MOBILE, Ala. – It was two days after the “Game of the Century,” and AJ McCarron received a not-so-subtle reminder of how football is everything here in the land of the Crimson Tide.
The sophomore starting quarterback at Alabama – a position that comes with more scrutiny than being the state’s governor, the saying goes – McCarron suffered his first career loss in a hard-fought 9-6 battle against fellow unbeaten LSU on Nov. 5, 2011.
The defeat did not sit well with one particular 'Bama fan.
“I remember walking into a restaurant and seeing this family,” McCarron said. “They had a son, he looked like he was probably 16, then a younger girl and the mom and the dad. Well, the son kept staring at me.
“It wasn’t a stare of ‘That’s AJ McCarron.’ It was a stare like, ‘That’s AJ. I want to kill him. I told the girl I was with, ‘Man, that kid kept giving me a bad look. I don’t understand why.’ ”
After dinner was finished, McCarron returned to his truck to find a note stuck under the windshield wiper.
“This kid must have had his notepad in his book bag. He pulled it out and wrote a whole story for me, telling me how awful I was,” McCarron said. “There was all kinds of stuff in there, just bashing me. I’m like, ‘Wow, this is all because of one game we lost 9-6.’ That’s just the type of pressure that comes with playing there.”
In the storied history of Alabama football, few players have ever handled that pressure better.
“I love playing in those moments,” McCarron said. “I think that's what makes Alabama special is because the expectations are so high year in and year out. When you don't achieve that, it pushes you to be at that level the following year.”
There wouldn’t be any more hate mail coming McCarron’s way the rest of 2011. The Crimson Tide rebounded from that loss to win their final four games, getting revenge on the Tigers with a 21-0 victory in the BCS National Championship game.
McCarron and the Crimson Tide did it again the following year, as he became the first quarterback to go back to back since Tommie Frazier led Nebraska to repeat national championships in 1994 and ’95. McCarron left Alabama with a 36-4 record as a starter, and is the Crimson Tide’s all-time leader in completions (686), passing yards (9,019) and completion percentage (66.9). He’s not just one of Alabama’s best quarterbacks; he’s one of the most accomplished players in the history of college football. It wasn’t all that long ago that he was one of the biggest names in all of football. In his home state, McCarron is still considered royalty.
He’s been dethroned, however, in the NFL.
After four nondescript years as a backup with the Cincinnati Bengals, he’s fighting to get back on that lofty perch with the Buffalo Bills. The Buffalo News spent a July weekend with McCarron in his hometown to learn more about where he came from and where he hopes to go with the Bills.
A second chance
Any recounting of McCarron’s life has to start on the day it almost ended.
Aug. 20, 1996, was a typically steamy summer day in Mobile. To beat the heat, Tony McCarron took his 5-year-old son, AJ, out for a WaveRunner ride on Dog River.
Just a few minutes into the ride, disaster struck. The wake from a passing boat created a wave that sent the watercraft out of control. Seated in front of his father, A.J. panicked. As he reached for the handle bars, he accidentally hit the throttle. The jolt of speed sent him flying off the watercraft – and directly into a wooden pier.
The damage was catastrophic. The left side of McCarron’s face was crushed. His left eye was dangling from the socket. He was rushed to Mobile’s Children’s and Women’s Hospital, where doctors prepared the family for the worst. McCarron’s mother, Dee Dee Bonner, was asked where the family went to church, so that the appropriate minister could be contacted.
“As a mom, when you hear that he might not make it through the night, you think these morbid thoughts,” Bonner said. “The first thing that popped in my head — it's awful — was I guess I'll bury him in his all-star uniform, because I knew he wouldn't want to be buried in a suit. These are the things going through my head.”
Miraculously, McCarron made it through the night. Doctors repaired the damage by using 58 stitches, eight metal plates and six screws. Cartilage from his ear was removed and placed underneath his left eye to give the socket support as the eye was put back in place.
Even more amazing, the brain damage and vision problems doctors initially feared never materialized. Six days after the accident, McCarron was discharged from the hospital.
“I did not think I would be taking him home again,” Bonner said. “Having that opportunity to walk out of the hospital was just a gift.”
Today, more than two decades later, McCarron is constantly reminded of that day. Whenever it gets cold, he says — pointing to a spot just below his left eye — a sharp pain shoots through his cheek where a screw was placed. His left eye will start twitching for no apparent reason.
It’s the visible scar that stretches across his scalp, though, that has been a source of inspiration. When he was younger, McCarron grew his hair long to hide the scar. As he's grown older, however, McCarron has worn his hair short, unafraid to show the world what happened.
“It makes you think ‘God gave you a second chance at life. Use it and make the best of it,’ ” McCarron said. “When I see the scar I think, ‘You can go out and just go through the motions today or you can go out and make the most of your second chance.'
“I believe everything happens for a reason. I believe God has a plan for everybody. He gives you a deck of cards and it's just how you play it. You can't do anything about what you've been dealt, but you can choose to play certain ways.”
Not surprisingly, Bonner hates WaveRunners to this day. AJ, though, considers it one of his favorite hobbies.
“That's me in a nutshell. I just don't get scared,” he said. “For me, it's a challenge. It's an adrenaline rush. I love it. I go crazy on those things. I drive wild. I go fast. … Any chance I get to get on my JetSki, I get on it.”
Just seven months after his accident, McCarron was back on a basketball court.
“He lived and breathed every sport,” Bonner said. “Him and his younger brother, they went from football to basketball to baseball, just rotating sports.”
It quickly became apparent that sports were more than just something for the McCarron boys to do. Tony Powell was AJ’s youth football coach with the Municipal Park Raiders of the Mobile Youth Football Conference. He remains a close family friend today.
“When he was 10 years old, I remember saying, ‘One day he’s going to be the next Alabama quarterback,' ” Powell said. “People laughed at me. But then when he got there, they were all my friend.”
Powell put together a dream team of sorts, with McCarron leading a team that included future NFL players C.J. Mosley, Mark Barron and Jimmie Ward. After one game against a powerhouse youth team from New Jersey, McCarron was asked to sign his first autograph. He was 10.
“Our bond is, I'd tell him what he did right and what he did wrong,” Powell said. “He respected me for that.”
McCarron would go on to win championships at the middle school level in both football and basketball before leading St. Paul’s Episcopal to a 14-1 record and a state championship as a high school junior.
“He’s a born winner,” Powell said. “He’s got one goal left, and that’s the Super Bowl. I told him when he gets that one, that’s when I’ll ask for his autograph.”
Started from the bottom
One of the reasons AJ and Corey McCarron were so into sports was the price tag. AJ described his family as being “dead broke” growing up — a characterization his mother agreed with – and it didn’t cost anything to shoot baskets or throw the football around.
“His dad and I were married at first, and we did not have money,” Bonner said. “And then when we divorced (when A.J. was 8 years old), we really did not have money.”
Bonner and her two boys share a love of horror films, so on weekends she would shop the used VHS tapes at Blockbuster and host movie night.
“As a single mom with two boys, I had to try and make entertainment and fun very inexpensive for us,” she said.
The family bounced from house to house in some of the tougher parts of Mobile. Sometimes, the electricity went out. Other times, maybe a water bill went unpaid.
“I spent a lot of time at my aunt and uncle's house. We didn't have a lot of food at our home, so I would end up trying to eat everything over at their place,” AJ said. “My aunt would be so pissed. I would eat all the bread and cereal.
“So, yeah, we didn't come from much at all. I think it just always made me appreciate everything that's come along with this process.”
Bonner proudly recalls how she would leave an extra dollar in AJ’s lunch box so he could get a snack after school. At the end of the week, inevitably she would find that money back in her purse, with a note from her son saying, “Make sure you eat, Mama.”
“If we saw a homeless person, he would sacrifice his meal to give them his food,” she said. “Whatever he could do to help other people, he's always been that way. As he's gotten older, that has not left him.”
When McCarron went back to school following his accident, kids called him “railroad tracks” because of the maze of stitches across his head.
“That upset him, and he always remembered what it felt like to be different,” Bonner said. “That accident had a big impact on how he views people with differences. He always goes above and beyond to make sure everyone feels included.”
On July 14, close to 400 children ages 8 to 17 came to Baker High School for McCarron’s fourth annual free football camp. Even as the sign outside Bank of the Ozarks on Airport Boulevard read 100 degrees, McCarron stayed on the field until every participant had caught a pass from him. Afterward, he signed an autograph for and took a picture with every camper, too.
“AJ is that way. He's very family oriented, community oriented, caring, and loves to give back to people,” Bonner said. “He can come off, I don't want to say stuck up, but some people may think that. He's very private, but when you get in his circle, he's more open and honest and you can see the true A.J. As a mom, I wish more people could see that true, caring side of him.”
After his camp concluded, McCarron and his inner circle headed into the Baker locker room. His wife, Katherine, was there with the couple’s 2-year-old son, Tripp. So was Bonner and her husband, Craig. Corey, two years McCarron’s junior, was also there, as was Powell.
This is where McCarron is truly in his element. As his family and friends enjoyed takeout from one of McCarron’s favorite restaurants, Dreamland BBQ, the quarterback drew plays on a white board with Baker’s offensive coordinator, Justin Patterson.
“He asked what we did offensively. I told him we're very versatile, very balanced in what we do, but we're based out of a pro style with a lot of West Coast terminology,” Patterson said. “I told him that we run stretch a lot. He said, ‘Hey, watch this, this is a really good play action off stretch, so that's kind of where it started.’ ”
Did you stop to think for a second, Patterson was asked, how unusual it was that an NFL quarterback was drawing up plays for a coach at a high school that’s not even his alma mater?
“That’s true. It is. It reveals some things about his character and what he values,” Patterson said. “He's willing to spend some time with us just talking some ball on the board. We really appreciate that and value it.”
Getting a shot
McCarron will report to Bills' training camp at St. John Fisher with the opportunity he’s been waiting for since entering the NFL. It will be an open competition for the starting quarterback job among him, second-year pro Nathan Peterman and rookie first-round draft pick Josh Allen.
The Bills gave the 27-year-old a two-year contract worth up to $10 million that includes $7.9 million. As quarterback money goes, it's the kind of contract that comes with low expectations.
“It's going to be tough and I know that,” McCarron said. “I think the biggest challenge for me during OTAs was knowing the offense, being so comfortable with it where you don't have to think at all. It's easier when you're younger in this process and you're learning a new offense because you haven't been in the system for four years and running the same stuff, same terminology. All of a sudden, I come to Buffalo and it's totally different.”
Even if they’re the same plays run in Cincinnati, they have different names in Buffalo.
“Everything's mixed up,” McCarron said. “So during OTAs I would catch myself, I might be late on something or throw it and I might feel good about, it but I don't feel good about the timing. It's just a process ... but the biggest thing for me was not getting pissed at myself because it's not going as perfect as you want it.”
To learn the offense, McCarron spent three hours every day in July drawing plays on the white board. Powell would call out a play, then start a stopwatch while McCarron drew it up. If it wasn’t done in 30 seconds or less, they’d do it again.
“There's only 32 of these jobs,” he said. “I've always said this: I'm going to go out there and compete. I'm going to compete my ass off. It's what I’ve always done.”
After trading Tyrod Taylor, the Bills were left with only Peterman on the roster at quarterback. General Manager Brandon Beane slow played the beginning of free agency, watching as quarterbacks played musical chairs before he landed McCarron.
“When you draft a guy, you can mold him immediately,” Beane said. “They don't know what pro ball is like. When you bring somebody that's been with another team in, you have to do your research the best you can. Is he going to fit? Because some of those guys may have already been molded a little bit. So we did a lot of recon on all the quarterbacks that were out there. When it came to AJ, we just felt like this was a guy who, in the limited opportunities he had on the field, had done some good stuff.”
McCarron’s college center, William Vlachos, is an offensive assistant on the Bills’ coaching staff, so he helped with that recon. So, too, did offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who spent last year in the same role with the Crimson Tide, giving him a pipeline to some of the people who know McCarron best. There also were conversations with Cleveland Browns coach Hue Jackson, who was the Bengals' offensive coordinator through McCarron's first two seasons in Cincinnati. And with Browns quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese, who was the Bengals' quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator while McCarron was with the Bengals.
So what did Beane and coach Sean McDermott learn about McCarron?
“I think you see he's got a swagger to him. He's got a confidence,” he said. “He won at the high school level. He won at the college level. I see a guy with a chip (on his shoulder) that says, ‘Hey, I know you still doubt me, I wasn't drafted highly.’ … I know we've talked about it, Sean and Brian and myself. We look forward to seeing what the next step is once we get to Fisher for training camp.”
Inevitably, Allen will get his shot, though when that will come is still to be determined. A team doesn’t use the seventh overall pick (and trade away two second-rounders to get it) on a quarterback to not play him.
The Bills were up front with McCarron and Peterman about the possibility of drafting a quarterback early.
“I think everybody knew, with all the draft capital we had and the quarterback-rich college market it was, that you had to assume somewhere we're drafting one, whether it's the first round, second round,” Beane said. “We had conversations with him and Nathan that, 'Hey, we don't know how what the draft's going to unfold. We can't predict it. We're not picking No. 1, so our guy's got to be there. But, basically, go out, compete, just like we do every other position.' ”
On the day he was introduced in Western New York, McCarron said he couldn’t worry about the “mental clutter” that comes with concerning himself with who the Bills might draft. It’s a phrase he’s used since college, one learned from Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban.
“It really just means not worrying about everything else and just focusing on yourself,” he said. “Not worrying about — just, for instance, our QB competition — not worrying about if Nate or Josh has a good play … because when you start thinking about that, then it causes mental clutter and it causes everything else to fall apart. I think coach Saban did a good job of really pounding that in everybody's head during our time there. I really bought into that. It hit home with me really well and it's just something that really stuck.”
Success in the NFL is the only thing that has eluded McCarron so far, but that’s only part of what drives him.
“I hate losing. I think that pushes me more than anything,” he said. “I hate losing more than I like winning. … Other than that, I don't ever want to have an emptiness in my heart — of ‘I would feel fulfilled if I achieved this.’ That's when it comes into your faith. I feel like people who are always searching for something probably don't have God enough in their heart. I'm not searching for anything.”
McCarron knows that when he comes home from work every night, a beautiful family awaits him. Katherine is pregnant with the couple’s second child, another boy who is due in December.
“I'm going to push to be the best I can and be successful, but I'm not trying to fulfill anything because there's an emptiness there,” he said. “I'm just going to go out and play like I've always played since I was 3 years old.”
If he does that, success just might follow.