Alabama native McCarron excelling amid unrelenting pressure
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- AJ McCarron hates talking about the tears. So few understood what they meant. "So many people acted like that's the first time any athlete's ever cried," the Alabama quarterback said.
Yes, tears rolled down McCarron's face as he hugged his father, Tony, and his mother, Dee Dee Bonner, minutes after McCarron led the Crimson Tide on a drive for the ages to beat LSU at Tiger Stadium on Nov. 3. When former Alabama quarterback Brodie Croyle saw them, he immediately understood. "Those tears you saw at the end of the game, there was no show about that," Croyle said. "Those tears were from the gut." You had to grow up in Alabama, as Croyle and McCarron did, to truly appreciate those tears. They held more than water and a little salt. They also carried joy and relief.
Playing quarterback at Alabama is one of the toughest jobs in sports. It isn't only because Bart Starr, Joe Namath and Ken Stabler set the standards for the position decades ago. Every Alabama quarterback is the caretaker of a sacred trust. They're never asked to throw for 400 yards per game. They are expected to stay poised, run the offense the coaches have drawn up and -- when all else has failed, as it did in the LSU game -- perform miracles. "You get to Alabama, and the same responsibility as a quarterback is there, but now there is this intense pressure that your job is not to manage a game," said Jay Barker, who led Alabama to a 35-2-1 record as the starter from 1992-94 and who, like McCarron, led the Crimson Tide to a national title as a redshirt sophomore. "Your job is to manage championships."
Entering the BCS title game against Notre Dame, McCarron is 24-2 as the starter. He has thrown for 5,692 career yards. He has one SEC title and one national title. If he stays healthy through the 2013 season, he probably will leave Alabama as its winningest starter and all-time passing yardage leader. He also may wind up being better than any of the legends who came before him at managing those championships.
Unlike the Namaths and Greg McElroys, who came to Alabama from other states, native quarterbacks understand the obsession with Alabama football. "You go to church, they want to talk to you about it," Barker said. "You go to school, they want to talk to you about it. I could go to Sunday dinner at my grandmother's house, and if we weren't winning, it's like, 'What's wrong?' ... When you've grown up in it your entire life, you understand how important it is 365 days a year for the fans."
McCarron learned early how Alabama fans simultaneously revere and revile their quarterbacks. "I've seen it my whole life," McCarron said. "My dad, he was That Fan when I was growing up. As soon as a player messed up, he started dogging him." McCarron laughed as he recalled introducing his father to former Tide starters Croyle and Tyler Watts. The elder McCarron, sitting in front of his TV years earlier, had made several calls for each quarterback to be replaced.
Those introductions almost never took place. To fully comprehend McCarron's tears that November night in Baton Rouge, they must first be placed in context alongside Bonner's tears on a February night in Mobile in 2009. That night, Tony McCarron and Bonner asked their son which college the former St. Paul's Episcopal School star would sign with the following day. "I told my parents I was going to Oklahoma," AJ McCarron said. AJ had grown up a Miami fan in a family full of Alabama fans. Tony repeatedly reminded AJ of the time Alabama beat Miami in the Sugar Bowl to win the 1992 national title. AJ was two when it happened; Tony missed the birth of AJ's younger brother to attend the game. AJ had considered the Hurricanes, the home state Crimson Tide and the Sooners, and on the night before National Signing Day, Oklahoma offensive coordinator Josh Heupel had outrecruited Alabama coach Nick Saban. When Bonner heard her son's choice, she cried. Tony supported the decision, but he said harsh financial realities might force AJ to play some games without his parents in attendance.
AJ awoke on National Signing Day with a dilemma. His parents' reaction had convinced him to re-evaluate Alabama. In Saban's second season, the Crimson Tide had gone 12-2. Saban didn't promise recruits championships, but he had outlined all the steps he expected Alabama to take in the next few years. If followed explicitly, those steps would lead to championships. In this way, Saban differs from legendary Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant, who had no qualms about guaranteeing a championship to land a player. Consider Bryant's visit to the Birmingham home of Jeff Rutledge, the quarterback who would lead Alabama to the 1978 national title as a senior. Rutledge had planned to sign with LSU, which ran an offense better suited to his skill set. Rutledge, who drops his voice and adds the gravel required for a pitch-perfect Bryant impression, recreated the conversation that swayed him.
Bryant: "You want to win a national championship. Don't you, son?"
Rutledge: "Yes, sir."
Bryant: "Well, you won't win one there."
Saban's pursuit of McCarron was subtler, but McCarron appreciated that the head coach made it a priority to recruit him. As his announcement approached, McCarron decided on a school. His mother asked him which school he chose. "I told her I think I might have changed my mind," McCarron said. "I said, 'My hat's green.'" Bonner assumed her son meant Miami. "She started freaking out. ... I went and got a hat," McCarron said. "It was the St. Patrick's Day version of the Alabama hat." By signing with Alabama, McCarron made his parents' dream come true. Watching his mother and father celebrate his success -- from winning the national title to the fourth-quarter comeback at LSU -- has been one of the most satisfying parts of McCarron's Alabama experience. "It's kind of cool to see one of the dreams they had for me and live it out for them," McCarron said.
Shortly after he signed, McCarron got a taste of the duality of Alabama fandom. "Everywhere I went, all I was hearing about was Star Jackson," said McCarron, referring to the Lake Worth, Fla., quarterback who had signed with Alabama a year earlier. "Everybody told me I wouldn't make it and that I would sit the bench the whole time I was here." McCarron redshirted as the Tide won the national title in 2009 and then won the backup job behind McElroy as a redshirt freshman. In 2011, McCarron beat out Phillip Sims for the starting job and inherited that sacred trust. Barker joked that the best known people in the state are ranked as follows:
2. The starting quarterback
3. The governor
Barker said the level of attention would overwhelm most college students. "People sent me stuff to autograph in the mail to the point that my junior year, we had to have somebody from the athletic department that would go through all the mail, separate it and get it ready to sign," Barker said. "And there's also a lot of hate mail that comes from another side." Sometimes, Barker wasn't allowed to sit next to teammates on the team bus. Instead, he sat next to a plainclothes police officer. He knew that those weeks, someone had sent in a death threat. Those don't come from actual Alabama fans, but when the Tide lose, Alabama fans melt down the phone lines on the Paul Finebaum show demanding changes -- often at quarterback. "I love playing here," McCarron said. "Best fans in the world. But this place can be hard to play at, though. Everybody gets so used to winning. The moment we don't win, it's like the world's coming to an end. I love it here, but it's tough sometimes."
It's also tough because Alabama quarterbacks are asked to play quite conservatively, though McCarron has it better than the predecessors who played for Bryant or Gene Stallings. "You think you're restricted?" Barker said. "Be in a Stallings offense." McCarron, who has an NFL-caliber arm and better-than-average speed, could post gaudier numbers in another offense, but at Alabama, he is more often asked to hand off to freakish tailbacks running behind future NFL linemen. In 2011, McCarron had almost no freedom to change plays at the line of scrimmage. The Tide offense relied mostly on tailback Trent Richardson and a line led by Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones. But when Alabama needed to avenge its only loss to win a national title, then-offensive coordinator Jim McElwain put the BCS championship game against LSU in McCarron's hands. In the first half of the Crimson Tide's 21-0 win, 16 of Alabama's 18 first-down plays in the first half were passes. The bold game plan felt perfect for McCarron, who readily admits to cockiness on the field. "I think I can accomplish anything inside the white lines," McCarron said.
That performance, combined with an offseason learning on the job with new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, changed McCarron's role in the offense. Now, instead of simply allowing Jones to call the protection scheme or make run checks, McCarron will either call them himself or bicker with fellow perfectionist Jones like an old married couple until they come to an agreement. "I'll still kind of give the nod of approval to his call, but he really knows a lot about what's going on in the run game," Jones said. "That's a big thing for quarterbacks. A lot of quarterbacks have no idea what's going on the run game." Said McCarron: "We mess with each other almost every play. He'll be the first to tell you I've saved his butt a bunch of times."
Saban and Nussmeier also have granted McCarron the freedom to change the play based on his pre-snap read. "I know everything in and out," McCarron said. "Last year, I just knew my job. I didn't know what everybody else had to do. I think that comes with time." Still, McCarron hasn't gotten so comfortable in the job that he believes he has to carry the offense. One of his best attributes is his ability to recognize when to throw the ball away. Before he had a pass intercepted by Texas A&M's Sean Porter on Nov. 10, McCarron had thrown a school-record 292 passes without an interception. Rutledge, who held that record for 15 years until Barker broke it, spent years as a college and NFL quarterbacks coach trying to teach signal-callers what McCarron already knows. "He doesn't get you beat," Rutledge said. "He throws balls away. I tell people I've coached all my life that some of the best throws you make are the balls you throw away."
McCarron also knows he has to ignore negativity from rival fans -- and even from the occasional ticked-off Alabama fan. McCarron has employed the Block button on Twitter frequently to mute those who don't care for his tattoos. He has them on his wrists, and they cover most of his chest. The artwork mixes family tributes and commemorates key milestones. A more recent tattoo features the BCS championship trophy. Inside are the letters MVP and the phrase "God in Control." "Everybody's always going to dog something," McCarron said. "I don't pay attention."
That McCarron has even one tattoo is amazing considering one of his phobias. "I'm scared of needles when I get shots," McCarron said. "But I can take a tattoo needle for some reason. I don't know why. It's weird." Maybe it's because McCarron naturally has one of the required attributes for one of the most demanding jobs in football. "At Alabama, you've got to have thick skin," Croyle said. "It's a state that lives and dies with every week. The good news for AJ? Most of those weeks are wins."