When I lived in Baghdad during the war, I used to link my laptop to a satellite and truck beers across the desert so I could listen to Miami Dolphins games. It was a guilty pleasure, and an expensive one, but I followed professional sports for the same reason most people do: it offered a respite from life’s doldrums. The plotlines were clear, politics were at bay, somebody lost and somebody won. I missed the comforting clarity of my old Florida youth-league football coaches, who taught me and my teammates to chant “Maim, kill, and destroy!” in the minutes before kickoff; another one, just down the road at an opposing school, would capture a frog in the wet Florida grass, bite off its head, and spit it into the dirt, sending his young charges into a wild pre-game frenzy.
For fans, one of the most reliable narrative tropes is redemption. When I listened from Baghdad, and for a long time afterward, the Dolphins usually lost. They haven’t won a single playoff game in two decades. This year, though, viewers have been wowed not only by the redemptive arc of the Dolphins’ season but by the vindication of the team’s chief protagonist, Tua Tagovailoa. Last weekend, to see it for myself, I flew to California, joining a group of sportswriters who had traipsed to San Francisco, where the Dolphins played the 49ers, and then to their practice in Los Angeles, where they’ll play the Chargers on primetime television this Sunday.
In high school in Hawaii, Tagovailoa (who is universally known as Tua; his full first name is Tuanigamanuolepola) was one of the most sought-after quarterbacks in the country. College football is ostensibly an amateur sport, but the intensity and seriousness of the efforts to recruit the children who will ultimately play it are intense, expensive, and very adult; in 2004, an investigation found that some high-school players were wooed to play for the University of Colorado with strippers, alcohol, and drugs. The coaches who scouted Tagovailoa were impressed by the speed with which he released the ball and the accuracy with which he threw it, but also by his manners and his upright family, devout Christians from American Samoa.
Nick Saban, the coach at the University of Alabama, the citadel of college football, first visited Tagovailoa when he was an eleventh grader at Saint Louis School, a Catholic institution and football powerhouse in Honolulu. Saban told me that, whenever he visits a recruit, the whole family usually gathers around the dining table. “I like to sit in the middle, so I can see everyone,” Saban said. But Tagovailoa’s father, Galu, insisted that Saban sit at the head. “My sons haven’t earned the right to sit at the head of the table,” he told Saban. Tagovailoa’s first choice was the University of Southern California, his favorite team, but his dad, taken with Saban, persuaded him to head to Tuscaloosa.
Saban, who has won six national championships, presides over Alabama like a kind of king, the state’s most important man overseeing its most important activity; the university pays him ten million dollars a year, plus bonuses, and provides him with his own plane. When Tagovailoa arrived on campus, he and Saban would sometimes go to church together. Tagovailoa led Alabama to a national championship as a freshman and a second-place finish as a sophomore. Injuries forced him to miss much of the next season, but he was still chosen fifth in the N.F.L. draft, by the Dolphins, in 2020. He signed a four-year contract worth thirty million dollars.
But the N.F.L. is fast and unforgiving. By the Zeusian measures of the league, Tagovailoa, at just over six feet tall, was small for a quarterback, and his arm, though quick, did not possess the howitzer-like range that could launch a football the length of the field. In his first year, Tagovailoa served as the backup for the first six games. When he was on the field, he was hounded by the titanic defensive linemen programmed to destroy him. He missed several games because of injuries. Watching the Dolphins practice this week, on U.C.L.A.’s campus, I was struck not just by the players’ size but by their almost freakish agility. As they spun and turned, they looked, in their shorts and jerseys, like high-speed, muscle-bound ballet dancers, moving together. Watching them fly around, I found myself more able to fully imagine what a collision with one of them, or between two of them, would actually feel like—similar to running into an oncoming train.
Tagovailoa’s second year, in some ways, was worse than his first. The team was good—they finished 9–8—but everything else was a disaster. The owner, the New York real-estate tycoon Stephen Ross, and the head coach, Brian Flores, loathed each other. As soon as the season ended, Ross fired Flores, whereupon Flores sued the Dolphins and the N.F.L. for what he claimed was league-wide discrimination against Black coaches. He also said that Ross had offered him a hundred thousand dollars for every game the Dolphins lost, so that the team could secure a higher place in the following year’s college draft. (The N.F.L. investigated Flores’s claim and found that this did not happen. The N.F.L. and Flores are still contesting the discrimination lawsuit.)
For Tagovailoa, the season was even more dreadful. His play was average. He missed four games because of injury. Both Ross and Flores, who hardly agreed on anything, appeared to be done with him. Flores spent much of the season trying to persuade Deshaun Watson, of the Houston Texans, to join the team to replace Tagovailoa, despite a long list of women who had accused Watson of sexual assault. (Watson has settled with twenty-three of his accusers; two lawsuits remain unresolved. Watson denies the allegations against him.) Meanwhile, Ross was secretly trying to woo the peerless but creaky Tom Brady, of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (Attempting this in the middle of the season was so unusual, and such a flagrant violation of the rules, that Ross earned a rare rebuke from league officials, who stripped the team of several draft picks.) All through this series of humiliations, Tagovailoa carried on, winning most of the games he started and never once uttering a public complaint. Privately, though, he found his self-confidence ruined. Speaking recently to Aditi Kinkhabwala of CBS Sports, Tagovailoa said he would stand in the mirror and ask, “Do I suck?”
By the end of the season, Tagovailoa’s N.F.L. career seemed, if not over, drastically diminished. The verdict among N.F.L. analysts was nearly unanimous. “Stephen Ross has probably seen enough,” Adam Beasley wrote for the Pro Football Network earlier this year. “Tua Tagovailoa isn’t going to lead the Miami Dolphins to a Super Bowl championship, and Ross must know it.”
Then Ross hired a new coach, Mike McDaniel. A former assistant coach for the San Francisco 49ers, McDaniel does not resemble other N.F.L. head coaches, who tend to speak in banalities and sleep-inducing sentence fragments. A graduate of Yale, raised by a single mother, he is animated and funny, as well as baby-faced, bespectacled, short, and wiry, particularly compared with the large men he directs.
Upon taking the job, McDaniel announced that Tagovailoa would be his starting quarterback, and that he felt just fine about it. The first thing McDaniel did was make a film of Tagovailoa’s best moments, some seven hundred of them, and present the highlight reel to the quarterback. McDaniel, alongside the team’s general manager, Chris Grier, then traded for or drafted a number of players to help make sure that Tagovailoa would succeed. Principal among them was the wide receiver Tyreek Hill, probably the fastest man in football. (Hill has a cheetah tattooed on his right hand.) When I spoke to McDaniel, he told me he figured that Tagovailoa had lost his self-confidence. “He just needed someone who believed in him,” McDaniel said. “He’s a totally different person now.”