. Tua barely played in the second quarter because of a defensive score and a punt-return touchdown. His first-half stats: 5-of-11 for 34 yards and a 3-yard touchdown pass to DeVante Parker.
Here are their in-game thoughts:
Sapolu: Tua got into a little rhythm when they started throwing on first down. It keeps Aaron (Donald) and the D-line guessing a little bit, I thought. Wish he was in a little more, but man, the defense and special teams are leading the way. The Dolphins are a dangerous young team. Wow.
Jones: Tua's first attempted pass was a "welcome to the NFL." The Dolphins have rallied as a team knowing that, this game, they need to do more to help the rookie QB ... and they have!! I hope they will get Tua some throws in the second half, so he can gain some experience. They have moved the pocket and been trying to run the ball to help. If they are going to play him the rest of the year, then they need to call the game as if it is 0-0. Let him throw from the pocket.
Thompson: What a custom-made first half for Tua! The WHOLE Miami Dolphins team has stepped up to help Tua in his first start. Also, very impressed with the OC's run/pass play-calling, helping Tua settle down and get into his groove. Most heartening takeaway: It's so clear how beloved Tua is by his teammates. Just watching everyone's reaction after his first TD throw, it's obvious how much they all want him to succeed!
Sikahema: Loved the native dress for the game: white lava lava and aqua Aloha shirt. The kid has style, panache and confidence. It starts there. A big return and turnovers all helping take pressure off Tua for his first start.
The Dolphins' 28-17 win over Los Angeles marked their third straight victory and Tua's first. However, Miami did not score in the second half and its offense was thoroughly dominated. That said, the Dolphins' defense and Rams' offensive ineptitude allowed Miami to improve to 4-3. Tagovailoa finished 12-of-22 for 93 yards and a touchdown.
Here are their postgame thoughts:
Thompson: Great first start for Tua! Awesome team win. I'm so hopeful because he brings so much not just to the Miami Dolphins but for the NFL and football in general. His humility and unabashed love for Christ, his family and our Samoan culture is good for everyone who watches this game. Everywhere he's played, his teammates love him and, I believe, are attracted to Tua not just because of his talent but, in large part, of the person he is and the type leadership he provides.
Sapolu: Happy with his first win while getting his feet wet. The Dolphins didn't need him to win it and he didn't do anything to lose it. In the NFL, that's a positive to build on.
Jones: I wish they would have played the second half like a preseason game. If they want to win in the playoffs, they need Tua to play like a vet. That game experience, you cannot put a price on it. But a win is a win, and not many rookie QBs have won their first start. He made all of us proud!!!!
Sikahema: Tua is learning a hard lesson even those who play at All-American levels at storied Alabama learn: The NFL is the best of the best. Your name and pedigree doesn't matter here. It wasn't spectacular, but he displayed calm under pressure, his trademark leadership and will to win. It will serve him well as the face of the franchise.