The Evolut10n of AJ

The rumors you’ve heard about AJ McCarron are probably true. Those who know the 23-year-old Mobile native will tell you he is a mama’s boy. He remains unashamed of the fact that he was raised in and around trailer parks. You may have heard his name connected to a former Miss Alabama USA. If you have Internet access, you’ve likely seen the ink work across his chest and the punch lines it has inspired. [1]

More malicious than these, perhaps, is the accusation that the St. Paul’s product owes his success to the best supporting cast in college football. No doubt, McCarron has security clearance to an arsenal of high-caliber weapons. He will likely go all season without giving the ball to a teammate who earned less than four stars as a high-school recruit. [2] Sophomore running back T.J. Yeldon, from Daphne, joined the quarterback on many preseason Heisman Trophy watch lists. All of this has led some critics to name-calling. Game manager, they chide. Spoiled. A beneficiary of his surroundings. Names that, earlier in life, would have been among the least expected labels to hang on the kid from D.I.P.

John David Mercer – USA Today Sports Images

Others complain that McCarron has turned perfectionism into a fetish, another droid in coach Nick Saban’s cyborg army. They point to last year’s BCS National Championship Game, when the quarterback got in the face of his Outland Trophy-winning center with seven minutes left in a game the Tide was leading 42 – 14. Yet, when Alabama’s offense scores, its excitable leader streaks downfield like the cannon he was shot from set fire to his head. The fifth-year senior wears his heart on his sleeve, 251 on his wristband and a four-inch scar under his helmet from a Jet Ski accident which nearly took his life 18 years ago. [3] Adversity and imperfection have never been strangers.

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But McCarron is the Bay area’s own, loyal and stubborn as Dauphin Island itself. Since his arrival in Tuscaloosa, he has trimmed the hair out of his eyes and matured from a gunslinger into a marksman. McCarron enters October with sights set on the Crimson Tide’s third-straight BCS National Championship. Lucky for him, it’s hard to hear the rumors over all that gunfire.

[1] McCarron’s mother, Dee Dee Bonner, calls the tattoo “a little bigger than I would have designed for him.” She adds: “AJ never expressed interest in a tattoo so I was surprised that he even wanted one. But if he is happy with it, I am happy with it.”

[2] McCarron himself was rated a four-star recruit on during his senior year at St. Paul’s Episcopal School.

[3] After McCarron was thrown off the watercraft into a piling on Dog River, doctors at USA Children’s and Women’s Hospital informed his parents their 5-year-old had a slim chance of survival. If he did, they said, vision loss or brain damage was all but assured. “I remember thinking, ‘I guess I’ll bury him in his all-star baseball uniform, ’” says Bonner. The surgery required six metal plates and 58 staples across his head. McCarron not only survived but experienced neither vision loss nor brain damage and was back playing baseball the next spring.


Left: As a preschooler, little AJ strikes the Heisman pose. In certain circles, his name is nearing the top of this season’s trophy list. Right: McCarron in one of his earliest seasons, playing at Trimmier Park. 

Photos Courtesy Dee Dee Bonner

You attended Our Lady of Lourdes for elementary school and often say you’re from D.I.P. Did you grow up in that area?
Yeah, I lived in a trailer park on D.I.P. I think it was called Bay Area Trailer Park,  across the street from that grocery store that used to be there. Was it Fretwell’s? There was a Quincy’s right there and a Shoney’s, across from that BP. I grew up there for a little bit; then we moved to Gill Road, which is right by a trailer park. Our house was broken into all the time. I’d never change anything, but it wasn’t the best of areas.

Were you the best athlete on the playground?
I was always athletic, really athletic. But that’s it. I was decent at football. I don’t know if I was the best. I could never tell growing up. My favorite sport, and the one I was probably best at, was basketball.

I’ve always heard you were a talented baseball player.
People told me I was better at baseball than I am at football. But I was extremely good at basketball.

So how did you choose football?
I don’t know. I just stuck with it. I played forever at Trimmier Park. I think from age 3 or 4 to like 8. Then I went to Municipal Park. Trimmier was starting to get run down. All the families that we grew up with were moving. We didn’t think we had enough players for our team, so I ended up having to go find another park to play at. So my mom and dad, we all moved out toward Tillman’s Corner. I think it was Dante’s Court, right by Cottage Hill Park. I played at Municipal for a couple of years and from there went to St. Paul’s. One of the coaches came to watch me play park ball and told me they wanted me to come to St. Paul’s and play football.

Was that when you first realized you were getting attention other players weren’t?
Probably it was when I went to Municipal. They had lost in the championship game like two or three years in a row to the Navco Park Vikings. I came over there, and we won it three years in a row while I was there. So after the first year we won it, a buzz started going around town. You’d go to a park and people would come out there to watch you, and you knew they were coming to watch you. There were big crowds at our games, just for little kids. [4] You could hear people talking. Word on the street, I guess. And then all the coaches from St. Paul’s and other high schools started coming, so I knew something was up.

[4] Among those “little kids” on McCarron’s Municipal Park Raiders team: five future Division I football commits (McCarron, Mark Barron, Destin Hood, Ivan Matchett to Alabama; and Louis Watson to Mississippi State).


McCarron accepted a scholarship and tranferred to St. Paul’s, where he won a state championship in 2007.

Courtesy M & A Studios

What coaches in Mobile have had the biggest influence on you?
At a young age, it was Billy Nicholas and Tony Terrell. They coached me at Municipal the whole time and taught me a lot about the game. When I got to high school at St. Paul’s, Coach Eddie Guth was a great head coach for me, and Coach Tyler Siskey, who’s up at Alabama with me now, was my offensive coordinator. My last head coach was Coach Mike Bates, and he was unbelievable. I just learned something from everybody. They all helped me become a better man and better myself in life. They taught me the right way. I could never thank them enough.

Did you ever go to the Senior Bowl growing up?
We went every year! I don’t think there’s been a year I haven’t been. Growing up in Mobile, that’s like the main event. Everybody in the city goes down there, parties all week long. Dad and his friends used to set up a trailer so we could all go hang out and watch the game. I was a Miami fan growing up, so I always waited for somebody from the Hurricanes to come through. It was always a blast to go to the Senior Bowl.

What would it mean for you to get to play in it?
I’d love it. It’s been a while, five years, since I played in Ladd. The last time was a nice going-away present, I guess, because it was the Alabama-Mississippi All-Star game, and I was MVP of the game. [5] It was pretty cool to win an award like that and be a part of such an awesome game for my last one there. It’d definitely be an honor to go back to my hometown and be able to play in the Senior Bowl.

[5] The Alabama All-Star team won the game 28 – 3. McCarron finished 9-of-17 for 162 yards and two touchdowns, both caught by Murphy High School graduate Raphael Poellnitz.

Are there any high school games that still stick with you the most?
I loved playing against McAdory my sophomore year. The game was at McAdory, and it was the third round of the playoffs. McAdory was really good both that year and the year before, and there was a lot of talk about that game and how they were going to beat us. It was supposed to be the biggest crowd they ever had. We went up there and put a whoopin’ on them. I think Destin Hood and I had five touchdowns together. We gained like 418 yards. McAdory had a good offense and ran a lot of trick plays out of the wing-T. I threw a touchdown pass to Destin Hood with maybe eight seconds left to win it. That was one of my most memorable moments, probably my favorite game of my high school career. [6]

[6] According to the Press-Register’s coverage of the game, McCarron and Hood combined for four touchdowns, the last of which put St. Paul’s ahead 38 – 31 with 1:37 left in the game. The Saints’ offense gained 432 yards, with McCarron passing for 259 of those.


Coach Nick Saban wades through the media frenzy to share a congratulatory hug with his quarterback following the BCS National Championship game win.

Courtesy University of Alabama Athletic Department

What was your first meeting with Coach Saban like?
I can’t even remember the first time. I remember when he officially offered me though; it’s a pretty funny story. I want to say it was before they played Tennessee at home, maybe ’07 or ’08. We were in his office — me, my dad, one of my dad’s best friends and his son, Zack — sitting there. Coach Saban went through all his talking and was like, “We want to officially offer you a scholarship to play here. Blah, blah, blah.” It wasn’t a big deal to me, just because other schools were doing the same thing. [7] I mean I was happy. Like I said, I wasn’t an Alabama fan growing up, but my dad and his friend, who I call my uncle, were going crazy. My dad’s friend slapped my dad and said, “This is a dream come true. Are you listening to this? Incredible!” Coach Saban, at the end, asked if we had any questions. I just said, “Uh-uh, I don’t have anything.” Dad said, “I got one. Do you want me to hug you now or hug you later?” Coach Saban gave him a look, like, “Don’t touch me.” He ended up walking out. My dad didn’t give him a hug.

[7] Other schools to officially offer McCarron a football scholarship: Oklahoma, Miami (Fla.), Auburn, Ole Miss, Tennessee, Florida State, Georgia, West Virginia and Purdue.

If the NFL weren’t an option, what would you go into?
If God blesses me enough to play in the NFL, that’d be awesome. But at the end of the day, I want to coach back in Mobile. It’d be cool to coach at my high school. I would love to have the opportunity to be the athletic director and the head football coach at the school I played at.

There were reports you spoke to the UMS-Wright football team before they played their big rivalry game against St. Paul’s. Did that happen?
Yeah, I think it was 2011. My dad’s always been good friends with [UMS-Wright Head] Coach Terry Curtis, and I had friends from UMS, like Brandon Gibson and Preston Dial, who played football at Alabama. Coach Curtis had asked Brandon to come speak to the team, and I was with him. So Coach Curtis said, “AJ, you want to say anything?” I just told them a quick message and to play hard. That was it. It wasn’t a long talk. [8] I had asked to come speak to the St. Paul’s team before the big game, since I was home, but the coach they had at the time — I can’t even remember who it was — said, “We’ll have 30 seconds for you.” After everything I gave for that school, I was like, “That’s all?” I kind of felt disrespected. But since then, my dad and my family members have a better relationship with St. Paul’s. Mr. (Marty) Lester, the headmaster, has always done a really good job of keeping me involved and a part of everything. I could never say enough about Mr. Lester. He’s an unbelievable guy.

[8] The St. Paul’s Saints won that game over the UMS-Wright Bulldogs, 36 – 6.

McCarron shakes hands with President Obama at the White House. No. 10 presented the commander-in-chief with a jersey emblazoned with a No. 15, in honor of the University of Alabama’s 15th national title.

Courtesy University of Alabama Athletic Department

Did you get to speak with President Obama during your visits to the White House? What did you two talk about?
In 2011, I talked a pretty good bit with him. He told me he was proud of me. Then he said good luck in the following season. This past time, he gave me a big shout-out during his speech, so that was pretty cool. [9] I respect him to the fullest. When the President of the United States gives you a shout-out like that — it’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever been a part of. So afterwards, I told him thank you, and he told me again he was really proud of me. He said, “Man, I can’t believe you returned. I can’t wait to watch you again.” Then he wished me good luck and said he hoped he saw me one more time.

[9] Said Obama, on the south portico of the White House: “AJ McCarron showed the kind of poise that very few 22-year-olds possess — passing for more than 2, 900 yards and 30 touchdowns on the season. I hear he’s coming back for one more year, because apparently the rest of the SEC defenses haven’t suffered enough. So he’s going to subject them to a little more pain.” The year before, the president put on the quarterback’s national championship ring to pose for a picture.

When you play college football video games, do you play as yourself?
You know what? I don’t ever play with Alabama. That’s a rule I’ve made for myself. When you grow up, you create yourself as a player the whole time, so when I finally made it onto the game, I just made a promise not to use myself. I usually find a team with a faster quarterback than me. [10]

[10] Though EA Sports’ NCAA Football 2014 ranked McCarron (or QB #10, as he is known on the game) a 97 overall, he was only given a 76 rating for speed. By comparison, QB #2 for Texas A&M (last year’s Heisman recipient, Johnny Manziel) received a speed rating of 91.

Mother and son celebrate following the Tide’s 2011 Iron Bowl win. Bonner reflects on the second chance she’s been given with AJ: “God had a plan for him to survive [the accident]. It put things in perspective. It taught him that football is just a game. It’s a battlefield when he’s out there, but there are people battling much more serious things – bigger causes. We’re thankful for this opportunity.”

John David Mercer – USA Today Sports Images

What’s hanging on the walls in your room?
Pictures of my family. Pictures of my little brothers. [11] I’ve got two plaques from the national championship game. There’s a picture of me holding the BCS MVP plaque and another one Coach Nuss [UA offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier] and his family gave me. It’s a picture of me and his oldest son, Garrett, hugging after the national championship game. I picked him up. And, of course, there’s a cross. I’ve always got a cross in my room.

[11] AJ is the oldest of four boys. Corey McCarron, 20, is currently an H-back on the Tide football team. Gage Bonner, 12, and Cory “Coco” Bonner, 10, both play youth football in Mobile.

When a kid in Mobile drops back in his backyard, says he’s AJ McCarron and throws a touchdown pass, what’s his next move?
After a touchdown, I usually sprint to the end zone and start slapping my head for some reason. I don’t know why. I guess it’s just a habit. My teammates joke with me, and some of the fans on Twitter started doing a dance called “McCarroning.” I don’t know where they got that one but they’ll run and slap themselves in the head, going crazy.

What places do you try to visit when you come home?
Every once in a while, I like going back to my roots on D.I.P. to just check out the scenery, look back on old times. Other than that, I like to just come home and chill with my family. I’m a big family person. I don’t really like going out and trying to make new friends — people that have never been there for me since the beginning and just want to be there right now. I kind of stick to the people I know really love me, not just for being the QB on Saturdays, but for the person I am.

What do you hope Mobilians say when they talk about you?
That I was a good kid who represented the city of Mobile in a good way. I want them to say, “He helped a lot of people in the city and wasn’t just about himself.” I always try to do charity work, especially with USA Children’s and Women’s Hospital. [12] Mobile has given me a lot, a lot of opportunities. Hopefully, when my playing days are over, I can come back and help even more.

[12] On Christmas Eve 2011, as McCarron was visiting patients at USA Children’s and Women’s Hospital, he formed an immediate bond with cancer patient Starla Chapman. The 4-year-old gave the quarterback a bracelet he wore in the national championship game two weeks later. Shortly after their meeting, Starla’s heart was working at only 6 percent capacity, and doctors did not expect her to survive. Since then, she has made a magnificent recovery. Starla began kindergarten in Bay Minette this August, and her family stays in close contact with McCarron, who is now her godfather.

Text by Ellis Metz

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