ESPN The Mag: AJ McCarron's Drive For The Heisman Trophy
Prim Siripipat and David Fleming discuss AJ McCarron's drive for the Heisman Trophy and his horrific accident as a child.
IN THE DIM light under the southeast stands of Tiger Stadium, AJ McCarron and his family linger in a tight circle. The Alabama team bus idles nearby, waiting as they hug and laugh, then hug some more, not wanting the moment to end. But soon McCarron has to dash off through Gate 11 to rejoin his team for the trip back to Tuscaloosa. He hasn't even boarded the bus yet and already his mom, Dee Dee Bonner, has pulled out her white iPhone and is scrolling through pictures. Family members huddle in, leaning their chins over her shoulder and craning their necks from the side. They ooh and aah as she weaves through her camera roll, flipping past shots of AJ on his third birthday dressed in a full replica of Joe Namath's Alabama uniform before she lands on the picture she's after. "Here it is," she announces, relieved and proud, turning the phone around for the group to see.
At first glance, the photo looks like nothing more than a 3-year-old mop-topped McCarron wagging his tongue like a tiny Michael Jordan while holding
He's showing off his Heisman pose.
THE OUTSIDE WORLD might have thought McCarron's first true "Heisman moment" came earlier that evening, when the teary-eyed quarterback sprinted across the field and into the arms of his family, having just guided Alabama on a game-winning 72-yard touchdown drive for the ages. But that was simply the Hollywood ending McCarron had been dreaming of since age 3. "It was only a week ago that AJ called us so excited and said, 'Can you believe I'm even being mentioned in the Heisman race?'" says his dad, Tony McCarron, a Mobile firefighter who is divorced from AJ's mom. "And without thinking, I said back to him, 'No, son, to be honest, I cannot believe it either.'"
Even so, Tony knew it would be a long shot for his son to become the first Alabama QB since Jay Barker in 1994 to make it to New York as a Heisman finalist. Yes, AJ, only a junior, headed into the LSU game with the nation's highest passer rating, with 1,684 yards, 18 TDs and a school-record 262 attempts without an interception. Somehow, though, he still couldn't shake the stigma of "game manager" that goes with playing for old-fashioned defensive guru Nick Saban. Besides, as November rolled around, the Heisman race had mostly become a chase to sit beside Kansas State QB Collin Klein at the ceremony. But then came the LSU game.
"You know how they say that every player who dreams of winning the Heisman needs to have that one game, that one moment?" says Tony. "Well, I sure believe AJ has his now."
What has been called the McCarron Miracle, a drive even praise-averse Saban admitted he would never forget, started with Alabama down 17-14
McCarron started the drive with three straight completions to junior receiver Kevin Norwood, systematically destroying both the LSU defense and his reputation as an offensive afterthought. It's a label the 6'4", 210-pound McCarron, a prep All-American at St. Paul's Episcopal School in Mobile, had been stuck with since his time as a Bama backup during his redshirt freshman year in 2010. That season, inserted in a mop-up roll with a 27-3 lead against Mississippi State, McCarron was on the receiving end of a now-infamous tongue-lashing from Saban. The tirade, which became something of a YouTube sensation, lasted for more than 20 seconds and was punctuated at the end with an angry roundhouse butt slap from the coach, all because the young QB had dared to throw deep instead of checking down to a safer option underneath.
McCarron spent most of 2011 handing off dutifully to star running back Trent Richardson. "People nowadays love to see the ball being slung around and everything, but that's not our style of play," says an older, wiser McCarron. "I'm going to -- like what Coach always says -- take what the defense gives me and eventually, like our old saying, they will give you the game."
To both Saban's and McCarron's credit, that's exactly what LSU did. Every Friday night, the Alabama offense concludes its preparations by studying its
Overcome with emotion, McCarron rolled uncontrollably across the turf at
It hadn't just been the 3-year-old McCarron dreaming of that moment. Back on his mother's iPhone, Dee Dee Bonner reveals a second gallery of photographs, only these are far less joyous than the Heisman-pose pics she showed off earlier. They reveal a 5-year-old McCarron in a hospital bed with the left side of his face caved in, a thick railroad-track scar stretching across the top of his skull from ear to ear. McCarron had been riding a new WaveRunner on Dog River in Alabama with his father when AJ accidentally hit the throttle, shooting him into a wooden pier. When Bonner arrived at the hospital, AJ was being prepped for emergency surgery; she was told to seek out a grief counselor and prepare herself for the worst. Bonner distinctly remembers sitting in the hospital waiting room, making the decision in her head to bury her son in his all-star baseball uniform, rather than in a suit.
Miraculously, though, doctors successfully inserted five metal plates into his skull and used cartilage from behind AJ's ear to reconstruct his shattered face. (You can still see the scars above his left ear when he removes his helmet.) Tests also revealed that AJ had not suffered any brain damage or vision loss. Looking back at those photos in the aftermath of the improbable win over LSU, Bonner can't help but rejoice in the moment. "This event definitely changed me," says Bonner. "Maybe this was part of a celebration that AJ has overcome so much."
It's around midnight when McCarron finally boards the Alabama bus,