ALABAMA ROYALTY WITH A CELEBRITY SWEETHEART, AJ MCCARRON ARRIVED IN TUSCALOOSA AS A GUNSLINGER WITH A HARDSCRABBLE PAST AND AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE. NOW HE'S A MASTER OF PASSING EFFICIENCY GUIDING THE TIDE TOWARD AN UNPRECEDENTED THIRD STRAIGHT BCS TITLE—AND TRYING TO GET HIS DUE WHILE CLOSING OUT A CAREER FOR THE AGES
This is an article from the Nov. 25, 2013 issue
IN BIRMINGHAM, IT'S BEEN SAID, THEY LOVE THE GOVERNOR. BUT THROUGHOUT ALABAMA AN EVEN DEEPER LEVEL OF AFFECTION IS RESERVED FOR THE QUARTERBACK OF THE CRIMSON TIDE FOOTBALL TEAM
He is the keeper of a statewide public trust. He is the BMOC of a campus that spans 67 counties. He is the latest in a lineage as indelible as the Tudors or Habsburgs. "You're the quarterback of Alabama and, boy, you know what you're representing," says Joe from the House of Namath, emitting that familiar cackle. "Every day and everywhere you go, you feel the weight of the history and the tradition."
Even so, there are varying levels of endearment. It helps, for instance, when the quarterback is a native of the state—the kind of kid who pronounces Birmingham as Bumminghum, knows the best terrain for four-wheeling and eats at out-of-the-way barbecue joints. "You grow up in Alabama, and the fans feel this extra connection to you," says Jay Barker, earl of Trussville and QB of the 1992 national championship team, now a Bumminghum sports radio host. "For the player, you feel like the ball is in your hands—in every sense."
The fondness for the Bama quarterback grows still more intense when he displays a certain personality—a leader who's also a rebel, the good guy with an edge. Yet love can turn to scorn quicker than you can say Andrew Zow if the Tide doesn't roll. "We had a losing season my junior year, and there was all this talk of how we needed to be rebuilding in the spring," says Namath. "You see, we went 9--2."
All of which is to say, the current king might be more beloved than any of his forebears. Per the tattoo on his chest, senior Raymond Anthony McCarron—nicknamed Ya-Ya, later amended to AJ—is a BAMA BOY. When the Mobile native puts on his Ray-Ban aviators and drives his SUV down single-lane roads that thread the state's piney hinterlands, he relishes every crimson banner flapping from an antenna or a front porch, cherishes all those cursive A's slathered on truck beds and billboards.
A self-proclaimed "reformed gunslinger," McCarron sort of splits the difference between his friend Johnny Manziel and Tim Tebow. He's hardly a bad boy—he has already graduated with a degree in health studies; the next time he gets in trouble will be the first. But McCarron also comes equipped with a streak of defiance. Consider this moment from a recent practice: He was leading "Bamajacks," a team stretching exercise, when he spotted Nick Saban off to the side. "Somebody wake Coach Saban's ass up!" McCarron yelled, mocking the voice and cadence of the sport's most intense and influential figure. "He doesn't seem like he's ready to practice today!"
At the rather significant task of winning football games, McCarron is unrivaled. After a 20--7 victory at Mississippi State last Saturday, top-ranked Bama is 10--0, with McCarron steadily piloting the team toward a third straight national title. In 37 career starts McCarron is an almost risible 35--2—an alltime best for the SEC, the conference that produced the last seven BCS champs. And even after throwing two interceptions last week, his QB rating sits at 162.2, 12th best in the country.
McCarron might be almost as well known for his arm candy as his arm strength, his body ink as his body of work. But let's be clear: He's not just one of the great Alabama quarterbacks. AJ McCarron is on the short list of the most successful players in the history of college football. Even if not many think of him that way.
FAIR WARNING: This paragraph will be the only one devoted to Katherine Webb, who—perhaps you've heard?—is McCarron's girlfriend. A former Miss Alabama USA, Webb, of course, was the subject of Brent Musburger's hyperventilation during last season's BCS championship game victory over Notre Dame. Gauging social media, the revelation of Webb was a bigger story than the revelation that her boyfriend had become the first quarterback since Nebraska's Tommie Frazier in 1994 and '95 to guide his team to back-to-back titles. Webb would go on to star in commercials and grace the pages of a swimsuit issue published by a certain weekly sports magazine. Last January, as Musburger was presumably wiping his chin, he asserted, "Wow, you quarterbacks, you get all the good-looking women."
There's some truth to that. McCarron and Webb became the state's First Couple when a mutual friend thought it was only right that Miss Alabama USA date the Tide QB. But here's the funny part: Not long ago, the idea of McCarron conforming to the stereotype of the privileged jock—grabbing life by the throat, romancing the prettiest girl in the state—was laughable.
The McCarrons drove a Ford F-100 truck with a peeling driver's seat and a hole in the floorboard on the passenger side. The plastic flakes from the peeling seat streaked the back of AJ's shirts, while the dust coming up through the hole stung his eyes. Nothing if not pragmatic, he would emerge from the car at grade school in a poncho and goggles, looking more like Charles Lindbergh than Tom Brady.
For most of McCarron's childhood his family was, as he puts it, "superbroke." Meaning what, exactly? "I grew up in a trailer park for a lot of years. Parents got divorced. Dad bounced around from apartment to apartment. Both [parents] worked two or three jobs to put food on the table. Grandparents had to take care of us. Sometimes the power would be on, but we couldn't pay the cable bill. Other times the phone didn't work. People always robbed our house, taking what little we had. Dad wouldn't care if I told you this: He had to file for bankruptcy. It was hard for us to catch a break."
A luxury entailed going to the dollar theater, catching movies that had been released three months earlier. Otherwise Dee Dee Bonner, AJ's mom, says the family had "scary movie night," when they would buy used VHS tapes, make popcorn and stay home. "What can we afford to do?" AJ would ask his dad, Tony, who always had the same answer: "Well, you can always go to the park and play ball."
So he did. AJ and his younger brother, Corey—now an Alabama tight end—played all sports but gravitated to football. When he stopped growing at 6' 4", AJ was a high-risk, high-reward quarterback who viewed double coverage as a personal affront and liked nothing more than to "put the ball in a window." (This fit his personality. At age five McCarron nearly died in a WaveRunner accident; to this day, one of his favorite activities is ... riding a WaveRunner.)
The book Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer—Warren St. John's anthropological study of the tribe of Alabama Football—told of a father who missed his daughter's wedding to attend the Auburn game. The widely reported story that Tony McCarron may have trumped this, missing Corey's birth to watch Alabama win the 1993 Sugar Bowl, isn't true. But it could have been. "He was at the hospital," says Bonner. "If he'd had tickets, I'm sure he would've gone in a heartbeat."
So when Saban personally recruited AJ, Tony was awestruck. AJ? Not so much. The kid was such a Miami fan that he put Hurricanes floor mats in the family truck (on the side without the hole). When it was time to accept a scholarship, he seriously considered Miami. But the night before national signing day, he told his parents he was going to Oklahoma. After sensing their disappointment, he endured a crisis of conscience, changed his mind and stayed in-state.
McCarron was something other than a star recruit. "It was entirely possible he would never start a game," says Tommy Ford, assistant athletic director for donor programs and Alabama's unofficial football historian. McCarron didn't help his case either. At his first intrasquad scrimmage he was grouped with walk-ons. The defensive starters sacked him early and often. "And," he says, "I was pissed." He didn't even remove his cleats before marching into Saban's office afterward.
"I need to talk to you," he snapped.
"O.K.," said Saban.
"You want me to show you what I can do, how I can play? Well, I can't do s--- when you put me with walk-ons who can't even block. I don't understand why you don't put me with the [starters]."
"Why? Because today we were testing your leadership," Saban said, barely looking up. "And you failed. Miserably."
McCarron shakes his head as he tells the story. "Coming in as an 18-year-old, I probably—definitely—wasn't the wisest."
He redshirted, then played sparingly as a freshman—including a dismal final drive in the 2010 Iron Bowl against Auburn in which he threw four straight incompletions—but won the starting job as a sophomore. "You're gonna love the way this kid competes," Saban told Namath at the time.
Maybe it was Saban's influence. Maybe it was the natural maturing process that—at least every once in a while—visits men as they age from 18 to 23. But in the three years McCarron has been the starting quarterback, watching Alabama is like watching an infomercial for poise and leadership and efficiency.
If there are times when McCarron feels like a typecast actor who wants to show off a fuller depth and range, he won't cop to it. If there are times when offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier orders up short passes and McCarron wishes he could zing 40-yarders on the run, he suppresses the urge. "There's a productivity [with AJ]," says Saban. "It's never, How many yards did I throw for? It's never about making flashy plays or impressing. It's about giving direction, and he does that as well as anyone."
What McCarron calls his "buy in" was a process. But now he talks about the virtues of field position. The importance of layering the running and passing games. The scourge that is a turnover. "Any possession ends with a kick, it's a good one. An extra point, a field goal, a punt—"
Really? Even a punt?
"Yessir. You have to have confidence in your defense, and I have all the confidence in the world in ours."
The unreformed gunslinger can be glimpsed in the locker room, where McCarron delivers impromptu motivational sermons, his brown eyes narrowing and his face growing taut around his thin beard. He can even serve them up on request: "If you're thinking about yourself, money is not going to come like you want it to. If you're thinking about everyone on the team being successful? Then we're all gonna end up with more money than we ever dreamed of.... If you're successful here, you don't have to go search for job offers. Job offers are going to come to you in the state of Alabama when you win. You're gonna have more money off of that—more lifelong opportunities—than you would playing football. The more we win here, the better our future!"
WE'RE WAY beyond the tired debate of whether McCarron is a quarterback or merely a game manager, football's ultimate backhanded compliment. You don't win 95% of your games by robotically executing plays called from the coaches' booth. You don't make the prescient reads and subtle adjustments as a matter of ritual. You don't average one interception every 73.2 attempts as a safety valve.
Still, there is a sense within Alabama that once you get beyond the state lines, McCarron is scandalously underrated. Barker notes that for a player to enter the College Football Hall of Fame he must have been a first-team All-America, an honor that has eluded McCarron so far—and likely will again in 2013. Thus, potentially, the quarterback of an unprecedented three consecutive solo national championship teams—and the MVP of the 2012 victory over LSU—won't even meet the basic criteria for induction. "Ridiculous," says Barker.
"I'm not sure he's ever really gotten his due," says former Bama offensive lineman Barrett Jones, now a Rams rookie. "People say, 'They're such a good team.' Well, yeah, and AJ is a big part of that. You could very easily talk about him as a Heisman Trophy candidate."
This is as good a time as any. For all his success McCarron has yet to be invited to the Heisman ceremony. ("Never been to New York in my life," he says, "and I'm a Yankees fan!") At best, he is a dark-horse candidate this year. By the conventional Heisman metrics, McCarron is not going to elevate eyebrows. He will not often throw for 300 yards the way, say, Manziel, Oregon's Marcus Mariota and Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater will. He's not a dual threat.
Then again, if you want to build a case for McCarron, you could do worse than starting here: He has as many national championships as he does defeats. He holds the Bama record for passing yards (8,184) and touchdowns (70). He has yet to lose a road game. In an offense designed to pick up as much on the ground as in the air, he still tosses for 222.8 yards a game.
Another case against McCarron goes something like this: He is surrounded by great players. And that's true. Three of McCarron's linemen from last year are in the NFL, and their absence is scarcely felt. But so what? Sorry, Mr. Soderbergh, no Oscar nomination for you. Great movie and all, but your cast was too talented.
There's also the rap that McCarron is short on defining moments or cliffhanger heroics. Also true. Even this year's Game of the Century, the Tide's win over Texas A&M, wasn't as close as the 49--42 score suggested. (In that matchup, by the way, McCarron completed 20 of 29 passes for 334 yards and four touchdowns.) Bama has outscored its other nine opponents 339--60, games so lopsided even Tide fans leave early. Again, so what? Doesn't this domination support McCarron's credentials, not undercut them? Says Saban, "Just evaluate him in terms of winning, in terms of affecting our success, which is what it should be about anyway."
McCarron doesn't help his Heisman case in the marketing department. No fun nicknames, no self-aggrandizement. Heisman campaigns are so often lousy with gimmicks: cereal boxes and fake album covers and bars of chocolate touting a player's candidacy. What's Bama have in store to trumpet McCarron? "I think we'll probably send emails [to voters]," says Josh Maxson, the school's associate director for athletic communications. Emails? "You know, with bullet points highlighting what he's done. Look, we feel like we're on TV enough, people know what AJ is about."
FROM THE consistency to the selflessness to the appreciation of good defense, McCarron is the ideal extension of Saban on the field. Both player and coach cop to an extraordinarily close relationship. Recently a Tide assistant leaned on McCarron to ask Saban to change the practice time. "You're the only one he listens to," the coach lamented. McCarron, sheepishly, admits that there's some truth there: "Everybody is, like, scared to talk to him or something. I don't know why."
Asked about McCarron, Saban starts and restarts his answer, choosing his words carefully. Asked how he would characterize his relationship with his quarterback, Saban pauses awkwardly. "How do you mean?"
Well, he says he's closer to you than any adult besides his parents—
"Yeah, that's where I thought you were going, and I didn't know whether to say it, but ... yeah."
Which doesn't mean McCarron is afraid to challenge Saban's authority. "If I know something should be done different—or if I think something should be done different—I'm going to tell him, and he's going to respect me."
The bond between player and coach is further strengthened by their shared status as statewide icons. Saban is the only person in Alabama whose celebrity aura rivals that of the starting Crimson Tide quarterback. "It's not always easy," says Saban, "but he's managed it in a real charismatic way." The difference is that the coach can go into Belichickian mode and repair to his football fortress, his residential neighborhood or his cabin by a lake in northern Georgia. A senior who just wants to enjoy the trappings of college life doesn't have that luxury.
Then again, it's not that McCarron wants to insulate himself from the adoring public. Asked what he would like the average fan to know about him, he doesn't hesitate to answer: "I'm a nice guy. I'm never mean to anyone. I think I'm fun to be around. If I can spend five minutes with anybody, I think they would like me." Then he sighs, before continuing. "One thing that's kinda sad: Everyone nowadays is so opinion-oriented. People see I have tattoos, so they post, 'Nice tattoos, you piece of s---.' Really? Get to know me. Other people write me, 'I saw you and was scared to come up.' You don't have to be scared. I'm a normal person."
His approach: "I've always tried to get out and show my face," he says. "That way I'm just an everyday guy, and it's not so crazy." Except when it is. Days before Halloween, for instance, McCarron used his Twitter account to seek a recommendation for a haunted house. He then wrote: "Headed to Sloss Furnace and Warehouse 31 tonight with the crew @BenTparr @_KatherineWebb & lil bro @CoreyMcCarron47." This was somewhat akin to the Beatles announcing their whereabouts in the Liverpool Daily Post. Sure enough a phalanx of Alabama residents headed to Sloss Furnace and Warehouse 31. Suffice it to say they were not principally there to see @BenTparr & lil bro @CoreyMcCarron47, or even @_KatherineWebb. The fans asked for photos and they got them. As @KendallJones16 gushed: "HOLY CRAP I WAS A FOOT AWAY FROM AJ MCCARRON. LITERALLY DYING."
If she was literally dying, imagine how A.J. Starr felt. Starr, 21, has profound cerebral palsy and is a hard-core Tide fan; he would often peer through a hole in the fence at the team's practice facility to catch a glimpse of the players. After a rainy practice last year Starr tried to flag a bus to go home, but he couldn't walk quickly enough and the bus pulled away. McCarron saw this unfold from his truck as he left the practice facility. He pulled up alongside Starr, rolled down the window and asked the kid if he needed a ride.
"I had this huge smile," Starr recalls, "and was like, 'I'll take a ride.' "
"I'm AJ," said McCarron. "Nice to meet you, man."
"I know who you are. I'm a big Alabama fan. My name is A.J. too."
The two talked about football and Tuscaloosa and cerebral palsy. "When I dropped him off, I started bawling," says McCarron. "Here's this kid who has this disorder, and all he wanted to do was watch us practice." When he got back to his off-campus apartment, McCarron called Joe Pannunzio, Alabama's director of football operations, and told him about the encounter. "Can we get him a job here?" McCarron asked. "Maybe he can help in the weight room or something? Equipment room? Doing laundry. Something?"
So it is that A.J. Starr—tremors be damned—has spent the last year on the sideline for each Crimson Tide practice and home game, a volunteer member of the equipment staff.
COMPARING AND contrasting McCarron with his quarterback predecessors has become something of a parlor game in Alabama. He's way too measured to be Ken Stabler 2.0. (Aside: If you want to have fun with the citizenry of Tuscaloosa, ask them to envision Stabler in the age of Instagram.) Namath doesn't quite work either. Two different types of quarterback; two different risk thresholds. Ford, the historian, likens McCarron in style and personality to Pat Trammell, who guided the Crimson Tide to an 11-0-0 season in 1961, the first of Bear Bryant's six national championships. All poise and precision, Trammell—who died of cancer at 28—was a Bryant favorite, a born leader who chose medical school over the NFL.
This exercise, though, lays bare an inconvenient truth: For all the success to wash over the Tide—as many as 15 titles, depending on your standards—the program has been something other than an incubator for great quarterbacks. Sure, there was Bart Starr, Namath and Stabler. But over the last, say, 40 years you'd be hard-pressed to find a former Bama quarterback who made much of an impact in the NFL.
The draft soothsayers are split on whether McCarron will break the streak. On the one hand he does have the size (6' 4", 214 pounds) and the arm strength; Barker sees McCarron as a potential Tom Brady. A scout for an AFC team, unauthorized to speak on the record, thinks McCarron could be this draft's equivalent of Joe Flacco, a "classic pocket guy who makes good decisions."
On the other hand McCarron lacks the speed to be a dual-threat quarterback. ESPN's Todd McShay drew the ire of an entire state—including @_KatherineWebb—when he questioned McCarron's ability to make long throws, pegging McCarron as a "third-tier" prospect.
Namath hears this and laughs. "Everything AJ has shown has been positive," he says. "He's productive in the right way. He's excelled under pressure. He plays well in big games. He's a leader. He's carried himself beautifully. He's going to go into those interviews and wow them. He'll be successful [in the NFL], and anyone who knows football knows why."
McCarron wants no part of the discussion. "I don't need to be worried about what Todd McShay thinks or Mel Kiper thinks on where I'm gonna be drafted. Last time those guys ever drafted anybody was never."
Nor does he want anything to do with the prospective agents slithering around the program, having directed them to Saban. "I don't talk to [them]," says McCarron. "There's no reason to. It's mental clutter you don't need. What's an agent going to do for me right now? He's not going to help me throw the football."
And he says he hasn't given thought to whatever riches await. Before the BCS championship game last season Saban called McCarron to his office to discuss the possibility of his entering the NFL draft. "I'm like, I'm not going anywhere, so we don't even need to talk about it," says McCarron. "I walked out." For whatever hard economic times he had growing up, he wants no sympathy. For a postgraduate course he is taking in consumer science, McCarron recently took a survey. "There were a bunch of questions like, Do you ever wish you could undo your past?" he says. "I was in the top 30th percentile of people who looked back in a good way."
The money can wait. The opportunity to win that third straight national championship will never again present itself. Neither will the chance to be King of the Crimson, sharing Roll Tides with strangers on the street, drawing a crowd when you take your friends and your girlfriend to the haunted house. "Can you believe it's all winding down? Only a few more times running out of that tunnel," he says, his voice trailing off.
There are the small moments, too, like one after a practice at Bama's indoor facility last month. As McCarron bent down, multiple teammates tossed footballs at him simultaneously. Everyone laughed. McCarron caught one and held his opposite arm out to ward off the others. And damn if the pose struck by the most popular player in all of Alabama didn't recall the figure of a certain college football trophy.