MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Tua Tagovailoa considered walking away from football.
It was a brief thought after he was diagnosed with two concussions last season and many questioned if it was safe for the 25-year-old Miami Dolphins quarterback to continue playing.
But after talking to his family and doctors, Tagovailoa ruled out retirement and started training in martial arts this offseason to help reduce head injuries.
“I always dreamed of playing as long as I could to where my son knew exactly what he was watching his dad do,” Tagovailoa said Wednesday. “It’s my health. It’s my body. And I feel like this is what’s best for me and my family. I love the game of football. If I didn’t, I would have quit a long time ago.”
Now, Tagovailoa is learning how to fall.
Though he’s still early in his jiu jitsu training — a white belt — Tagovailoa is working on ways to land more safely when he’s on the field.
“We used crash pads at first with trying to fall,” he said. “Obviously tucking your chin, that was one of the deals. It went a lot more into the technique of how to disperse your energy when you fall, the posture you want to be in, and if you’re not presented that posture, what are other things that you can do to help you disperse the energy when you fall.”
Tagovailoa will have to wait until the start of the season to see how his training translates to the field, where split-second decision-making during the fast-paced play can sometimes make the difference in whether or not a player gets hurt.
“I’ve been falling a lot this offseason. Just like with anything else, you continue to train it. You continue to work at it — it becomes second nature,” Tagovailoa said. “When a situation like that does happen, it’s not something new that’s presented to you. And for guys at my position, we barely get hit, if that, throughout practices, throughout the offseason, even going into training camp. We don’t get touched until the season starts.”
Tagovailoa sustained his second known concussion of the 2022 season in a Christmas Day loss to Green Bay.
And hitting the back of his head became an all-too-familiar, all-too-scary scene last season.
In a September win over the Buffalo Bills, Tagovailoa missed Miami’s last three snaps of the first half after hitting his head and wobbling for a few steps as he got to his feet. He was cleared to return to that game and later said it was a back injury that caused the stumble.
He was not formally diagnosed with a concussion from that incident.
Four days later, he got hit again during a Thursday night game at Cincinnati in which he was briefly knocked unconscious and was taken off the field on a stretcher. As he lay on the turf, his fingers displayed what’s known as the “fencing response,” which typically indicates a serious neurological issue. That time, he was placed in the concussion protocol.
Tagovailoa’s situation sparked quick and significant changes to the concussion protocols by the NFL and the NFL Players Association. The most notable addition was that an abnormality of balance and/or stability would be a symptom prohibiting a player from returning to a game.
Since then, Tagovailoa said he has spoken to numerous neurologists whom he said do not believe he would be more susceptible to head injuries than any other player moving forward, nor would he be at a higher risk for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is the brain disease associated with repeated blows to the head.
“It’s only when you’re constantly hitting your head against something. I think that tailors more toward linebackers, O-linemen, D-linemen, guys that are constantly going at it,” Tagovailoa said. “That also played into the factor of my decision-making and wanting to come back and play.”
Despite the injuries, the Dolphins have said they are committed to Tagovailoa. In March, Miami picked up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract after he set career highs in passing touchdowns, passing yards and passer rating in a breakout season.
Tagovailoa, who was drafted fifth overall by Miami in 2020, will enter the fourth year of his rookie deal this upcoming season and will be guaranteed $23.2 million.