Winning … In All Phases of Life
By RICH CIRMINIELLO
Quarterbacks, much like coaches, are judged by their leadership skills and by their innate ability to elevate the talent surrounding them. By those measuring sticks, AJ McCarron was in a class by himself while at Alabama.
McCarron carved out a legacy in Tuscaloosa that won’t soon be forgotten. The three-year starter won more career games, 36, than any other Crimson Tide quarterback, while throwing for more career touchdowns, yards and completions than any player in school history. He was the face of a dynastic run that included national championships in 2011 and 2012 and a crack at a third straight title before rival Auburn delivered on Nov. 30 one of the most improbable finishes in the history of the game. For consistently being the model for what a quarterback is supposed to be at this level, McCarron has been named the 77th Maxwell Award recipient.
McCarron is living a charmed life these days, but it wasn’t always that way for the kid from Mobile. The son of a fireman witnessed adversity at an early age, the kind that’s inherent to his dad’s line of work and the kind that nearly took his own life. At the tender age of five, McCarron was involved in a horrific WaveRunner accident that had his mom and dad contemplating the worst possible scenario for a parent. The scars on the side of his head remain today, as does the deep conviction that he has a greater purpose in life, one that extends far beyond just a stadium.
“Oh, we went through some rough stages when the boys were young,” said Tony McCarron, AJ’s dad. “We didn’t have much back then. There were a lot of nights of grilled cheese and fries for dinner. AJ realized very early on that family was bigger than the individual. And football, in many ways, had become his extended family. One of AJ’s greatest attributes is how well he relates to any person, regardless of their background or their culture. Plus, he shuns the limelight, making sure his teammates get a chance to bask in it as well.”
McCarron was highly regarded coming out of St. Paul’s Episcopal School, as his number of scholarship offers would attest. He chose to remain in state, entering the pressure cooker that comes with being one of Nick Saban’s quarterbacks at a program with the rich history and fervent fan base of Alabama. However, it didn’t take very long for McCarron to prove that he not only fit right in, but he had the makeup to lead. After redshirting in 2009 and caddying for Greg McElroy in 2010, he won the job as a sophomore to set in motion a career that would reverberate throughout the campus, the state and the college football countryside.
“By his second start, we kind of knew AJ was going to be something special,” chimed in Barrett Jones, the current St. Louis Rams lineman who blocked for McCarron for two seasons. “We were at Penn State in Week 2 in front of over 100,000 people. To be honest, we weren’t sure what we’d get from AJ, but he showed incredible poise and confidence for such a young player. He just instills confidence in the people around him. He can be a vocal leader when he needs to be, or he can quietly set the example for the rest of the team. That kid is just a true leader.”
McCarron not only led in a general sense, but he helped lead the Crimson Tide to the 2011 BCS National Championship. And then he did it again in 2012, while pacing the country in passing efficiency. McCarron was habitually accurate with his throws and composed with his decisions throughout the back-to-back title run. In other words, he performed as if he’d been manufactured in some QB laboratory operated by Saban himself. Yet, McCarron still struggled to achieve widespread appreciation and respect. Unfortunately, a quarterback can sometimes be so good for long that he gets taken for granted.
“AJ is not only a proven winner, but he did it in the toughest conference in college football,” said QB Country founder David Morris, who has been teaching McCarron the finer points of the position for years. “Consistency is a hard thing to achieve for a young quarterback, but AJ is great at that. He’s a very intelligent football player, and he has a relentless competitive spirit. He’ll do whatever he has to in order to win a game, and he’s one of the toughest kids I’ve ever seen play quarterback. Smart, tough and clutch—as he prepares for life in the NFL, he reminds me so much of a young Tom Brady.”
McCarron, as has always been his penchant, just kept honing his skills during 2013, his final year in Tuscaloosa. The senior faced three opponents that finished the regular season ranked. His stat line? A sterling 51-of-78 for 790 yards, 10 touchdowns and no interceptions against Texas A&M, LSU and Auburn. McCarron was the nation’s eight-rated passer last fall, skillfully managing all of the added challenges that come with wearing a weekly target on his chest and facing the very best that opponents have to offer.
“AJ just gets better every time he goes out on to the field,” said Michigan offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who was McCarron’s coordinator in Tuscaloosa in 2012 and 2013. “He makes such good decisions on the field, and he’s the kind of big-game performer that a coach wants behind center. I’m just so proud of how he represented his school, his family and his community.”
McCarron was a great quarterback at ‘Bama, with all of the records, titles and honors to back it up. Interestingly enough, he was an even better man, a selfless symbol of goodness that will always transcend the simplicity of a box score or a highlight reel. Maybe it was the accident at such a young. Or maybe it was his upbringing, especially the poignant life lessons learned from his mom Dee Dee Bonner. It was likely both experiences that made the gifted hurler such a compassionate young man, one who uses his celebrity as an opportunity to brighten the lives of others. McCarron, you see, connects with those less fortunate the same way he connects with a wide-open tight end in the back of the end zone. It happens organically and effortlessly.
Years from now, McCarron will still be remembered for his on-field exploits … and his off-field humanity. Crimson Tide fans will recall the touchdown passes, the unwavering pocket poise and the championships. Starla Chapman and A.J. Starr, though, will look back fondly on the other McCarron, the one whose heart is every bit as big as his arm. Chapman was the toddler, stricken with a rare form of cancer, who formed an unlikely bond with McCarron, the young man who’d go on to become her godfather. Starr was the Alabama student with cerebral palsy whose life forever changed when he and McCarron became close friends last year.
There are multiple sides to AJ McCarron, but just one common theme that has prevailed throughout his life. Whether he’s on the football field, the campus or out in the community, you can bank on him positively affecting the lives of those around him. McCarron is a champion, the exceptional kind who can be as impactful with his helmet on as he can when it’s off. Yes, he has permanent residence in the pantheon of great Alabama quarterbacks that includes the likes of Joe Namath, Ken Stabler, Pat Trammell and Jay Barker. But he’s been so much more than just a quarterback at the Capstone since arriving from Mobile five years ago.
Rich Cirminiello is the Director of College Awards for the Maxwell Football Club, and someone who revels in the opportunity to tell each award winner’s unique story.