Is Tua Tagovailoa ready to become Miami’s biggest star since Dan Marino?

  • Covered the Broncos for two seasons with the Denver Post
  • Graduate of the University of Houston
  • A native of Jackson, Miss.

Editors’ note: Rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa will take over as the Miami Dolphins’ starter beginning Week 8 against the Los Angeles Rams, a source told ESPN’s Adam Schefter. This story originally published on May 25, 2020.

Leaps into swimming pools. Emotional moments of jubilation. Tears of joy. Fifteen words delivered by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell — “With the fifth pick in the 2020 NFL draft, the Miami Dolphins select Tua Tagovailoa” — elicited all that plus a belief the moment will change the Dolphins’ franchise forever.

Over the past month, there has been an innate buzz burgeoning nationally, but especially in South Florida, that can be summed up as a Tua frenzy. An 11-minute fan-generated YouTube video provides a visual.

“Tua is far by himself — never seen anything like this buzz from a draft pick here. There’s no close second,” said Dolphins color commentator and radio host Joe Rose, who played for the franchise alongside Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino from 1983 to 1985. “We have a rock star here in Tua. This team has been in mediocrity for so long. It’s lacked the Dan Marino star power, the Ricky Williams star power. Tua’s the next guy in that group.”

Despite the love, it’s too early to crown Tagovailoa. He hasn’t even played an NFL game. Tagovailoa’s arrival is defined by hope and hype.

Even in his first month as a Dolphins quarterback, it is clear that if Tagovailoa lives up to expectations, he will be the face of South Florida sports for a while.

How will Tagovailoa manage the pressure, the buzz, overwhelming positivity, eventual negativity and everything that comes with being hailed as the next big thing in a city starving for its latest sports superstar?

“The great thing for Tua is Dan Marino retired 20 years ago,” Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon said. “So it’s not like he’s following right behind a legend like Aaron Rodgers following Brett Favre or whoever follows Tom Brady. He just has to be himself. He can’t be Dan Marino. Just be yourself and rely on the people around you.”

‘It’s going to be Dolphins town’

A Mount Rushmore of athletes who have led South Florida pro teams probably starts with Marino and the Miami Heat’s Dwyane Wade, but the initial expectations weren’t as high with either legend.

Wade remembers it wasn’t until after he led the Heat to their first championship in 2006 that he became the face of South Florida sports. He returned to Miami and hopped in his convertible with a buddy. Fans sighted him and rushed the car. He couldn’t drive another block.

“I looked at my friend and said, ‘Yo, this is different,'” Wade said. “I enjoyed it. But I knew it would never be normal in this city from that point on. I had to get used to being a celebrity. The perks were great, but the non-privacy was not so great.”

“Wade County” was born and didn’t slow down. His presence remains large in Miami, but since he retired following the 2018-19 season, there has been an active-superstar void.

Enter Tagovailoa.

“He’s a hell of a player. Miami, especially at the QB position, really needs that. They need a leader. They need a player,” Wade said. “To come in as a young player and win a game in the second half of a national championship game — that shows some grit, that shows some balls. People have to really believe in you. Miami needs that. The Dolphins need that. Even though I’m a [Chicago] Bears fan, I was rooting for them to get him because Miami needs to get back to where the basketball program is.”

Wade’s advice to Tagovailoa centers on how to handle fame; the future Hall of Fame guard says he would often deal with anxiety when he left the house. He felt the need to always be on as D-Wade even when he wanted to just be Dwyane. Wade said even though he wasn’t expected to “save the franchise,” once he became a fan favorite, he had to “figure out how to enjoy what you worked hard for, but keep a level of sanity at the same time.”

Wade is optimistic Tagovailoa will lift the Dolphins to a place they never reached while he was with the Heat.

“If the Dolphins get it going, it’s going to be Dolphins town. We did as much to make it a basketball town as possible, and Miami Heat is there to stay. But let’s not get it twisted: Florida is football. Once they get their s— together, they are going to be big and bigger,” Wade said. “But those Heat guys — Bam [Adebayo], Tyler Herro — are going to battle him for it. He’s got to earn it.

“How you put yourself in that conversation is doing something great, something that people have never seen before, and obviously winning.”

Marino was a ‘rock star’

Tagovailoa passed his first test by eschewing his college No. 13 — Marino’s number in Miami. Instead, Tagovailoa is paving his own path by becoming the first Dolphins QB to wear No. 1.

“I understand No. 13 is retired, and it should be. Dan Marino, he’s the GOAT. He’s like the mayor out there, and I have much respect for him,” Tagovailoa said. “I just want to have the opportunity to go out there and compete.”

Every quarterback who has arrived in Miami has been met with some mention of Marino, and Miami has started 21 quarterbacks since the Hall of Famer retired in 2000. The Dolphins haven’t had a Pro Bowl QB since then, which marks the NFL’s longest streak.

So while the expectations might seem unwieldy for a 22-year-old quarterback coming off a serious hip injury, this isn’t just any NFL city. He’s coming to a franchise that is thirsty for a star QB, and fans have been waiting on Tagovailoa for more than a year.

“When I got down there, the Miami Dolphins were Dan Marino’s town and team. It’s still that way,” former Dolphins great Ricky Williams said. “I was a running back, but no one has even come close to eclipsing the success that Dan had in Miami as a quarterback. Even more so than what I experienced, Tua has the potential to be a big part of what it means to be a Miami Dolphin for a long time.”

Williams had a great run as the face of the Dolphins. Jason Taylor, Zach Thomas and Ryan Tannehill did, too. But none of them have the national pull Tagovailoa has now.

Rose says he remembers the buzz around Marino being relatively subdued when he arrived. The Dolphins, coming off a Super Bowl XVII loss, were led by their “Killer B’s” defense, and they selected Marino with the No. 27 overall pick when he fell to them in the 1983 draft.

By the end of his record-setting 1984 MVP season, Marino was a superstar.

“When we went to New York, I saw the phone calls we got in our hotel room. I saw what movie stars and celebrities came around. People wanted to be around this guy,” Rose said. “We didn’t have the media and social media that they do now, so it could be a lot more hidden. He was big stuff. He was a rock star.”

Marino is the standard, but Tagovailoa doesn’t have to reach that level to be remembered in Dolphins history. As Moon and Wade have stressed, he just has to focus on being himself.

Work, gain respect, then build the brand

Moon knows all about highly anticipated arrivals. After five Grey Cup titles in the Canadian Football League, Moon signed with the Houston Oilers and became the NFL’s highest-paid player in 1984.

With stars such as running back Earl Campbell and linebacker Robert Brazile already in Houston, Moon was conscious of veterans believing he was too full of himself. Moon’s response was to work hard, including lifting weights with the offensive line.

“When people came in the building, I was already there. When people left, I was still there,” Moon said. “Yeah, I had a lot of attention, but they saw my work ethic. When I got on the field, they started to see I could really play. What you’re trying to do is gain respect, and I think Tua will get that, too, because of his work ethic.”

Showing that work ethic and building camaraderie with teammates could prove to be more challenging for Tagovailoa this offseason with virtual meetings instead of in-person practices. But Tagovailoa has reached out to many of his Dolphins teammates via text messages and phone calls.

The other balance Tagovailoa will have to maintain is his unique marketability with Moon’s advice “to go in there with your head down and work.”

Tagovailoa, who signed a four-year, $30.3 million contract, has endorsement deals with Adidas, Hulu, Muscle Milk, Verizon, Wingstop, Gillette, Lowe’s, Bose and Call of Duty. He recently signed a multiyear, exclusive memorabilia-and-collectibles deal with Fanatics. He also has a documentary in the works detailing his journey to the Dolphins.

Agent Ryan Williams and Athletes First have handled Tagovailoa’s marketing demands, and he has immediately become one of the NFL’s most well-known young players. The people love the former Alabama quarterback, and that has shown up in the numbers. Tagovailoa is the top-selling NFL player in terms of overall merchandise sales since May 1 across the Fanatics network, which includes NFLshop.com and online team stores — above Tampa Bay’s Brady and Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, the No. 1 overall draft pick.

Moon remembered advice he was given by his agent, Leigh Steinberg, who also represents Tagovailoa: to take things slow on building your brand and try to avoid reading the headlines or social media.

“I just want to make sure that he doesn’t try to get too far ahead of himself. Football is what butters his bread,” Moon said. “If he doesn’t do well on the football field, everything else will go away. Knowing a bit about Tua, he’ll be fine.”

Tagovailoa showed humility throughout his college career. He has a connection to family and a desire to give back.

“I’m honored that the fans think so highly of me. But I haven’t done anything, yet,” Tagovailoa said. “What I did in college can’t translate to the NFL. It’s a clean slate. I’ve got to go out there and earn my respect and earn the trust from my teammates.”

‘The guys in that locker room’

The idea of becoming a star before even taking an NFL snap might be enough to make Dolphins coach Brian Flores’ head spin. A champion of competition and team-first mentality, Flores probably doesn’t care how many jerseys Tagovailoa sells as long as he produces on the field.

“The world will make you think that you’re this superstar. And maybe you are, but it doesn’t really matter,” Flores said last November regarding any particular player’s growing success. “The only thing that matters is the guys in that locker room.”

But there is an element of stardom Wade alluded to with which Flores probably will agree, and that’s winning. The New England Patriots became an NFL dynasty with a star quarterback because of their winning records and Super Bowl titles. The allure of Tagovailoa’s star power will be embraced should the Dolphins become title contenders year in and year out.

Before worrying about the celebrity, the more timely concern revolves around when Tagovailoa will get on the field. Some argue he should be an immediate starter, while others suggest a redshirt 2020 season. The most likely result appears to be somewhere in the middle.

The Dolphins are in Year 2 of a dramatic rebuild, but Flores always wants to win. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, the veteran incumbent, has the upper hand in securing the starting role for several reasons, thanks to his comfort in offensive coordinator Chan Gailey’s scheme, his success guiding the Dolphins in 2019 (to five wins), his leadership in the locker room and a lack of a true offseason.

But Tagovailoa is also eager to learn under Fitzpatrick, saying on draft day in April that he wants “to understand the kind of person he is … nitpick him, ask him how he goes about preparing for a defense … and just being able to question him.”

Fitzpatrick vows to be Tagovailoa’s “biggest cheerleader,” but he won’t hand him the starting job in 2020. Tagovailoa probably wouldn’t want it any other way, because when football returns, he will get the opportunity to prove his worth.

Once Tagovailoa hits the field, the hope is he gets to become the greatest version of himself instead of being constantly compared to Marino. That weight is too heavy.

But becoming the long-term face of the Dolphins and South Florida sports? That’s well within Tagovailoa’s grasp.

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