Standing With Jesus on College Football’s Biggest Stage
Written by Rhett Burns on January 11, 2018
When Tua Tagovailoa woke up Monday morning, he was a relatively unknown backup quarterback for the University of Alabama. Sure, he was a touted freshman signal-caller, perhaps the future for the Crimson Tide. But on Monday morning, few college football fans outside of Tuscaloosa knew who he was. By the time the clock struck midnight Monday night, however, every fan in the country was on a first-name basis with him. The legend of Tua was born.
Trailing Georgia 13 to 0 at halftime of the College Football Playoff national championship game, Alabama head coach Nick Saban started Tagovailoa in the third quarter. Tagovailoa, a true freshman who had not taken a meaningful snap all season, lit up the night. He sparked the struggling Crimson Tide offense, throwing for 166 yards and three touchdowns. It was the final touchdown pass that made him a legend. Down three points in overtime, Tagovailoa took an awful sack on first down—a loss of sixteen yards—that moved his team out of field goal range. But on the very next play, he threw a magnificent forty-one-yard strike to win the ballgame and the championship. Nobody can pronounce his last name, but they don’t need to. Just call him Tua. Every football fan will know who you are talking about now.
Tagovailoa’s in-game performance was impressive, but it was his post-game comments and demeanor that stood out. In two televised interviews after the game—one with ESPN and the other from the trophy presentation podium—Tagovailoa gave glory and gratitude to Jesus.
“First and foremost, I’d just like to thank my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. With him, all things are possible. That’s what happened tonight… All glory goes to God. I can’t describe what He’s done for me and my family. Who would have ever thought I would have been here, right now in this moment? So, you know, thank God for that, and I’d just like to thank my teammates and Coach Saban for giving me the opportunity.”—Tagovailoa in post-game ESPN interview
Now, Tagovailoa is not the first football player to invoke the name of Christ after a big victory. Tim Tebow and Kurt Warner were other famous faith-filled champion quarterbacks. And it takes skill for any post-game references to God to avoid sounding forced or hokey. Or maybe it just takes sincerity. Tagovailoa wrapped his comments in so much genuine gratitude and humility that one couldn’t help but believe he sincerely wanted to glorify Jesus instead of himself on the greatest stage and in the biggest moment of his football career.
It may seem like a little thing to thank “my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ” after a football game. But this young man, thrust into the spotlight after the craziest ninety minutes of his life, was speaking to over twenty-six million people on television, and he had the presence of mind and the courage to stand with Jesus. In his introduction to the world, he wanted to be identified with Jesus. In front of millions, Tagovailoa did what the Apostle Paul said the unbelieving nations refused to do: he honored God and gave Him thanks (see Romans 1:21). It may be a small thing, but it is not a trifle. The kingdom advances with such little, faithful acts.
In today’s evangelical world, it is popular to turn one’s nose up at the idea of cultural Christianity, viewing it as superficial and skin deep. But it was Christian culture that brought Tagovailoa to Tuscaloosa. He chose Alabama over the University of Southern California because “they believe in God” in Alabama, which aligns with his life and is the kind of atmosphere he wants to be in. He also said that Alabama reminded him of his native Hawaii, as odd as that sounds at first.
“You can’t really lose yourself if you’re a kid from Hawaii going to Alabama. Things down here in Hawaii are similar to Alabama. We go to church every Sunday. People are treated like family there just like here. There are many similarities there, and you want to be somewhere that feels like home, and that’s what Alabama feels like.”—Tagoailoa on why he chose Alabama
Cultural Christianity, or at least some external forms of it, was also on display as the ESPN broadcast featured several shots of players from both squads kneeling in prayer just prior to kickoff. Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm, impressive in his own right, tweeted out after the game the familiar church refrain: “God is good all the time. And all the time, God is good.” I grant that often, public displays of religiosity from athletes can sometimes come off as showy or superstitious. But no doubt, some of these young men are genuine believers, who grew up in the church, and don’t want to forget Jesus just because other people are in the room. They are not ashamed of Jesus or other Christians, which is more than can be said for many among the evangelical leader class who lament cultural Christianity.
Tagovailoa also gave the world a window into the beauty of the Christian family. His parents and siblings have moved from Hawaii to Alabama to be close to and support him. As soon as he could after the game, Tagovailoa went to the stands to find his mother and father, whom he referred to as “his heart.” They shared a lengthy embrace, then Galu, Tua’s father, looked at his son, his eyes filled with pride and tears in equal measure, and the family prayed together. This is Galu’s son, with whom he is well pleased. And he probably would have looked at him the same way even if Tua had stayed on the bench the entire game.
We talk a lot about the Lordship of Jesus Christ over all things, and we often apply it to politics and the large culture war issues. But if Jesus is Lord over all things, then He is Lord over sports too. We must confess Him in the stadium as much as in the Senate. We must stand with Jesus on the podium—or even in the losing locker room—just as in every area of our lives.