The lasting image of Tua Tagovailoa in an Alabama uniform may be this: his face bleeding, his body curled up on the cart that carried him off the field after an injury left him in excruciating pain.
That was the scene on Saturday in Starkville, Miss., after Tagovailoa, the star Alabama quarterback, crumpled to the turf after two Mississippi State players chased him down late in the first half of a 38-7 Crimson Tide victory.
A towel over his head muffled his screams from a dislocated hip, which will end his season, likely providing one bookend moment to a sterling college career. The other came two years ago when he came off the bench as a freshman at halftime of the national championship game and carried Alabama to a thrilling comeback win over Georgia with an audacious walk-off touchdown pass.
The Alabama team doctor, Lyle Cain, said in a statement Saturday night that further tests would guide the treatment, but that Tagovailoa should make a full recovery. But the injury was serious enough that Tagovailoa was transported to a Birmingham hospital by helicopter. Afterward, Coach Nick Saban told reporters: “Godspeed to him and his entire family, and our thoughts and prayers are with him and hope this isn’t so serious that it has any long-term effect on his future as a player.”
And there is the crux of the conversation: What of Tagovailoa’s future?
He might have been the top pick in the N.F.L. draft, an athletic left-hander with impeccable accuracy, a strong arm and consistently astute decisions. Tying those qualities together was a magnetic presence — part toughness, part charm — that could make him a franchise quarterback.
But as the severity of Tagovailoa’s injury becomes clear, the questions will turn to why Tagovailoa was playing at all.
It is a calculus that is increasingly necessary these days in college, where money rains on everyone but the players. Tagovailoa underwent ankle surgery last month and seemed primed to sign a pro contract in April with at least $25 million guaranteed.
If Tagovailoa, a junior who could choose to return next year, had been playing in the N.F.L., he would at least have been compensated for the games he was playing. And he also would have an agent, who might have ensured that Tagovailoa received an independent opinion from doctors about his ankle injury, and an evaluation of his recovery from the related surgery from trainers who weren’t on a team’s payroll.
But who was advising Tagovailoa on whether to play?
The cutting-edge ankle surgery he received was designed in part to speed up his recovery from a sprained right ankle. Tagovailoa had the same surgery last year on his other ankle and returned three weeks later with an outstanding playoff semifinal performance over Oklahoma.
Even before his recent surgery, Tagovailoa told teammates that he would be back against Louisiana State, a battle between unbeaten teams, the winner all but assuring itself one of the four College Football Playoff spots.
Indeed he returned, though Tagovailoa shied away from running with the ball and played with a slight limp as the game wore on. And the limited practiced seemed to show: He lost a fumble, threw an interception and couldn’t bring Alabama all the way back in a 46-41 loss.
Afterward, Saban called him a warrior.
A similar scenario played out this week. Backup Mac Jones got most of the work in practice, and leading up to game time there was uncertainty over whether Tagovailoa would start. But there he was in the lineup, and by the time he was injured, just before halftime, he had Alabama well ahead.
Saban, who said he largely left the decision to play against L.S.U. up to Tagovailoa, called Saturday’s injury a freak occurrence and said Tagovailoa moved well in a pregame workout, perhaps better than he had the week before.
“We can second-guess ourselves all we want,” Saban said.
There will be plenty of that. Saban can earn $800,000 in bonuses if Alabama wins the national championship. There is no such incentive for Tagovailoa. Or any of college football’s stars. Ohio State defensive lineman Nick Bosa had abdominal surgery in September 2018 and prepared for the draft rather than try to return to the Buckeyes. Other players who are top N.F.L. prospects now routinely skip bowl games that are not part of the playoff.
Saban was asked ahead of the L.S.U. game how much he considers a player’s pro earning potential when deciding whether to play him after an injury.
“I guess the question would be did they create value for themselves by being great competitors?” Saban said then. “Always making choices and decisions that were best for their team? Always making choices and decisions that were best for themselves in terms of what they could do to contribute value to their team? People still value guys that want to always make the right decision about what they do.”
Perhaps they do. But the right decision for Saban may not have been the right one for his quarterback, who wanted to play on Saturday but now faces an uncertain tomorrow.