NEW YORK — The neon green of Oregon or the cardinal red of Southern Cal that always seemed to fit well within the tropical Hawaiian landscape has been replaced by a much starker Crimson hue.
Whenever Vince Passas drives the streets of Honolulu nowadays, the man known as the Hawaiian quarterback guru can’t help but notice the wealth of Alabama bumper stickers or Crimson Tide T-shirts that have seemingly flooded the 600-square mile island of Oahu over the last two years since native son Tua Tagovailoa first arrived in Tuscaloosa.
“Gosh, when Marcus (Mariota) was at Oregon, you used to see a lot of Oregon stuff, everybody was wearing Oregon, you have Oregon bumper stickers, you have Oregon shirts,” Passas said. “But now I see so much Alabama stuff, Roll Tide on their bumper stickers, their shirts, their hats, flags on their cars, and I’ve never seen that before. I’ve never met so many people who are Alabama fans since Tua’s been at Alabama. Gosh, they even broadcast all the Alabama games now. And nobody broadcast Alabama games before.
“Now everybody in Hawaii wants to go to Alabama and are big Alabama fans.”
Much like former Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota before him, Tua Tagovailoa has helped expand the Crimson Tide’s largely Southern brand far beyond the just the Southeast corner of the country, reaching more than 4,300 miles west to the distant shores of the Hawaiian islands.
But as Alabama’s 20-year-old sophomore quarterback has racked up both yards and touchdowns amid a historic season that has led him to New York for this weekend’s Heisman Trophy ceremony, where Tagovailoa is among three finalists for college football’s premier award, the impact he’s made back in his home state is even more apparent.
“There’s so much pride here, and there’s so much aloha for Tua and his family,” former Hawaii head football coach June Jones said. “They’re forever Hawaii’s. It’s like one big family.”
Since splashing onto the scene in the second half of the national championship game in January, and sparking Alabama’s explosive offense to record-setting standards as the starter this season, Tagovailoa’s monumental impact has translated far beyond simply the state of Alabama.
“He gives everyone here, the next generation, hope that through hard work and faith that you can be like them someday,” Passas said. “I think he gives everyone (in Hawaii) hope that if given an opportunity they’ll be able to be like them someday.”
For Passas, the influence of Tagovailoa’s success is the natural continuation of what Mariota started when he won the Heisman Trophy in 2014.
“It’s like a great day at the beach with the surf, and the first wave came, yeah, and then the next wave is supposed to even better,” Passas said. “So I think Marcus Mariota was the first wave, and we were riding that wave there [for a while], and I think Tua is the reinforcement of that wave where the next one is just as good, and sometimes the second one is the best one. He’s just continued what Marcus has done for our school, our community, our state.”
Originally from Ewa Beach, a tiny 15,000-person community on the southwest corner of Oahu, Tagovailoa has helped shine a light onto a culture and people, especially the close-knit American Samoan community, that doesn’t always translate in the mainland.
But with Tagovailoa’s success this season, which has just built off his historic rise to fame in the second half of last season’s national championship game, there’s a much greater appreciation for the Hawaiian and Polynesian cultures, even in Tuscaloosa where fans had adopted parts of it by wearing leis to football games and cooking Hawaiian pork at tailgates.
“I came to Hawaii 50 years ago, and my first time here I knew there was something different about it,” Jones said. “I learned over the last 50 years that the difference is the people. … I’ve found out that it’s about the culture and it’s about the people, how they can put all that ahead of their personal gain. That’s what makes it really unique. And what you’re seeing is that culture and it will attract other Polynesian players to Alabama, it’s going to give them something other schools don’t have.”
For those in Hawaii, Tagovailoa is the proverbial favorite son with the ability to unit both cultures.
“We can attach ourselves to that [brand] because the hero on that team is from Ewa Beach,” said Steve Uyehara, the morning anchor for Hawaii News Now, the CBS and NBC affiliate out of Honolulu. “The guy that was playing around in the same parks I was playing around in, the guy that was going to the same beaches that I was going to, eating the same food I was eating. Now it’s like Alabama isn’t the arch nemesis of everyone, the evil empire like the Yankees are for baseball.
“It’s like, ‘OK, well it’s a platform for one of our hometown heroes to make a name for himself, and to shine a light back here on Hawaii and what we’re capable of doing.’”
Uyehara was among more than a dozen media representatives from Hawaii that made the trip to cover the Heisman Trophy announcement live in New York.
Even Tagovailoa was surprised by the turnout from his home state.
“It’s awesome,” Tagovailoa said Friday at the New York Stock Exchange. “It’s amazing. Back home, everything is family oriented. We have one of Hawaii’s finest here, and I personally know … oh, there’s a lot of Hawaii people here, geez. With them flying out here, you can see the support already with our newscasts back home. I’m very appreciative.”
Not that he’s even all that aware of the depth of his impact back home.
"I don't get to see a lot of that, because I'm not in Hawaii as much,” Tagovailoa said, referring to the fact that his parents and immediate family now live year-round outside of Birmingham, “but I do understand that the Crimson Tide support system is really big.”