The ‘Aloha spirit’ connecting Tua Tagovailoa and McKenzie Milton

In Hawaii, residents often use the term “coconut wireless” to describe all the ways they are connected. In the case of Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and UCF QB McKenzie Milton, it fits perfectly.

Oahu is not a big island, and there are only so many sports opportunities, especially for those with their eyes on big-time college football. It is no coincidence that Tagovailoa and Milton played on the same youth football team for a year, then attended the same weekend camps, and worked with the same coaches, even though they went to different high schools.

The undersized and mostly overlooked Milton went to college first, and though he always wanted to play for Oregon, he got the next best thing, signing with former Ducks offensive coordinator Scott Frost at UCF. Tagovailoa emerged as an elite ESPN 300 prospect with offers from Power 5 schools across the country, and he chose Alabama the following year.

What has followed seems too good to be true: Tagovailoa and Milton, the quarterback-running back duo on the Waipio Panthers, leading teams that have shaped nearly every college football discussion since last year — one school for winning the national championship, another for self-declaring a national championship.

Perhaps the cycle repeats itself come January. Alabama is back in the College Football Playoff and is favored to win another national title, while UCF is back in a New Year’s Six game with a 25-game winning streak and a shot at a second straight undefeated season.

If it happens again, this one will have a different feel. As Tagovailoa rehabs an ankle injury to prepare for the College Football Playoff semifinal against Oklahoma in the Capital One Orange Bowl on Dec. 29, Milton is out indefinitely after suffering a devastating leg injury last month. He will not play in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl against LSU on Jan. 1.

After so many years moving along on parallel tracks, their paths seem to be diverging: Tagovailoa appears destined for the NFL; Milton has months of arduous rehab ahead with an uncertain football future on the horizon.

But no matter what happens, or how the rest of their careers unfold, their shared history will never change. Neither will their connection. Their Hawaii roots simply would not allow it.

“I’d like to say what Marcus Mariota said before,” Tagovailoa says. “It’s the Aloha spirit. You don’t have to be blood-related to be family.”

Their paths first crossed in fourth grade. Milton played on a team his dad coached, and they made the playoffs. The starting quarterback on the other team launched one ball after another, so many long passes that Mark Milton turned to his son and said, “We need that guy.”

That guy happened to be Tagovailoa, and the following season, he joined the Waipio Panthers. Mark Milton and Tagovailoa’s dad, Galu, coached the team. For one year, Milton and Tagovailoa shared a backfield — Tagovailoa throwing passes, Milton catching them or taking handoffs.

They were not the only future college football players on that team: Keoni-Kordell Makekau (now at Navy) and Kainoa Wilson (now at Washington State) were also on the roster.

“Tua, his arm was — I don’t know how you can explain it,” Makekau says.

“He was a stud, throwing balls on ropes,” Milton says.

“He was throwing 60-yarders ever since he was in fifth grade,” Makekau says.

But Tagovailoa remembers something different.

“McKenzie was our go-to player,” Tagovailoa says. “He played everything for us. If we needed a score, McKenzie was our guy, and I threw it to him.”

The following season, Tagovailoa left Waipio because his dad started a team closer to their home in Ewa Beach, about 20 minutes away. Mark Milton looked at his roster and decided the time was right to make his son the starting quarterback.

Those twin decisions eventually pushed Tagovailoa and Milton closer together, though they never played on the same team again. Tagovailoa ended up going to the private St. Louis School, which produced Marcus Mariota, Timmy Chang, Jason Gesser and a long line of talented quarterbacks under the direction of noted local quarterback guru Vince Passas. Milton went to Mililani High School, about 40 minutes away, but his St. Louis connections ran deep.

Mililani coach Rod York asked Joel Lane to work with Milton. Lane, who played at St. Louis and learned under Passas, works at a different high school but mentors small groups of quarterbacks in his spare time. Lane saw an athletic but raw quarterback eager to put in the time to get better.

“He never took a day off,” Lane says. “He could throw for 400 yards Friday night, and most kids would be like, ‘I did what I needed to do,’ but he’d be like, ‘No, coach, let’s get together. I’ve got the receivers. Let’s get more work in.'”

Milton also attended open camps on Sundays that Passas hosted between January and May. Dubbed “get-better camps,” Passas came up with the idea more than 20 years ago as a way to bring together players across the island for extra drills and practice. Lane works those camps, too.

The goal is simple: Ramping up competition among all players, no matter the school, pushes everyone to step up their game. That, in turn, gets more players from Hawaii noticed.

“Aloha is the word that best describes our unity, our culture,” Passas says. “It’s more than just hello and good-bye. Aloha is how we give back, how we care for one another, how we help one another just to make this world a better place.”

Milton and Tagovailoa saw each other there every Sunday, pushing to go first in the quarterback drills or racing to run their 40s the fastest or to finish their conditioning sprints before anyone else.

“While they’re friends, on the field, they want to compete and they want to show which guy is going to be better that day,” Lane says. “That’s the attitude they had, and that’s what brought out the best in both of them. It was nice to see Tua drop a dime in there and be like, ‘Well? Are you going to match that, McKenzie?’ Now he has to go out there and drop a dime. It makes them better every day.”

Tagovailoa and Milton also worked with speed coach Kenny Patton, who played at Hawaii. Patton asked if they wanted personal training or to work together in a group. They both chose the group.

“The atmosphere when they trained was incredible,” Patton says. “Every Thursday night was ‘Competition Thursdays.’ We did one-on-one tug of war, quick hand drills, races, sprints, change of direction. They competed in every sense of the word.”

“I always wanted to compete with McKenzie knowing how fast he was, knowing he was an athlete,” Tagovailoa says. “With us just getting better that way, and even throwing it at the get-better camps, we’d always be in the same group when we’d throw to the receivers.”

On the field, they split their meetings. In the season opener when Milton was a junior, he won an offensive showcase over Tagovailoa (then a sophomore) and St. Louis. Mililani went on to win the state championship, and Milton was named Hawaii Player of the Year.

When Milton was a senior, he injured his shoulder, and St. Louis won its state semifinal playoff matchup with Mililani. In 2016, Tagovailoa was named Hawaii Player of the Year.

After the shoulder injury, Milton worked with Kevin Chang for rehab and strength and conditioning. Chang also knows Tagovailoa, thanks to his role as strength coach at St. Louis. Yet another connection that seems like a small-world meeting, but in actuality is part of everyday life in Hawaii.

Chang knew Mariota and Tagovailoa growing up as kids, but he got a bigger window into what makes Tagovailoa tick while at St. Louis.

“He was the first quarterback who wanted to bench,” Chang says. “He wanted to do everything he could to get bigger and stronger.” Chang points to the similarities he saw in working with both players.

“The one thing I can say is everything they’ve gotten as far as success in football came from them,” Chang says. “I believe success starts with personal goals and their drive to do the work, to put in the time to do the things to set themselves up for greatness, and that’s a decision they both made.”

During the time Milton spent with Chang, he worked alongside another quarterback from Hawaii — Ole Miss starter Jordan Ta’amu, whose journey to the Rebels was the most circuitous. While Milton was a two-star recruit with a handful of offers, no FBS program offered Ta’amu a scholarship out of high school. He went to New Mexico Military Institute and eventually made it to Ole Miss.

“You have a sense of pride coming from Hawaii,” Milton says. “You want to represent your people and your culture. You want to represent them well, so I think a lot of kids from back there take pride in that.”

That is evident, especially in the way Tagovailoa and Milton talk about each other and root for each other. Milton watched from home as Tagovailoa threw the game-winning touchdown pass against Georgia in the national championship game last January.

“I wasn’t surprised,” Milton said. “He’s been doing that since we were young.”

Tagovailoa, second in the Heisman this year, has watched as critics have come down hard on UCF and its strength of schedule. Tagovailoa believes Milton deserves more credit for what he has accomplished as the first two-time American Athletic Conference Player of the Year.

“I’m proud of him, for everything that he’s done,” Tagovailoa says. “He had to fight for what he has. Nothing came easy to him. He was going to go to the University of Hawaii. It’s a gutsy decision to want to move all the way across the country to play at UCF instead of staying at home, where you could see your family almost every day.

“I hate to see that he has that injury, and I hate that people don’t give him the same amount of credit that we’re all getting. The task that he’s done up to this point is very hard. It’s very difficult at the collegiate level, no matter what conference you’re playing in. I respect him. He’s my brother. I love him, and I definitely hope he gets better soon.”

As long as his rehab progresses in a positive way, Milton will undergo reconstructive knee surgery in January. His dad describes a “long road ahead” in both recovery and attempting to return to the football field.

But as those connected to Milton can attest, he already has the work ethic, determination and motivation instilled in him to do whatever it takes to get back.

“I know it’s going to be a tough journey for him, but if anyone could battle through it, it’s McKenzie,” Passas says. “And when he does battle through it, he’ll also show the rest of the people, especially in Hawaii, when you go through a trying time like this, you’ve just got to keep fighting back.”

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