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Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Updated: November 16, 3:46 PM ET
1 minute, 34 seconds

By David Fleming
ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Nov. 26 One Day One Game issue. Subscribe today!

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 a red-and-blue-striped football under his right arm. But then, the first clue: His leg is raised up off the gray carpet, bent at the knee. Then another: His left arm is extended straight out, palm up.

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.'"

AJ McCarron
The Drive went 72 yards but took just five plays and 43 seconds.

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 with 1:34 to play. LSU fans were already piling up at the rails behind the Bama bench, ready to storm the field. Just a few feet away, McCarron was trying to shake off a brutal second half in which constant battering from the Tigers defense had left him 1-for-7 for 0 yards. Preparing to take the field, he calmly reminded his teammates that they had practiced this exact situation -- the final two-minute drill -- every Thursday for the past several months. "He was locked in," recalls Bama running back Eddie Lacy. "He's always locked in every game, but it was something different this time, this drive. I mean, he knew he had to make plays."

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.

AJ McCarron
After the game, McCarron's mother offered The Mag a photo of 3-year-old AJ, striking the Heisman pose.

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 opponent's late-game defensive strategy. And what Saban and McCarron saw play out on the field in Death Valley was very similar to what they'd watched on film the night before. As Bama broke the huddle at the 28, LSU cornerback Jalen Mills crept down toward the line of scrimmage, lured in by tailback T.J. Yeldon's bluff to be an extra blocker. At that moment, on the Alabama sideline and up in the press box, all of the coaches' headsets were crackling with the same chatter: I hope they pressure, I hope they pressure. Blitz us, come on, baby, blitz us. And they did. McCarron played it cool, calmly backpedaling, then lofting the ball to Yeldon, who sidestepped a linebacker, cut inside and stamped his way to the doorstep of the stunned-silent LSU student section. "It was surreal being a part of this," says Bama center Barrett Jones. "Someday I'll be watching TV and the greatest games ever played will come on, and this one will be on there."

Overcome with emotion, McCarron rolled uncontrollably across the turf at the 15-yard line as if his arm had suddenly caught the rest of his uniform on fire. He then went to the bench and began to weep. When the game ended, he raced into the arms of his family; three rows behind them, engulfed in a pulsating red-and-silver gumbo of joy and chaos, the Alabama band blasted through the school's fight song. "I just love moments like that," McCarron says. "I like having the ball in pressure situations. Every kid dreams of that countdown clock, the ball in your hands, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. You dream of that as a kid. And the dream came true."

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, nervously leaping through the doors as if Saban might actually leave him behind. But after McCarron's performance, one that saved the Tide's quest for a third national title in four years, one thing was now clearly in focus. From here on out, Alabama isn't going anywhere without him.

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