Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron's mother Dee Dee Bonner still feels those sickening emotions when she recounts her son's brush with death more than 15 years ago.
“They told us he wouldn’t live,” she said after a pause to compose herself. “You think after all this time you wouldn’t be so emotional.”
That day, Sunday, August, 4, 1996, is somewhat of a blur to Bonner. She got a call from her ex-brother-in-law telling her to go to the University of South Alabama hospital -- that there had been an accident. She thought AJ had fallen and bumped his head, maybe while climbing on or off the new Jet Ski. It wasn’t until she was led into the area for trauma patients that she understood the seriousness of the matter.
“I walked around the corner and he was on a backboard with the neck brace on with blood and I could tell his face was crushed in -- the left side of his face,” she said. “My knees went weak.”
Beat Up Bad
In fact, what had happened was quite serious. Tony McCarron, AJ’s father, purchased the watercraft just two days earlier on Friday. Two of Tony’s pals at the fire station had also gotten them, and they told Tony not to go out until they could all go together. But Tony, who had just recently been divorced from Bonner, had five-year-old AJ and his little brother Corey for the weekend. AJ and his middle-school-aged cousin wanted to take the new toy out on the water. Tony’s father wanted to see how it ran, too. So the five took off to the Navco (now Dog River) Park boat launch.
AJ sat in front of Tony and Tony’s nephew was in the back as they eased into the water. They didn’t go out to the big part of Dog River. Instead, they went the other way down a small canal.
“We were just going to ride down into the canal and come back up a couple of times so my dad could see us,” Tony McCarron said.
Instead, Tony’s father and the toddler, Corey, saw a horrific end to the new Jet Ski’s maiden voyage. On the second trip down to the canal and back Tony got behind a marine patrol boat and road on top of its wake. The police boat turned to go to the big part of the Dog River, and Tony turned the jet ski to go back toward the launch. As he did, a part of the jet ski called the sponson, designed to provide buoyancy and stability, caught on debris in the water and rocked the watercraft from side to side. When that happened, AJ reached for the handle bar to hang on, and in doing so he also grabbed the Jet Ski’s throttle.
“By the time I realized what he had done it had already shot us 15-20 feet before I could get his hand off of it,” Tony McCarron said.
Suddenly, AJ, Tony and the nephew were going head-on into a chest-high wooden pier at a high rate of speed.
“The only thing I could think of was to try to knock them both off so they didn’t hit,” Tony McCarron said.
Tony pushed AJ off and he went face first into the piling bracing the pier. Tony struck the pier directly with his chest, knocking himself backwards. The watercraft dragged had him under the pier. Tony’s nephew was standing up in the water crying and screaming.
AJ was face down in the water knocked out.
Tony’s training as a rescue worker kicked in. As he picked his son out of the water he saw that the left side of AJ’s face was caved in and blood was trickling from both nostrils.
“Are you alright?!” he yelled.
AJ responded. He told his dad he couldn’t see well.
“I figured he would lose his eye for sure because it was knocked so bad, but he was conscious and talking to me,” Tony McCarron said.
“I didn’t think it was brain damage because he was coherent and able to answer questions," Tony McCarron said. Tony knew that vomiting is a danger sign with a head injury. "Sure enough he starts throwing up bad.”
The Critical Period
A nurse told Dee Dee Bonner she needed to “prepare” herself. The next 24 hours would be critical. The worst case scenario was that her son would not survive. If he did, there would likely be brain damage, and almost certainly the loss of his left eye. She was given a card with contact information for a grief counselor.
If things were as bad as the doctors expected AJ would start vomiting again. When he began to throw up as they were taking him for a brain scan Bonner did as she was advised -- she mentally prepared herself for the worst-case-scenario.
AJ had recently finished all-stars in baseball.
“And I thought, well, I guess I’ll bury him in his all-star uniform,” she said. “It’s such a morbid thought, but I thought that’s what he would want. He wouldn’t want to be in a suit.”
But AJ made it through the night. The next day, as the worst-case-scenario began to dissipate, attention turned to what type of life the athletically gifted youngster would have. Brain damage was still possible. Vision loss was likely.
“Tuesday we went for more tests and they came back and said no brain damage they could see,” Bonner said. “It was a miracle.”
The neurosurgeon told Tony McCarron that he’d seen “way lesser licks than that in the morgue.”
AJ attempts to smile for the camera after his mother learns that he does not have brain damage, but will require extensive plastic surgery to repair his eye.
Photo courtesy of Dee Dee Bonner
A Really Bad Black Eye
On Wednesday, even with every orbital bone on his left side shattered and splintering, tests showed there was no damage to AJ’s eye. The eye doctor told the family that AJ’s guardian angel must have been working overtime because there was not a bone fragment or a drop of blood around his eye even though his eye orbit was crushed.
“He said as bad as it is, he’s only got a really bad head lick and an ugly, ugly black eye,” Tony McCarron said.
AJ underwent 10 to 12 hours of plastic surgery to repair the orbital. A plastic surgeon made an incision starting at his left ear and going across the top of the skull to his right ear so the skin on his face could be worked around. To repair the orbital area, doctors took cartilage from behind his ear and inserted five metal plates held together by screws to rebuild the orbital bone. AJ still has the same plates in his head.
AJ started school after the surgery and still had the staples in his head. The first couple of days he came home a little upset. Kids called him “railroad track” because of the way the staples looked going up his head. Later, some kids told him it looked like he’d cut number 1s in the side of his head because for a while his hair wouldn’t grow due to the scar tissue.
Tony said, “I sat him down and talked to him and I said, ‘Look, you had two choices: one -- carry that scar around with you, or two -- be six feet down in a grave. I think you got a pretty good deal out of it. For whatever reason it wasn’t your time to go and that was a pretty close call. You’re here and able to enjoy life and we have you, and that’s huge.’”
Aside from heightened sinus trouble an occasional funny feeling in his face there are no lingering effects from the accident or the surgery. If you look closely when Alabama is playing on television, his mother says, you can see the scar above his ear when he takes off his helmet. As a reminder, his mother has a plastic bag with the hair that was cut to make that incision.
AJ McCarron's plastic surgeon inserted staples into AJ's skin to fasten back together the area where he made an ear-to-ear to repair the damage from the boating accident.
Photo courtesy of Dee Dee Bonner
Never Slowed Down
AJ was furious when he learned the doctor would not allow him to play football that season. He could not understand why. Still, he never stopped roughhousing in the yard with his brother. The doctors cleared him to play baseball the following spring and that rolled right into football the next season.
AJ had always been a gifted athlete. His father remembers AJ grabbing a Mickey Mouse sponge ball when he was just three or four months old and flipping it toward his parents. They joked even then that their son seemed to have a good arm. When AJ was four he was playing quarterback in football and throwing passes. His mother carried his birth certificate to playoff games because other parents protested that AJ had to be at least six or seven years old. In basketball at that age he was the only kid who could dribble with both hands and make shots consistently. The first time Derek Bonner -- now AJ’s stepfather -- met AJ they went out to toss the football in the yard and AJ threw a bullet right into Derek Bonner’s hands.
Bonner said, “My eyebrows went up and I was like ‘Holy crap!’ He just rifled it perfectly. I said, ok, do it again. The next five or six were the exact same. I’m like ‘Yeah, this kid’s got some special talent.’”
AJ would get frustrated and complain about his less talented and less dedicated peers. He found stiffer competition at the fire station where his father worked. By the time he reached high school he became the undisputed champion of the station in basketball.
He took his bag of footballs to the fire station and would drag each fireman out to throw one-by-one.
“He’d wear one guy out and that guy would come in and say ‘next’ and AJ would stay out there,” Tony McCarron said.
It didn’t seem to matter what sport he was playing or what the stakes were. AJ wanted to win. He wanted to learn the game. He wanted to get better.
“He’s what I would refer to as kind of a ‘gym rat’ if we were playing some other sport,” Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban said. “He watches a lot of film. He really enjoys understanding the game. He’s a bright guy. And obviously he’s a pretty good athlete and has got pretty good arm talent.”
AJ holds a Nintendo video game controller, trying to play the game while recovering from the horrific accident.
Photo courtesy of Dee Dee Bonner
Becoming a Leader
Tony McCarron said that AJ now has learned to channel what used to be anger and frustration into more positive energy.
“The personality is the same,” Tony McCarron said. “He just hides it a lot better. When he was younger he used to get really frustrated at the other kids not being able to do the things that he could do. But he was a foot-and-a-half taller than the other kids and more athletic.”
Starting offensive lineman Chance Warmack said he sees qualities in AJ McCarron similar to those of Coach Saban.
“He has the same characteristics, but he has it in laymen’s terms so that we can kid around with it and understand it,” Warmack said. “He’ll tell us to buckle down or get in the huddle or run to the line, and we can take it seriously and understand it without the pressure of a coach telling you what to do.”
But the thing his parents are most proud of about is the example he tries to set off the field. Tony McCarron said he has never seen his son turn a child down for an autograph or be rude to a fan. When AJ was a child Tony took him to New Orleans to watch Allen Iverson play in an exhibition game. AJ was a huge Allen Iverson fan.
“We waited two or three hours outside the Superdome for Allen Iverson to walk by and not speak,” Tony McCarron said. “I remind him of that all the time. I say, ‘You remember how bad you cried?’ and he says ‘I remember.’”
There are a lot of kids that stand outside the players exit for two hours waiting to see him, Tony McCarron reminds his son.
“You’re never going to remember them, but I promise they’re going to remember you,” he tells AJ.
Tornado and Tattoos
McCarron witnessed first-hand the devastation after the tornado that hit Tuscaloosa last spring, killing dozens and destroying much of the city. He was at a friend’s house and they were uninjured, but everything around them was destroyed. That night he got tattoos on his wrists that said, “Truly Blessed.” The next week he volunteered at a blood drive in Mobile in support of tornado victims. Later that summer he got a more elaborate tattoo on his chest that has made many rounds on the Internet.
“We didn’t know about it ahead of time,” Dee Dee Bonner said. “It’s a little busy.”
The tattoo has “Bama Boy” written at the top along with images of Jesus, a dove representing family members who have died, Bryant-Denny Stadium and a family crest. Written inside the crest are the words “Ma” and “Pops” representing his parents. Around the outside of the tattoo are “Corey,” his brother who recently announced he would transfer from the University of South Alabama to walk-on as a tight end at UA, “Pasopapa,” Spanish for stepfather; “Gage,” and “Coco,” his stepbrothers (“Coco” is the nickname of stepbrother Cory).
“Being a stepdad, I have to understand my role,” Derek Bonner said. “I am not his real dad. He put ‘Pasopapa’ on his chest. And for him to put Gage and Coco’s name into his chest, that’s the testimony to how he views them as his real brothers even though they are non-blood stepbrothers. Not many 20-year-olds I think would do that. I cried. I thought that was an amazing thing to do.”
On January 9th, the family will be watching as AJ attempts to help the University of Alabama win its 14th national championship in the BCS National Championship game at the Superdome in New Orleans, La. His mother said AJ wants to win more for the Crimson Tide seniors who are playing their last game than for himself. His father worries that sometimes AJ doesn’t enjoy football enough because he puts so much weight on himself to represent the University, the state, people in Mobile, and even the guys at the fire department. Tony McCarron said he’ll be hoping that his son absorbs it all and appreciates it for himself.
“He’s had a fantastic life up until now, with a few bumps in it just like anybody else,” Tony McCarron said. “Maybe his bumps were a little bit bigger and a little scarier, but for whatever reason he’s here and he’s doing his thing.”
AJ McCarron was last permitted by Coach Saban to speak to the media after the Tide’s 42-14 blowout of Auburn. Predictably, he did not speak about selfish motivations, but about how that win impacted others.
“It’s more of a dream for my parents than anything,” McCarron said. “My mom and dad, they’ve been dreaming of this their whole lives.
“Growing up in the state of Alabama you want your kid to play for Alabama, be the quarterback there. That’s everybody’s dream. It was just fun to spend that time with them and have this moment. It’s a special moment, something I’ll always remember, and hopefully they will, too.”
**EDITOR'S NOTE: Mike Dubberly of WBRC-TV Fox 6 in Birmingham will feature the story of McCarron's childhood accident during its BCS Championship Game Bowl Special that airs Friday, January 6th at 6:30 p.m.