The quarterback and his girl

Originally Published: January 4, 2013
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- Around 7:30 p.m. ET on Jan. 3, 2012, DeAndra Chapman wrote the following message on a CaringBridge page, a website that was providing family and friends with updates on the condition of her ailing 3-year-old daughter:

It is with an overwhelmingly heavy heart that I type this status. Today, after a seizure, Starla left us. And after two minutes of chest compressions she was revived. We later found that another ECHO showed even more decreased heart function than before. She is now on life support and we need a miracle!!!!!! I'm so hurt, and please don't ask any questions as I will not share any more information. I love my beautiful daughter with EVERY fiber of my being, GOD knows this, EVERYONE knows this. Please pray!!!! Pray for a MIRACLE!!!!

Starla Chapman was clinging to life as she battled acute myeloid leukemia, a rare form of cancer that starts in bone marrow and blood and progresses rapidly. Chemotherapy to fight the disease damaged Starla's heart so severely that it was functioning at only 6 percent capacity. After she flatlined on Jan. 3, 2012, and then was revived by the chest compressions, doctors at the University of South Alabama Children's and Women's Hospital in Mobile, Ala., put her in a medically induced coma to try to keep her alive.

[+] EnlargeMcCarron
Courtesy of Chapman familyAJ McCarron and Starla Chapman have always shared a special bond.

"That night, they definitely told us to prepare for the worst," DeAndra said. "Her father was with her in the pediatric unit when she flatlined. He was holding Starla as she was getting ready to take her meds. He said she just locked up and her tongue fell out of her mouth. There was no heartbeat or blood pressure. I saw my husband shaking and crying. I knew something bad was happening."

Doctors gave DeAndra and Korey Chapman the worst possible prognosis: Without chemotherapy, Starla would die from the cancer that was ravaging her little body. But the chemotherapy would probably kill her, because her heart was so badly damaged.

"The doctors told us numerous times to call our families, pastors and friends to come see her because today was going to be the day," DeAndra said. "They told us if they wanted to see her, they needed to come to the hospital because she probably wasn't going to make it."

Doctors told Starla's parents she needed a heart transplant, but couldn't get one because of the cancer. Doctors wanted to life flight her to a hospital in Atlanta or Birmingham, Ala., but they feared she wouldn't survive being transported.

"I told them, 'What you're saying is we're going to have to stay here and we're going to lose her here,'" DeAndra said. "The doctors told me we'd already lost her once."

Nearly 150 miles away, Starla's newest friend was preparing to play the biggest football game of his life. Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron, a native of Mobile, met the little girl more than a week earlier, when he and his family delivered presents to the hospital's pediatric patients on Christmas Eve 2011. McCarron was a patient at the hospital after he was nearly killed in a jet ski accident as a young boy.

When McCarron handed Starla a present that night, she was wearing an Alabama cheerleading uniform. She handed him back a present of her own: a bright yellow bracelet that was inscribed with the words, "Just trust."

On the night Starla was diagnosed with leukemia in September 2011, and the day before she would begin grueling chemotherapy treatments, the little girl told her noticeably concerned parents, "Just trust."

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Courtesy of Chapman FamilyMcCarron surprised Starla at her "Celebration of Life" party.

McCarron promised Starla he would wear the bracelet when the Crimson Tide played LSU in the 2012 BCS National Championship in New Orleans.

When McCarron learned the news about Starla's grave condition, he instructed his mother, Dee Dee Bonner, to visit her at the hospital. She prayed with the girl's family before leaving for New Orleans.

"It's hard for me to see kids in that situation," Bonner said. "It reminds us of where we were [when AJ was injured]. People get so wrapped up in football. This national championship game is life and death for some people. It puts it in perspective to see people fighting for their kids' lives."

On Jan. 9, 2012, McCarron led the Crimson Tide to a 21-0 victory over No. 1 LSU in New Orleans, winning the school's second BCS national title in three years. He was named the game's offensive MVP after completing 23 of 34 passes for 234 yards.

McCarron will try to win a second national championship when No. 2 Alabama plays No. 1 Notre Dame in Monday night's Discover BCS National Championship at Sun Life Stadium.

A year ago, TV cameras captured the bright yellow bracelet on McCarron's right wrist whenever he dropped back to pass against LSU.

"I think it's the most amazing thing," DeAndra said. "It's easy for people to make vows and then break them. But he sat in that hospital room and said he was going to wear the bracelet in the game. You could see the bracelet clear as day on TV. The young man kept his promise to our daughter."

A few days after the Crimson Tide beat LSU, McCarron returned to Mobile to visit Starla in the hospital. Her condition was slowly improving -- her heart capacity had returned to about 21 percent when she left intensive care -- but she was still in a coma. When DeAndra told Starla that McCarron was in her room to see her, the little girl started kicking her legs, her mother says.

"They just have a special connection that can't be explained," Bonner said. "If you meet her, you can't help but fall in love with her. There's just something that draws you to her."

Miraculously, doctors told Starla's parents she was in full remission on April 11, 2012. Starla's heart eventually returned to normal, too, after she no longer needed the toxins to kill cancer cells. Another checkup on Thursday revealed that she's still cancer-free.

On Dec. 13, Starla became a big sister when her brother, KJ, was born.

"I make no apologies for saying it -- our child is a miracle," DeAndra said. "When somebody's heart is that damaged, they're not usually able to be revived. If they are, they have to have a heart transplant. She's a miracle."

In March, Starla's parents asked McCarron if he would become Starla's godfather. He and teammate Kenny Bell helped raise money for her health care by signing autographs for several hours at a Mobile shopping mall last spring. McCarron even surprised Starla by attending her "Celebration of Life" party after she was released from the hospital.

[+] EnlargeA.J. McCarron
Courtesy of Chapman familyThere's no mystery about who Starla will be cheering for in the BCS Championship Game.

On Sept. 8, the Chapmans were in attendance when McCarron led the Crimson Tide to a 35-0 victory over Western Kentucky at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Starla wore his No. 10 jersey with "AJ's Girl" on the back.

"We saw the compassion he had for our daughter," DeAndra said. "He went out of his way to have fundraisers and solicit prayers for us. It was how you would expect a godfather to be."

McCarron is still wearing Starla's bracelet today. When McCarron underwent shoulder surgery after the 2011 season, he instructed doctors not to cut the bracelet from his wrist.

McCarron will be wearing the bracelet again on Monday night. And a little girl will be watching him from her home in Mobile.

"I always loved giving back," McCarron said. "I think my mom has done a tremendous job of raising me in that aspect of life. She's always taught me to kind of give back to people a little less fortunate. I've been blessed enough to be in a position to kind of touch people's lives, inspire them in certain ways, and [Starla] was a blessing to me.

"I never take it off. I'm always thinking about her. She's a special girl."

Mark Schlabach | email

College Football and Basketball