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Midweek Injury, Illness Talk Only Adds to the Drama of the Orange Bowl's Heisman Finalist Duel

As Kyler Murray skipped Wednesday's Orange Bowl interviews for being under the weather, Tua Tagovailoa showed up despite the continued rehab of his closely-watched ankle.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Tua Tagovailoa rolled into his first press conference for the Heisman Trophy festivities in New York on Dec. 7. Wednesday, the Alabama quarterback walked into his first Orange Bowl press conference.

The nation’s most watched left ankle appears to be healing after Tagovailoa sprained it in the Crimson Tide’s SEC championship win against Georgia on Dec. 1, and Tagovailoa offered an assessment of just how much it has healed with three days remaining before the Tide face Oklahoma in a College Football Playoff semifinal in the Orange Bowl. “I’m getting treatment at this moment, but it’s been a lot better,” Tagovailoa said. “If I could grade it on a scale of zero to 100, I would say it’s about 80 to 85%. It’s been really good.”

Tagovailoa spent much of his time in New York for the Heisman festivities with Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray, who wound up beating out Tagovailoa for the award. The two did not get a chance to cross paths Wednesday. An Oklahoma spokesman said Murray was under the weather and did not attend the interview session.

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No one seemed particularly worried about whether Murray will play against Alabama. Perhaps he was sick of answering stupid questions after an awards season spent answering a ton of them. But Murray’s absence did frustrate Alabama staffers who were under the impression that they were required to make Tagovailoa available for interviews Wednesday. (Both players also are scheduled to be available at Thursday’s media day at Hard Rock Stadium.) Alabama sent trainer Jeff Allen with Tagovailoa during awards season to ensure his rehab stayed on track. That’s how important Tagovailoa’s recovery from the injury—and the surgical procedure he underwent shortly afterward to stabilize the ankle—is to the program as it tries to win a sixth national title since the 2009 season. So it made sense that the folks in the crimson polo shirts left the Fort Lauderdale site of the interview sessions wondering whether the two-plus hours Tagovailoa spent traveling to and from the team’s downtown Miami hotel and participating in the interviews would have been better spent rehabbing the ankle*.

*Tagovailoa underwent a procedure to implant a device called a TightRope, which essentially acts like a zip tie for the ankle joint. In 2017, Norman Waldrop—an orthopedic surgeon who serves as one of Alabama’s team physicians—explained in a video why he likes to use the procedure to treat elite athletes who suffer high ankle sprains.

This all probably sounds incredibly silly to everyone except media members and football coaches. And don’t bother considering it from our perspective. We’ll find something to write about or talk about either way. But do consider it from a team perspective. If one quarterback apparently didn’t have to be there Wednesday because of a malady, why couldn’t the other quarterback with a medical issue skip? Perhaps Tagovailoa will have some pressing rehab issue on Thursday.

From a practice schedule perspective, skipping Wednesday’s interviews would have been more beneficial. Teams typically do their last full-speed practicing on Wednesday of a game week. And according to Tagovailoa, this has been a typical game week. “It’s the same practice,” he said. “Monday practice has been the same. Tuesday practice was the same. What’s today? Wednesday? Wednesday practice is going to be the same.” The only difference was that since Tuesday was Christmas, the Tide got together for a post-practice celebration that probably wasn’t like any Christmas party the players had attended before. “We had practice,” Tagovailoa said. “Then the team got to go to Dave and Buster’s. Not too bad of a day.”

These interview-skipping kerfuffles have become the norm at playoff semifinals. Last year, Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield skipped a Rose Bowl media session because of an illness. Then a visibly and audibly ill Mayfield came to Rose Bowl media day when he probably should have been in bed. Meanwhile, then-Alabama starter Jalen Hurts came to interviews prior to the Tide’s Sugar Bowl matchup against Clemson. I want to buy stock in whatever over-the-counter remedy had Hurts looking and sounding so fresh, because he apparently was too sick to practice. Tagovailoa had to take his place, which erupted into a controversy within the program after Tagovailoa performed brilliantly in those practices and didn’t play in the Sugar Bowl. Of course, Tagovailoa did play in Alabama’s next game. That’s why the Tide are trying to win consecutive national titles and not coming off a win against defending national champ Georgia.

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When the Tide and Sooners kick off Saturday, it won’t matter who talked—or when they talked. The health of Tagovailoa’s ankle will matter. So would any issue with Murray, though Oklahoma assistant Cale Gundy said Murray practiced Tuesday and didn’t seem concerned about Wednesday. “I didn't know anything about it until I got in the car this morning,” Gundy said.

None of the outside stuff will be important once the ball is kicked. Though Alabama defenders weren’t happy that Murray won the Heisman over their teammate, their feelings about the trophy won’t help them in their attempts to contain the electric Murray. Only their preparation will. The same goes for Murray and the Sooners as they face the best defense they’ve played all season. For his part, Tagovailoa isn’t worried about Murray’s win on Dec. 8. Tagovailoa would like to make sure Alabama wins on Dec. 29, and he wants to make sure he’s healthy enough to try to help.

“I wasn’t thinking about who was going to win [the Heisman]. I was really trying to get better with my ankle. I was thinking that if I got the opportunity to win it, that would have been great,” Tagovailoa said. “But what we’ve been preaching as a leadership group and as a team is that we’ve worked really hard to get to where we’re at right now. We want to accomplish something that probably no other team could have accomplished throughout this stretch—and that’s going undefeated and winning the national championship.”