Tragedy to triumph: AJ McCarron's 25 years shaped by series of special moments

CINCINNATI -- It was a moment like any other.

AJ McCarron's dad and a friend had just purchased a pair of WaveRunners. Anxious to take theirs out for a spin one hot August Sunday in their native Mobile, Alabama, Tony McCarron, his 5-year-old son AJ and one of AJ's cousins dropped the watercraft into nearby Dog River, a Mobile Bay estuary that features a series of sharp turns and low-built piers. They jumped on board to see what it could do.

Minutes later, little AJ was floating face down in the river with his left eye dangling out its socket, and other parts of his face crushed by the impact of a sudden, high-speed collision.

His life appeared to be ending just three weeks shy of his sixth birthday.

"Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don't resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like."

Early sixth-century Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu is purported to have said those words. They describe the way McCarron has attacked the past 20 years of his life. Whatever obstacles he has had to overcome -- whether it was clinging to life, or dealing with the misguided taunts of kids who made fun of the deep scar on the top of his head, or becoming an adult who made it out of an area where drugs ruined so many lives -- he's found different ways past them.

Moments have defined McCarron to this point and the bigger ones are seeped in tragedy and triumph. By the end of this weekend, he hopes to experience the latter once again. When his Cincinnati Bengals face the Pittsburgh Steelers in a wild-card round playoff game Saturday night, McCarron could become the first quarterback to lead the franchise to an opening-round playoff win since Boomer Esiason did it in January 1991; four months after McCarron was born.

"I'm taking it one day at a time. That's the only way I know how," McCarron said earlier this week. "I'm not the kind of person to say, 'What if?' I don't think into the future or live in the past. It's just the present right now, and I'm having fun with it."

That may be the case, but this story has to do with his past, specifically Aug. 20, 1996.

"When I first got the phone call," AJ's mother, Dee Dee McCarron, said, "it was painted to me that he wasn't as injured as he was. I guess that was to get me to the hospital safely. They just said he bumped his head. So I kind of thought to myself, 'This guy is just coming off baseball All-Stars and he's a phenomenal athlete, but he can't walk without falling down, apparently.'"

She later learned that wasn't the case.

For a while during their river ride, the McCarrons were following a marine patrol boat as they went in and out of Mobile Bay. At one point, the patrol boat turned to go in the opposite direction. As it was coming back out of the river, Tony McCarron was steering back in at about 50 mph. As he hit a wave in the boat's wake, the exposed propeller of the WaveRunner crashed into a buoy.

AJ was riding on the front part of the WaveRunner, holding the interior portion of the steering column. His dad and cousin were on the water craft's actual seat. Once they all started wobbling in the water after hitting the buoy, young AJ panicked and moved his hands to the handlebars. When he did, he inadvertently sent the WaveRunner into a faster gear, causing them to take off and tilt airborne, up and out of the water.

Tony McCarron sensed impending disaster and started throwing the kids off in order to minimize the effects of a pending crash.

AJ's cousin was first to get tossed. Then AJ.

When he was whipped off, AJ's little body skipped the top of the water before slamming face first into a nearby pier.

Medics rushed to the scene, and got there even quicker when they found out the injured was the son of one of their firefighting colleagues.

"I don't doubt at all that the doctors and the people that were able to get there quickly and load him up [helped]," Dee Dee said. "It was an effort of lots of people. He shouldn't be here and he is. God has a plan for him."

Dee Dee saw that proved in the hours after the accident.

Moments after arriving at Mobile's Children's and Women's Hospital, doctors prepped her for the worst-case scenario. She was given the contact information of grief counselors, and told to start making funeral arrangements.

"I remember thinking, he wouldn't want to be buried in a suit," Dee Dee said. "And it's such a morbid thought when I think about it now, but it's just that you're in a fog and I said, 'I guess I have to bury him in his All-Star uniform.' I thought that he would be happy."

All she could see was AJ in his No. 24 jersey, a number inspired by his love for future Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr.

Six days after his hospital admission, though, AJ's moment of survival had been fully realized. He still was alive, well and miraculously ready to be discharged.

Procedures placed 58 stitches, eight metal plates and six screws into his face. Cartilage from his ears had been removed and stuffed underneath his left eye to give the socket support as the eye was re-set.

"They unwrapped his head before he went home and I said, 'Do you want to see?' He was like, 'Yes, ma'am.' So I carried him to the mirror and we looked in the mirror together and he just started crying," Dee Dee said between sniffles and short sobs of her own.

She paused.

"It doesn't matter how long I go from it, I still do this."

As hard as it was for young AJ to see the scar that resulted from a surgical cut doctors made, there was much for the McCarrons to be thankful for. Not only was he alive, but the brain damage fears doctors once had, disappeared. Vision tests also determined his ability to see wouldn't be affected, either. He would come out of the ordeal just fine, and they felt a year later, he'd be allowed to play sports again.

Only ... he couldn't wait that long. Seven months later, in March 1997, AJ was playing basketball and back to being a normal kid.

Among his immediate post-accident experiences were constant taunts about his scar -- "railroad tracks" was a favorite for some of his kindergarten and elementary school classmates -- but in time he moved beyond them. Eventually, he decided the long hair he once grew to cover up the scar had to go. Throughout his college and NFL-playing days, McCarron has sported a low haircut that prominently shows off the scar when his hair is sweaty or wet.

"It's a daily reminder for AJ looking in the mirror and seeing that scar," his wife, former Sports Illustrated model Katherine McCarron said. "He wasn't always the most popular kid in school because of it so he's very able to identify with kids who are going through similar situations because of [their appearance]. That's a really awesome thing for someone who's in the limelight to be able to relate to kids that way."

Before too long, AJ's moments of sadness and anguish turned into ones of success.

His collegiate feats have been well documented with two national championships, but he was a winner before that, too. He won a Little League football championship; including one that came while playing for a team whose home field was across the water from the pier McCarron slammed into a couple of years before. He also played a key role on a dominant city park-league basketball team. He quarterbacked a middle school football championship, and led his high school to a state title.

Now, in this moment Saturday, just four starts into his professional career, McCarron has a chance to lead the Bengals to a monumental win.

"He won the Punt, Pass and Kick for our area at one point after [the accident], and I remember thinking, 'This kid shouldn't be here and he's doing this,'" Dee Dee said. "This proves he's a fighter. Coaches have said he's got a linebacker's mentality and he does. He doesn't back down. He's up to any challenge. He's been doubted a lot and overlooked at times when I don't think he should have been, but in the end, he's going to come out and do things the right way and be the better for it, and so will others around him."