Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron could find himself among the Heisman Trophy… (Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images )
From New Orleans — The legend of AJ McCarron has only just begun in Alabama football.
You can't be a legend, even when you are playing quarterback for one of the storied programs in the sport, if everybody sees your job as putting a few points on the board between spectacular plays by your defense.
You can't be a legend if you direct your team to a total of six points in your biggest game of the year, the 9-6 overtime loss to Louisiana State on Nov. 5.
You can't be a legend if your coach says it might be best for a first-year-starting quarterback to be shielded from the media all season during the week, and you agree.
"I personally wanted to go under the radar this year," says McCarron, a 21-year-old sophomore.
Rest assured, McCarron is not your under-the-radar type.
He may have gotten blitzed by the vaunted Crimson Tide defense in the game of public notoriety this season. But with two seasons to go in Tuscaloosa, and with a personality that oozes swagger and fun — as well as a compelling survival story — the young man with the initials that take no periods may become huge outside the confines of Alabama and the Southeastern Conference.
His full name is Raymond Anthony McCarron Jr. That quickly got shortened to Anthony Junior, and then to AJ.
"My mom [Dee Dee Bonner] doesn't like any periods in there," McCarron says.
And what mom says is the law.
Except when it comes to WaveRunners, a speedboat that, for better or worse, is at the heart of the story that best defines McCarron.
When McCarron was 5, he was riding on a WaveRunner, reached for the brake and hit the accelerator instead. The sudden speed sent him flying off the vehicle and onto a dock, face first. He was taken to a hospital with his left eye hanging by a tendon and injuries so severe that it took eight hours of surgery and 86 staples to put him back together.
"I don't remember much," he says. "I remember going around the corner, then waking up, then having people help me to walk and telling them they didn't need to, that I was OK. And then starting to fall when they let go."
He says he learned later that, right after the surgery, the doctors summoned his family and told them to spend as much time as they could with their son "because we might lose him."
In previous story-telling of the incident, McCarron has likened his surgery to the 1997 John Travolta/Nicolas Cage movie "Face/Off," in which faces are peeled off and exchanged. Thursday he says that, while there are now no visible scars, he has a huge one hidden by his hair that runs over the top of his head, from one ear to the other.
The surgery left some permanent hardware in various parts of his head, triggering the predictable "loose screws" comments from friends. McCarron also says that occasionally, on very cold days, he will get quick, sharp pains near one of his eyes.
So, one would think that WaveRunners would be off the menu.
"I've got one of the fastest ones Yamaha makes," McCarron says. "It's supposed to top out at 89 miles an hour. During the summer, I'll get up early, play golf and then spend the rest of the day on the water. I'm just crazy on it. My mom hates it."
Parents can be stuffy that way.
McCarron showed up for an interview session Thursday with his dark hair spiked, his big brown eyes wide open and a grin on his face that seemed to say he was more than ready to face LSU again Monday night, this time for the Bowl Championship Series championship.
"I really don't get all that nervous for the big games," he says. "It's the not-so-big ones, like maybe Georgia Southern, where they throw everything at you because they have nothing to lose. Those make me nervous."
In his first year as Alabama's quarterback, taking a position once held by the likes of Bart Starr and Joe Namath and Ken Stabler — not to mention recent star Greg McElroy, who is Mark Sanchez's backup with the New York Jets — McCarron went 11-1, completed 66% of his passes for 2,400 yards and 16 touchdowns. He had only five of his passes intercepted, which was perfect on a team in which the offensive unit was pretty much there to be seen and not heard, as the adults on the defensive unit carried the conversation.
"The defense. That's all we ever hear about," McCarron says. "We like that."
Win or lose Monday night, it seems clear that a country of college football fans will begin hearing lots more about McCarron. He has kept it close to the vest this season, playing second fiddle to a bunch of guys who do the hitting, rather than the usually more glamorous running and passing. He has been the good Alabama soldier in all regards.
"Whatever it takes to win a national championship, I'll do it," he says.
But don't expect the player with the nickname "Bama Boy," who has a large chest tattoo that includes five family names and a crying Jesus and also has All-American potential, to be a football wallflower for long. Listen for his name next season when you hear the words "Matt Barkley and Heisman trophy." And expect a future of football prominence.
Maybe even, when he gets to the NFL, his own WaveRunner commercial.