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AJ McCarron says he's just a 'normal,' hard-working guy

MOBILE, Ala. – The highlight of AJ McCarron’s college career is not what you think it would be.

A player who guided Alabama to consecutive national championships and won 36 of 40 career starts considers a 3-yard completion in a 49-0 victory against Chattanooga on Senior Day in 2013 the favorite play of his four years with the Crimson Tide.

That’s because the completion went to his younger brother, Corey, a little-used reserve tight end who to that point in the season had only played two games.

“It’s probably my favorite moment of college,” AJ said. “We won a lot, and when I tell people that, they’re like, ‘Really, with all the championships you guys won?’ Winning was awesome, but completing a pass to my brother was something I’ll cherish and always remember.”

Today, nearly five years later, AJ can still recite the play call: “North Nashville.”

“I remember talking to him in the huddle, telling him it was coming,” AJ said. “He went to the right spot and was wide open, and I just dumped it to him.

“I can still hear my mom screaming out of everyone in that stadium. It was one of those plays where everybody cheers, and then it dies off, but she was still going. That’s my proudest moment there, for sure.”

Corey McCarron, left, and AJ McCarron are pictured with their parents, Dee Dee Bonner and Tony McCarron, right, during the pregame ceremony honoring seniors prior to facing the Chattanooga Mocs at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Nov. 23, 2013, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (Getty Images)

It’s also a pretty good reflection of what matters to AJ McCarron. Yes, he’s a legend in his hometown. He’s the one who married a model wife and counts Dale Earnhardt Jr. and country star Luke Bryan as his close friends.

Spend a weekend with him, though, as The Buffalo News did earlier this month, and it becomes clear that McCarron is as down to earth as someone as famous as he is can get.

“We’re just normal Southern people,” he said. “Everybody knows us at Cracker Barrel. Everybody knows us at Dreamland (his favorite barbecue restaurant). We try to treat everybody the way we would want to be treated and don’t do anything that’s different than anybody else at all.”

“The private jets are cool and everything, but is it really worth spending $30,000 for a one-way trip when you can spend $500 on a regular plane ticket?” added McCarron’s wife, Katherine.

'We're normal. Really normal.'

When he signed with the Bills in March, McCarron looked the part of a starting quarterback, coming to his news conference in a crisp gray suit with a red power tie. Chances are, as soon as that news conference was over, he was back in his preferred attire – backward hat, T-shirt and athletic shorts.

When he arrived at a photo shoot with The News, McCarron carried a golf polo with him, which he promptly took off as soon as the pictures were taken.

“We live a really basic life,” he said. “We don’t go buy flashy things. That’s not us. Hell, the nicest thing I have is my car, and I don’t really drive that a whole lot. We’re normal. Really normal.”

The former Katherine Webb admits that’s not what she expected when she met her future husband in college.

AJ McCarron and Katherine Webb, now his wife, attend an event on Jan. 30, 2014, in New York City. (Getty Images for DirecTV)

“When you’re a national championship quarterback, of course I had this idea that he was going to be the most popular guy on campus and he was going to know so many people, and it really wasn’t like that,” she said. “He had probably three really close friends that he hung out with. Having a close-knit group is important, because in his situation it’s easy for people to take advantage of you. Thankfully, we’ve not had a ton of that. We just really enjoy spending time with people that bring out the best in us.”

McCarron can’t go far in his hometown without being recognized. As he was warming up on the practice green at Magnolia Grove Golf Course, a fellow golfer approached to say, “This is the best of both worlds. I’m a huge Bills and Alabama fan.”

McCarron thanked him before taking a picture.

“Whenever you hear his name mentioned in Mobile, you see people with a sense of pride," said McCarron's close friend Cris Eddings, the co-owner and operator of several restaurants scattered throughout Alabama. “Not only what he's done at Alabama, but what he's continuing to do after his collegiate career."

Eddings first met McCarron when he still played for Alabama, and said McCarron's approach has never changed.

“I knew him from his superstar days, when he had every right to be a little big-headed, but he always maintained a sense of composure,” Eddings said. “Maybe that's some of the characteristics that helped him on the football field. He never seemed to let the fame and notoriety get to his head.”

Both AJ and Katherine McCarron learned how to deal with that fame at an early age. She was a 23-year-old reigning Miss Alabama USA in 2012, and had moved to California to pursue a modeling career, without much luck.

'I hate losing more than I like winning': How AJ McCarron's Alabama roots fuel him

“I wasn't getting booked for anything,” she said. “I was nearly broke. I felt bad I had to keep asking my parents for money.”

Toward the end of the year, she was scheduled to go back to Alabama to give up her crown to the next winner. She invited McCarron to the pageant, and the pair started dating.

It was during the 2012 BCS National Championship game when everything changed. Katherine McCarron became an overnight celebrity when Brent Musburger infamously drooled on air about her beauty. She gained more than 100,000 Twitter followers within hours.

“After that game, everything kind of changed,” she said.

She headed to New York to shoot for Vanity Fair and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. She went back to California to take part in ABC’s “Celebrity Diving” reality show – “all things I never would have had the chance to do otherwise,” she said.

Of course, there is a downside to that celebrity.

“We were gossip material,” Katherine McCarron said. “I look back at it now, and AJ still being in college, I feel so bad. No person at that age should have to be going through that.

“We had articles about girls staying over at his house, saying he was cheating on me. Totally random people we’ve never even heard of were coming out saying, ‘AJ and Katherine are my best friends.' ... It definitely tested our relationship, for sure.”

Katherine McCarron decided she needed a break from Hollywood, and moved back to Alabama to develop her relationship with AJ.

“I knew AJ was going to be the person I spend my life with,” she said. “Things have settled down now. We have a family. We have a strong foundation and understanding of each other.”

AJ McCarron described fame as something “we had to get used to.”

“Whenever you have a, if you want to call it celebrity, about your life, you have to be ready for people to make up stuff,” he said. “Or talk about how bad your tattoos are.”

Yes, even McCarron's ink became tabloid fodder. He has an epic chest tattoo that produced headlines like this, from Bleacher Report in 2013: "AJ McCarron's Giant Chest Tattoo Is Spreading, Developing Its Own Ecosystem."

"The thing that always gets me about that is I didn't get them for anybody else," McCarron said with a laugh. "I just got them for me. They're all personal stuff. I didn't go out and get random tattoos. They all mean something to me. I don't do something unless it means something to me."

When the couple got engaged in 2014, there were online comments about how the marriage wouldn’t last.

“It goes back to mental clutter. That’s stuff we can’t worry about,” he said. “I'm good enough to go off the headline now. Are they just trying to bait you in, and then they have a BS article and a bunch of stuff that probably isn't true? I'm trying to get my wife to learn that and not fall into that trap. If I see it, I just let it pass and I can move on.”

Katherine joked that she and AJ had more of a “celebrity status” while they were in college, which is true. While she settled into being a wife and mother to the couple’s 2-year-old son, Tripp, McCarron spent the past four years in relative obscurity as a Cincinnati Bengals backup to Andy Dalton. The couple is expecting their second child, another son, in December.

“We've had a lot of humbling experiences since he entered the NFL,” she said.

That started when McCarron fell to the fifth round of the 2014 NFL Draft after being pegged as a possible second-round pick. Upon arriving in Cincinnati, he was banished to the non-football injury list before training camp even started, where he remained until December of his rookie year.

“Coming from Alabama, I wouldn't say we were spoiled in any way, but it was a reality check of how things work,” Katherine McCarron said. “Just him as a player has been humbled a lot.”

Patiently waiting

Once McCarron was healthy enough to play, he found himself stuck behind Andy Dalton on the Bengals’ depth chart.

“You understand that,” Bills General Manager Brandon Beane said. “Andy Dalton was in there and had positioned himself as their franchise quarterback.”

In four years, McCarron appeared in just 11 games with three starts, going 86 of 133 for 920 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions. He nearly led Cincinnati to a come-from-behind playoff victory against Pittsburgh in 2015, but a late lost fumble and personal foul got the Steelers into range for a game-winning field goal. Considering that the Bengals' last playoff win came in 1990 – the longest drought in the NFL – that would have been significant.

Other than that, though, the bulk of McCarron's time was spent on the bench. That was not easy for a player who was a first-team All-American in 2013, the same year he won the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award and finished as the runner-up to Jameis Winston for the Heisman Trophy.

Nevertheless, he tried to make the best of it, especially as an injured rookie, soaking up as much as he could from Bengals quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese. He also would work on blitz reports to give to Dalton.

“They did this blitz this amount of times. This is their favorite blitz on third down. I would break all of that stuff down and turn it in,” McCarron said. “I would give a progress report on what I thought of the corners – ‘This guy can't come out of breaks. He's weak going to his left. He's weak going to his right.’ It was definitely different, but it helped me learn a lot. It gave me the patience I lost starting all those games at Alabama.”

That chance almost came at the trade deadline. The Bengals had agreed to trade McCarron to Cleveland for second- and third-round draft choices this year, but the deal fell through when the Browns failed to turn the necessary paperwork into the NFL by the 4 p.m. deadline.

McCarron found out from his agent shortly after 3:30 p.m. that a trade could be coming, then just a few minutes before the deadline thought it was a done deal. Instead, he got a call back at 4:03 p.m. from his agent to say that the trade had fallen through, and he’d be staying in Cincinnati.

That made for a weird next day at work.

“The thing is, nobody even talked to me in the organization,” he said. “They saw me the next day and just said, ‘Hey.’ Nobody sat me down and talked to me about ‘This is what happened, or we tried to trade you and something didn't go right.’ That was the weirdest part for me."

On the practice field, McCarron’s friends on the team started yelling out “I thought we traded that guy!”

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In reality, he would have welcomed a deal, even to the worst team in the league, because it would have meant a chance to get on the field.

“As a competitor, he's itching to play,” Katherine said. “Being a backup quarterback for so long, you just grow a chip on your shoulder that's so big. I know he's going to be an amazing competitor in Buffalo and he's going to really show what he can do. He's been waiting for this for so long. I feel like this can really be AJ's time to shine.”

There was some question as to whether McCarron would enter unrestricted free agency this year. He had to file a grievance against the Bengals, claiming that he was kept on the non-football injury list long after he was healthy enough to play as a rookie, thus robbing him of a year of service time. Had he lost the case, McCarron would have had only three years of NFL experience, making him a restricted free agent. Instead, an arbiter agreed with McCarron’s camp, and he was credited with the fourth season that qualified him for unrestricted free agency.

“Really I just had to trust in myself that everything's going to be fine,” he said. “When I get a chance to play, just play the best I can and everything will work out.”

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