A game already decided. A star horribly injured. A victory irrevocably shrouded in despair. Alabama football knows that sad song all too well.
Brodie Croyle. Third quarter. Western Carolina 2004. A torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee that would cost him the rest of that season.
Tyrone Prothro. Fourth quarter. Florida 2005. A lower leg broken so badly it would require 11 surgeries over the next 10 years and cost him his football career.
Those were the most heartbreaking victories in Alabama history. Until Saturday in Starkville, Miss.
Until the transcendent Tua Tagovailoa put his toughness on display for one play too many in a game Alabama led by four touchdowns with three minutes left in the second quarter. Until two Mississippi State pass rushers slammed him to the turf in a hard, clean collision that left him bloodied and worse, according to ESPN's sideline reporter, "screaming in pain."
Another damaged ankle would've been hurtful enough. Instead this freak crash led to what Alabama coach Nick Saban initially described as a hip injury of undetermined severity. If you've followed football in this state and beyond for any amount of time, you hear hip injury, you think Bo Jackson - and you fear the worst.
Before they even loaded Tua on the cart to take him to the locker room and then to a helicopter to get him to a Birmingham hospital, long before Alabama confirmed the diagnosis of "a right hip dislocation," the blame game kicked off with pointed questions aimed at Saban. Should Tua even have played in this game against an overmatched opponent a week after his wounded, gutsy, heroic performance in the loss to LSU? Should he have returned to the game for one more series with Alabama ahead 35-7?
Those are legitimate questions with no clear-cut answers absent the benefit of hindsight or clairvoyance. This is football, and if you want to argue that maybe it shouldn't be, there's a time for that discussion and debate.
Now is not the time to place blame. Now is the time to pray for Tua. For his health and well-being, today and into the future.
In less than three full seasons, he has proven himself one of the best players in college football history despite some of the worst injury luck. He's come off the bench cold to win a national championship with a Hawaiian rainbow dart for the ages and played through serious pain on multiple occasions over the last two seasons to try to win another. He's been a painter with his superior skill set, reinventing the passing game in Tuscaloosa, and a boxer in his warrior mindset, refusing to stay down when that would have been the safer course.
On and off the field, by all accounts, Tua Tagovailoa has been nothing but a winner, and nobody with a heart wants to write his football obituary, not even for the rest of this year. Sadly, Alabama's statement Saturday night from Dr. Lyle Cain said that Tua has played his last game of the 2019 season. Hopefully, the statement added, he "is expected to make a full recovery."
While "he is undergoing further testing to determine the best course of treatment," please, if only for a moment, stop with the second-guessing and the playoff speculation. First and foremost, this isn't about whether Saban took too big a risk for too small a reward or how it'll affect Alabama's chances to beat Auburn and influence the selection committee.
Football can wait. This is about the health of a young man who's brought such joy to the sport so many of us love, who expressed what he's all about during the LSU game and afterward with this emotional Instagram message: "The game needed loving. I gave it my heart."
Get well soon and Godspeed, young man. In the football world and beyond, you're in everyone's heart.