It’s been business as usual for University of Alabama football this year. They (OK—I’ll use the fanatic “we”) ended the season unbeaten, ranked first, and headed to the National Championship game for the fourth straight year. The Crimson Tide has cultivated new ways to crush opponents. Long known for our stingy defense, this year we had one of the most explosive offenses in the nation. Back in 2011, in what was billed as the “Game of the Century,” Louisiana State beat Alabama 9-6. This year, the Tide averaged 47 points a game, and most games were effectively over by halftime. Our lowest score was a 24-0 shutout of Mississippi State.
The drama of the season has been on the practice field and the sidelines. It’s a tale of two quarterbacks, Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa, a tale that would be dismissed as contrived if you pitched it to a film production company.
The story starts during last year’s National Championship game against Georgia. Hurts, one of college football’s leading quarterbacks who had a 24-2 record as starter, was sluggish in the first half. Down 13-0 at halftime, Coach Nick Saban (“St. Nick” down here, one half of a two-man pantheon with “St. Bear” Bryant) daringly replaced Hurts with Tagovailoa, then a freshman. Tua sparked a comeback, throwing two touchdown passes and putting Alabama in position to make two field goals. Alabama had a chance to win in regulation, but missed a 36-yard field goal and the game ended in a 20-20 tie.
Overtime was Tua’s apotheosis. Georgia made a 51-yard field goal on its first possession, taking a 23-20 lead. On Alabama’s first play, Tua scrambled into a 16-yard loss. On second-and-twenty-six, Tua threw a gorgeous 41-yard touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith, who had broken away from Georgia’s defenders. Another Tide title—our seventeenth and Saban’s fifth, his fourth since coming to Tuscaloosa in 2007. Not quite ho-hum, but it’s what we’ve come to expect.
Now Saban faced a decision: He had the luxury, and the dilemma, of having two high caliber quarterbacks. Throughout the summer, the sports media speculated: Jalen or Tua? Saban brushed off the question, testily complaining that the media was tempting him to criticize one of his players. In the end, the decision was made on the field, and it was an easy one. Tua started the first game and instantly proved that the National Championship was no fluke. He’s the most gifted quarterback Alabama has ever had, with a rare touch of magic and a lot of help from a crew of outstanding receivers. The two quarterbacks switched places: Now Tua secured the game through the first two or three quarters, and Hurts came in for the mopping-up.
Speculation continued, but took a new turn: Would Hurts leave Alabama for another school, where he could again be the starter? The season wore on, but Hurts remained after the deadline for transfer passed. For 2018, at least, he was locked in to the Tide.
Successful football players cultivate old-fashioned martial virtues—self-discipline, perseverance, teamwork, sacrifice, the courage to take a hit, the courage to give one. Football isn’t typically associated with softer virtues like patience, humility, and meekness. But those are the virtues that Hurts exhibited throughout the 2018 season. Instead of nursing a grudge, he was Tua’s biggest fan; Tua’s family returned the compliment, stating publicly that they prayed for Jalen every day. Sitting on the bench out of the limelight, Hurts earned a “Most Inspirational Player” award from his teammates. Here was a new kind of Bama football legend: A player celebrated not only for his exploits on the field but for the dignified way he rode the bench.
In the pitch room, you’d suggest a neat way to end the story. Imagine: It’s another championship game; if you want to shift into hyper-hokey, it’s another championship game against Georgia in the same Mercedes-Benz stadium in Atlanta where Tua’s legend began. Georgia dominates early and Tua is ineffective or incapacitated. Saban motions to Jalen and sends him in to win the game. And he does. Final shots: Hurts doing the Superman-opening-his-shirt thing after scoring the winning touchdown, then slow-motion of Hurts hoisted by a hefty lineman, holding a triumphant index finger toward the sky. Roll credits.
As it turned out, it was just that corny. On December 1, 2018, Alabama played Georgia at the Mercedes-Benz stadium to determine the Southeastern Conference champion. Tagovailoa struggled against the Georgia defense, and in the fourth quarter, with Alabama trailing 28-21, he twisted an ankle and left the game for good. Hurts came in, passed for one touchdown and ran for the winning touchdown with 1:04 on the clock. And he did the Superman chest gesture, just like in the movie.
I understand skepticism about sports. American sports are a substitute religion. Games have all the marks of tribal ritual—the war paint, the chants and fight songs, the passion, the ceremony. Down here, it’s God, family, country, and the Tide or the Tigers—not always in that order. Still, I won’t give up being a Tide fan. Outside sports, where are you going to find so many determined individuals overcoming disappointment and loss? Where can you see fine-tuned teamwork in action, where hard work, skill, and grit are rewarded in real time? Where else do so many men and women perform feats of such balletic grace? Where else is there a stage on which real-life tales of such exquisite symmetry unfold?
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.