Sport

Tonight, all eyes will be on Tua Tagovailoa

Sometimes in the NFL, circumstances conspire to create a moment of intense interest, for reasons not necessarily related to the contest to be staged between the teams on the field.

Today, Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa resumes playing football after a horrifying moment from 24 days ago in Cincinnati, when he was knocked unconscious after his head hit the turf. He eventually left on a stretcher.

Tua’s return happens in prime time. On Sunday Night Football. Against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Exacerbating the situation is that the injury happened four days after Tua returned to a game despite showing obvious signs of what the revised concussion protocol now officially calls “ataxia.” After an investigation, the NFL and the NFL Players Association agreed to disagree on whether the protocol was followed, with a carefully-worded statement allowing the league to claim all was well and the union to argue that things went haywire.

Regardless of the semantics as to whether Tua had something other than a back injury on September 25, the protocol has been changed to ensure that, in the future, there won’t be a situation in which everyone except the doctors and the player believes the player shouldn’t be playing.

As much as Tua would prefer not to be the face of the enhanced sensitivity to head injuries (and he made it clear to Maria Taylor of Football Night in America that he wants nothing to do with having his name attached to the new rule), it’s currently impossible to not think of Tua when thinking about concussions, and it’s currently impossible to not think of concussions when thinking about Tua.

Given that, in two straight games, he absorbed contact that caused his head to hit the turf, everyone will be watching tonight to see whether it happens again and, if so, how he looks after it occurs. Indeed, some people will tune in for the game with no interest in the action other than to see whether Tua suffers another actual or potential concussion.

Is that right or wrong? It doesn’t matter. It will happen. The inherent and organic drama of the situation will attract rubberneckers. It’s how most humans are wired.

The most immediate question is whether he’ll be able to protect himself against the kind of contact that may result in his head striking the turf again. That means, among other things, developing a willingness to throw the ball away in lieu of waiting for a receiver to be open.

“I’ve always been a person to try to make something happen,” Tua told reporters earlier this week. “Like that’s always been my mindset, if you will. Throwing the ball away hasn’t been something that I’ve done in the past really well because I’m trying to make plays. So just learning from that — if it’s not there, it’s OK to throw it away. It’s the longevity of me just being able to be the quarterback for this team and not try to make something out of nothing.”

Whether he can make that adjustment while he’s in the middle of the fray remains to be seen. If he can’t, the risk of another potential head injury will be intensified. And it’s fair to wonder how many more concussions he’ll be able to take before either the doctors or his family intervenes, conclusively.

“It was a little tough for my parents,” Tua told Maria Taylor. “My parents were — they had a lot of things to say to me prior to the injury, and then things in the hospital and then after that and then going through the interview process, going to see second-opinion doctors. For me, I love football.”

While he didn’t come right out and say it, it sounds as if he’s beginning to get some pressure from his parents to consider not playing. That’s an increasingly common question for football players at every level. And any parent who endured the emotions that Tua’s parents experienced in Cincinnati on September 29 would want more than anything else to never have that feeling again.