Tua Tagovailoa's success is generations in the making

Tua Tagovailoa waits to return to the field against Auburn in the Iron Bowl on Nov. 24. Rory Doyle for ESPN

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LAST SATURDAY MORNING I drove past Pearl Harbor toward the part of the island that locals call "the country." Following the signs for Ewa Beach, a small working-class town on the shores of the Pacific, I found the address for the Tagovailoa family. They'd invited me to their weekly party, where multiple generations gathered to watch the star of their youngest generation quarterback Alabama in the SEC championship game.

This house is where Tua grew up, formerly the home of his late grandfather, Seu Tagovailoa, who moved here from Vatia, American Samoa. They call it HQ, using military lingo that's both familiar this close to Pearl Harbor and linguistically appropriate for the strict code that Seu passed down. On the wall outside, Seu painted the family name and a mural showing the traditional symbols of a high chief, letting any Samoan who drives past know that an important man lives here. Seu Tagovailoa died in 2014, and his absence is profound and far-reaching. Seu held what's known in Samoa as a matai title, a mix of tribal leader and English lord. It is a broadly hereditary title but is bestowed by the extended family on the best candidate in each generation, not handed directly from father to oldest son.

The title is currently vacant.

The family has been unable to find a successor. Usually a year or two is the longest a family will go without a chief.

It's now four and counting.

The Ewa Beach clan wants Galu Tagovailoa, Tua's father, to take the title. He was raised to lead this family.

"The family is looking toward my brother to take up that name," says Sai Amosa, Galu's sister. "The day that Dad passed away, all eyes were focused on him."

Only Galu doesn't live here anymore.

A chief needs to be present, and instead Galu moved his immediate family to Alabama and says he is concerned with his faith and the football careers of his two sons, Tua and the younger Taulia, a talented high school quarterback who has already committed to the Crimson Tide. Not everyone in the family agrees with the decision. In the background of Tua's success and fame, Galu is navigating the oldest conflict in the world: the ways of the past versus the promise of the future. In Ewa Beach and Vatia, the family wants a chief, and the most likely candidate is thousands of miles away, trying to do right by his talented sons.

Waiting on kickoff, some of the older men sit around the grill and talk to me about this uncertain future. There are relatives back in American Samoa who want to reclaim the power that's been held for two generations by the Ewa Beach clan. Others who want the title to remain in Ewa are stalling, hopeful Galu will change his mind.

Galu's decision is as distressing to some members of the family as Tua's success is inspiring. "It's been a constant struggle," says Aoatoa "Al" Afuola, a Tagovailoa relative. "Now that the elders have left us, everybody that didn't get a chance wants a chance."

"Right now it's in the air," Pisapisao "Pisa" Tagovailoa says. "We don't know who's gonna take the title." Galu Tagovailoa is abdicating a family responsibility for a personal one, to help ensure the dreams of Tua.

WE CAN HEAR the sound of a crowd building and roaring in the moments before kickoff. The family members wear Alabama and Tua shirts and yell out "Roll Tide" in a Samoan accent. The kids wrestle and play in their crimson and white. There is an unstated but visible hierarchy; several men are served their meals on a tray by women. Not all men get this treatment. Most of the conversations happen just above a whisper, the serious murmurs audible but not the words. The men talk quietly, with authority but also a gentleness. During lulls in the action and commercial breaks, Pisa and Al tell me how Tua Tagovailoa became one of the most famous football players in America.

Pisa points to Al.

"Our grandfathers were brothers," he says.

These two brothers lived in Vatia, American Samoa, a remote village reachable only by hiking over a mountain. They were members of the influential Afuola family and related to the Tagovailoas, who had a terrible reputation. "I was told our family was really bad," Pisa says. "They were known for being thieves. The village was just laughing at our family."

The older brother, who held the Afuola matai title, came up with a bold plan. His younger brother -- Tua's great-grandfather -- would take a vacant Tagovailoa title just beneath matai and rebuild the reputation of the Tagovailoas. That's what happened. The newly minted leader told his son to move to Hawaii, where he'd get a job and build a family and do the heavy lifting.

That son was Seu. He took his task seriously.

Every night Seu gathered his growing family, first children and then grandchildren, making sure they prayed and sang spiritual songs. He put a piano outside in his garage. They talked about the Bible, and he told stories about their village back in American Samoa. He told them about the two brothers and their dream for this family.

The Tagovailoas founded a church where their family could worship. Seu opened his home to families visiting from American Samoa and reached into his pocket when someone was in need. Mostly, he lived a vibrant faith and carried with him a contagious belief in the divine plan for his family.

As the years passed, Seu found that his grandchildren didn't understand enough Samoan to follow the service; before he died, he gave his blessing to his daughter Sai, a pastor, to switch the worship to English. He allowed his culture to be changed by the world that surrounded it, even as his daughter said he worried deeply about what might happen to the family once away from his sphere of control. "I think the older he got, he just needed to keep his children together," Sai Amosa says. "He didn't want us scattered all over the place and with no true foundation. He wanted to keep that foundation of our faith, making sure that every evening we would always get together."

Seu's other great love, besides his family and his church, was football. He fell in love with the game and enjoyed seeing his sons play. Seu ruled with absolute authority, with "the Bible and the belt," as grandson and Navy tackle Adam Amosa-Tagovailoa says. "Our parents would never, ever question him," says Adam's brother Myron, a defensive tackle at Notre Dame.

Seu made it a point to never smile at his children's sporting events. He didn't want them to look into the stands and see him happy and then become satisfied. His mission went far beyond one game or season or team or life: Take a disgraced name and make it known, loved, respected. He came to Hawaii to redeem a family, and anything short of that redemption felt unacceptable. "Galu knew that," Pisa says. "It was really hard on Galu when he was in school because he knew that's what our dad wanted and what our grandfather wanted."

GALU IS ALSO a vessel for those dreams born back in Vatia because he is the eldest son of a high chief and because his son is the most talented man of his generation. His unforgiving discipline recently made headlines when Tua talked about how his father would punish him with a belt for throwing interceptions. Galu said the criticism "hasn't gotten to us," and it felt like people were judging his culture from the outside. I asked him about the matai title, and he said that his priority was his kids, his two sons and younger daughters. Only when he's sure they are on the path to success will he consider it.

He saw early on that his father put heavy expectations on Tua.

Seu would gather his grandchildren and tell them they needed to block for Tua -- who was maybe 7 or 8 at the time -- while Galu listened and wished the old man wouldn't place those expectations on a child.

"Tua is gonna be an NFL quarterback," Seu told everyone.

He prayed for this day after day.

Galu learned as much as he could about quarterbacking, talking to college coaches and former NFL players, developing a philosophy, making sure Tua never let anyone alter their plan or their mechanics. He ruled, like his father, with complete authority. Once during Tua's sophomore year at Saint Louis School in Honolulu, he threw two interceptions. His younger brother, Taulia, found a phone and called his mom for a ride home. Someone asked him what he was doing. "Tua's gonna get it," he said, "and it's a long drive home to Ewa Beach. I don't want to be in that car."

Galu is involved in every aspect of his sons' lives and doesn't have a good reputation in Hawaiian high school football. Some of that is deserved and some is because the people outside his family don't understand his responsibilities. The coaches at Saint Louis School are diplomatic when asked about Galu. "Dad means well," quarterbacks coach Vince Passas says. "Whatever Dad says goes."

Tua's coaches could always tell when Galu was at practice because everything about his son's demeanor changed. "If Dad was there, he'd steal reps," Passas says. "You know if he's stealing reps his dad was there."

Galu was a constant presence. During one game, Saint Louis was up against Punahou with a few minutes left, and the players saw Tua on the bench on his cellphone, listening to his dad's coaching. During his senior year, Galu came to practice one day and was angry Tua wasn't getting all the reps.

He pulled Tua off the practice field and told him to clean out his locker. A witness remembers Tua obediently sprinting toward the locker room and Galu telling the coaches, "Good luck this year without Tua."

The next day Galu sent a text message of apology to the coaches and the whole incident was forgotten.

Football became the secular expression of the family's identity. In 2010, Seu founded his own league in Ewa Beach so his grandsons could all play together, and so he could watch every snap. He softened a little near the end of his life, letting his son Galu handle the discipline. "It was Tua's dad the kids were afraid of," Myron says. "He had that old-school mindset. We were all so scared of him and we'd run to our grandfather."

The younger generation grew up very much American, following recruiting and living their lives with an eye toward the mainland and not Samoa. Tua has never been to Vatia. His generation doesn't follow the matai title battle like the older men and women; Myron didn't even know the title hadn't been filled.

"I honestly don't know how it works," he says.

So imagine for a moment you're Galu Tagovailoa.

There are two paths.

There is the waiting title. And there are these two remarkable boys, whose gifts he feels he must nurture and protect.

Which path would Seu have wanted him to choose?

Which path is best for the family?

What lessons will they learn from his choice?

These are the same questions his ancestors faced. Galu has chosen to go to Alabama, to travel far away in search of the same respect and success that sent his father to Hawaii. He made the same decision those two brothers made back in Vatia, and his journey is accompanied by the same risks: Will his family follow the individual way of this new world or hold on to the most essential piece of the old -- the village, the family, the clan, the team? That's the only question that matters, and it's still being answered in real time, here in this house in Ewa Beach, and on a field in Georgia.

TUA IS STRUGGLING and has been all game long, making bad throws, making late throws, getting sacked. He's limped off the field more than once. In his young life, he's never really failed at anything. His faith is a young, fragile thing too; his own testimony about how he came to accept Jesus is based around his younger brother attending a Bible camp and then coming home and sharing video games. His high school position coach always felt that Tua was living out his father's dreams as much as his own.

"I wonder how he's gonna be when that umbilical cord is cut," Passas says. "Does he continue on this path?"

Tua's faith and confidence have not been tested by failure, which means this game is the biggest test of his young life.

Early in the fourth quarter, he goes down again, and this time it looks serious.

"Ohhhh," his aunt whispers, and then there's silence.

Tua is helped off the field and into the tent, where a cart comes to get him. His shoes and socks and tape come off, and a high ankle sprain ends his game. The cameras focus on Jalen Hurts warming up, and I look around at the family -- these are the relatives of a father who didn't want his son's backups to get reps -- to see how they'll react.

The silence doesn't last long.

"Let's go, Jalen!" Uncle Seu yells.

"Come on, Jalen!" Sai says.

Soon everyone is standing and cheering for Jalen Hurts, talking to him like he's in the room. Pisa sits quietly with his eyes wide and fierce, living and dying with Hurts.

"This is your moment, Jalen!" someone screams.

"Let's go, nephew!" Uncle Seu says.

He turns to his family, laughing and pointing to Jalen on the screen.

"That's another quarterback from Vatia!"

Everyone laughs.

Hurts brings Alabama back and gives the Tide a lead they'll hold until the end. The Tagovailoas are going nuts in Ewa Beach, jumping and hugging and cheering. The camera catches a shot of Tua waiting on the sideline to hug Hurts as he leaves the field.

"Awww," everyone says together.

They are happy, even with Tua hurt and his Heisman Trophy now in question. His success on the field adds to the family's honor, but so does his grace off of it; both of them are load-bearing links in the dreams of his ancestors. "It was my grandfather's dream to see his name all over the place," Myron says. "It's crazy to see all of it coming to fruition."

Seu's nephew Al Afuola, whom Seu raised and loved like a son, is in the Army and a high chief. Seu's grandsons are doing great things too: Myron is playing at Notre Dame and will earn a degree; Adam is about to graduate from Annapolis and join the Navy as a surface warfare officer; Tua is a national champion with a promising professional career before him and the kind of money that can secure the Tagovailoas forever.

At midfield, the television people interview Tua about Jalen.

"For him to get his opportunity," he says, "I think everyone is happy."

Before everybody leaves the old man's house, they gather in a circle and hold hands. The family sings a Samoan song of thanks, with one beautiful voice floating above the melody and the men singing bass harmonies.

Then they close their eyes while Pastor Tuli prays one last time.

"We pray also for our family in Alabama," he says. "We lift them up at this very moment."

"Amen," everyone says together. To much laughter, a few people put on their best Southern accents and throw in a final "Roll Tide!"