One night in December 2014 will forever bridge 2,500 miles of Pacific Ocean between Oregon and Hawaii.
That was the night Marcus Mariota fought back tears as he accepted the Heisman Trophy in New York City. Mariota was the first Heisman winner to play for Oregon, and the first to hail from Hawaii. In that way, he forged a lasting link between the place of his birth and the place where he became a star.
What are the odds that, four years later, another quarterback from the same island — from the same high school — would be standing on the same stage, nominated for the same award?
“He inspired me,” Tua Tagovailoa said of Mariota. “He inspired a whole generation of kids in Hawaii.”
Oregon clearly didn’t believe lightning would strike twice. That’s the only explanation for why the Ducks missed on Tagovailoa, whose recruitment lingers as one of the great what-if stories in the last decade of Oregon football.
Tagovailoa finished second to Oklahoma's Kyler Murray in the Heisman voting, but it was impossible to see him on the stage Saturday night without pondering what might have been.
Tagovailoa and Oregon seemed like a match made in recruiting heaven. From the time scholarship offers started to roll in, Tagovailoa was saying he wanted to follow in Mariota’s footsteps and play for the Ducks. He was athletic, explosive, electrifying — all the qualities you associate with an Oregon quarterback.
Alas, the Ducks didn’t bite. Tagovailoa went to Alabama and, as a freshman, became the hero of last year’s national championship game.
Until the SEC title game, Tagovailoa had been darn near flawless this season. He threw for 36 touchdowns and only two interceptions in the regular season. If not for an ankle injury and a subpar performance against Georgia, he’d likely be holding the Heisman Trophy right now.
In the spirit of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” it can be fun to look back and imagine an alternate version of the past. What if the Ducks had recruited Tagovailoa more aggressively? Would he be doing the same things here that he’s done at Alabama? Would Oregon be making room for another Heisman Trophy in the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex? Would he even be the starting quarterback?
We’d be wise to remember the lesson of another classic film, “Back to the Future.” When you start messing with history, things change in ways you can’t predict. It’s easy to assume Tagovailoa would have dominated at Oregon the way he has at Alabama, but reality is more complicated than that.
I asked a couple of insiders what they remembered about Oregon’s recruitment of Tua. Scott Frost, Oregon’s offensive coordinator at the time, was the one responsible for scouting quarterbacks. The Ducks had one they liked for the class of 2017 in Ryan Kelley, a four-star prospect from Arizona.
Kelley committed to the Ducks in 2015. At the time, Oregon appeared to have a logjam at quarterback. Travis Jonsen and Morgan Mahalak were freshmen, and Oregon had three other quarterbacks committed for the class of 2016.
The logjam turned out to be a whole lot of flotsam. Most of those quarterbacks transferred or fizzled out, leaving only one on Oregon’s roster today: Justin Herbert, the star nobody expected.
It just goes to show that recruiting is weird. The greatest player in program history was a three-star recruit whose only other scholarship offers came from Memphis and Washington. Herbert, considered by some to be an even better NFL prospect than Mariota, was a local kid whose other offers came from Portland State and Northern Arizona.
As fun as it is to fantasize about Tagovailoa in an Oregon uniform, Duck fans don’t need to wallow in regret. They have their own quarterback success stories — better ones, in some ways, than the one they missed.
Before the season, there was hope that Herbert would be among the players in New York City for the Heisman ceremony. It didn’t work out that way, and now he’ll have to decide whether to declare for the NFL draft or return to Oregon for another shot.
Whatever Herbert decides, no one who watched the Ducks over the past three years could conclude that quarterback was their problem. Oregon’s post-Mariota collapse happened for a lot of reasons, but missing on Tagovailoa wasn’t near the top.
The pairing was so obvious, the story line so natural, that Oregon fans will always wonder how Tua got away. Go ahead and ask "What if?" Also, take a moment and remember what was.
The Ducks had their night four years ago. For now, that will have to be enough.