'No moment too big for him'

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AJ McCarron brings the passion of a state when he makes his first NFL start Sunday.

When he and AJ McCarron were at the University of Alabama together, they called A.J. Starr "The Real A.J."

Now there is another A.J. in their story and when A.J. Starr got home from church Sunday just in time to see his buddy hit A.J. Green with his first NFL touchdown pass on that 66-yard bomb, A.J. Starr's initial reaction was pure, uncut joy.

"It was unfortunate that Andy Dalton got hurt," Starr said Tuesday from Center, Ala. "But I felt good for AJ that he could get into a game and show what he can do. It was nice to see that AJ-to-A.J. connection working."

These are the conversations now happening all across the state of Alabama. If McCarron gets a victory in his first NFL start Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) in San Francisco, the Bengals make the postseason for the fifth straight time.

And everyone has the line down pat.  Everyone from Mobile in McCarron's hometown and Center in Starr's hometown to Tuscaloosa, where Corey McCarron walked-on while his older brother walked on water. A heart, they say, he's got a heart the size of, well, football in Alabama. The original gym rat.

"No moment," they keep telling you, "is too big for him." There is the 36-4 record at Bama. The two national titles, the wins over Auburn, and the gut-wrenching comeback against LSU down three with 94 seconds left and backed up in Baton Rouge at his own 28.

As Tyler Siskey, his offensive coordinator at St. Paul's Episcopal High School, tried to tell you, "Next to Nick Saban he was the most well-known person in Alabama. Yeah, probably more than the governor."

It turns out they're talking about moments away from the bright lights, too. Like this one, when McCarron asked Starr to be a groomsman at his 2014 Orange Beach wedding, just after the Bengals took him in the fifth round of the draft. It was not, shall we say, your typical Gulf Coast affair. Not with McCarron's two national championships and bride Katherine Webb's Miss Alabama sash.

"He asked me if I wanted to be in the wedding and I was pretty surprised. I didn't say anything for about a second," Starr said. "It was like our little royal wedding."

But then, these two A.Js don't have your typical friendship. First of all, it's one of the most well-known in sports thanks to ESPN. Three years ago Starr, who has cerebral palsy, missed his bus back to his off-campus apartment after watching the activities buzzing around another Bama practice. It was raining, McCarron recognized Starr from watching practice before, and stopped at the bus stop to ask if he needed a lift.

It turned out they both have a passion for proving people wrong. Here on the driver's side was McCarron, the kid who wasn't supposed to make it out of DIP. On the passenger's side was Starr, some of his motor skills and speech impaired when the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck during birth.

Now McCarron was a national championship quarterback and Starr was living away from home getting his degree in sports management.

"I had trouble making friends," Starr said. "Being away from home and living away from things, it was tough. But when we became friends, people would come up and ask me, 'Hey, you're AJ's friend.'"

The next thing both of them knew, McCarron got Starr a job in the Alabama equipment room and he suddenly had a lot of friends. Enough that he has established "The Real A.J. Foundation," to help people with cerebral palsy while getting his master's in business in between trips to Washington D.C. to be recognized for going way beyond the bus stop.

"He called me on my birthday in November," said Starr, who like a lot of 24-year-olds is looking for a job. "It was good to hear from him. We talked for a while and I texted him after Sunday's game to tell him I was proud of him."

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They'll tell you that McCarron, with quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese, loves his coaches in Cincinnati.

So did everyone else, it seemed, in the state of Alabama, but A.J. McCarron's brother was in a locker room in Tennessee getting ready to pick out gifts for Middle Tennessee's appearance in the Bahama Bowl when someone told him his brother was playing against the Steelers and when he ran to a computer streaming the game, about 10 guys went nuts as Green walked into the end zone.

"We've got three or four Bengals fans and they were going crazy," said Corey McCarron, a fullback who transferred from Alabama for his final year of eligibility. "I don't have near the skills that A.J. Green has as a wide receiver. But I've run that route and caught that ball."

That's another moment not too big for AJ McCarron, at Trimmier Park, on DIP, where they used to play everything until the community shut it down because it couldn't afford to keep it open. Corey McCarron thinks that's where his brother's almost obsessive competitiveness comes from.

Cincinnati Ben-Gal Cheerleaders perform during the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cincinnati Bengals game 12/13/2015

"We lived off what they call DIP, Dauphin Island Parkway down by the water," Corey McCarron said. "It's an area where not many people become successful.

"He always seemed to have to prove everybody wrong. He was a kid from the park that wasn't supposed to be able to play at St. Paul's. Then he wasn't supposed to be able to take a hit, he was just a passer and he wasn't big enough and then when he went to Alabama he wasn't going to be good enough to play and then when he got out he wasn't supposed to have an NFL arm."

Their parents both worked multiple jobs with their mom bouncing between Kimberly Clark and Dillard's at the mall and everywhere else she could. The idea, Corey said, was to keep the head down at sports and school and get out.

A moment not too big for him? Sure, there was the 99-yard bomb to Amari Cooper in the fourth quarter when the Iron Bowl was tied 21-21, the play that Corey immediately thought of when he saw Green double move his man to death Sunday on the bottom of the screen.

But Corey McCarron prefers to think of the day AJ got drafted and gave him his SUV.

"I don't care if my brother ever throws another touchdown pass in the NFL," Corey McCarron said. "No Hall-of-Fame, whatever. What makes me proud is what he's done off the field. He basically raised me. I was non-scholarship at Alabama and once he got drafted, he put me through."

Or there's another moment, with St. Paul getting ready for the playoffs the next week and McCarron wanting to work on the two-minute drill with the ones on the first drive of the second half in a blowout. He came to the sidelines on a fourth-and-four from their 30.

"I had a three-step concept," Siskey said of the play, which basically consisted of a go route on one side and a five-yard route on the other against a single-high safety look.

"We got the look we thought. And he goes deep and overthrows it," Siskey said. "That's not the read. I don't care what he says and he'll argue it with you. I gave it to him pretty good on the headsets."

McCarron was so mad he took off the headsets, but that didn't deter Siskey any. He yanked up the window of the press box and kept yelling at him down on the sidelines.

"That was one of them," Siskey with a laugh of one of their many moments. "He's opinionated. He'll tell you what's on his mind and some people don't like that. But they don't know him. That's him. I guess it's partly my fault. I'm a pretty blunt person. Say what I have to say and move on."

Siskey has known him since eighth grade and started him as a freshman. Big moment? This is back when Mobile had a class with a handful of first-round NFL picks. Nick Fairley. Mark Baron. D.J. Fluker. Siskey started out rotating the 14-year-old with a senior, Kevin Coker, a kid good enough to get recruited by Air Force. After two games or so, McCarron was the starter.

"That's not easy. Going against a senior and winning the job like that," Siskey said. "He's still my benchmark for a quarterback. I know there's panic from fans when the No. 1 quarterback goes down. Especially in this situation where they can go into the playoffs. But I couldn't think of a better guy to come into a situation like this."

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McCarron had a big preseason with the first unit, but he knows the games count now.

Siskey tapes all the Bengals games and he saw the pick-six, where Steelers cornerback William Gay was sitting all over an out route.

"Don't get me wrong, he'll make mistakes," Siskey said. "But you know where that corner rolled up on him? That won't happen again. He's a guy that doesn't make the same mistake twice."

 

Moments. Big and small. Siskey told this story last spring, but it's worth re-telling.

About the morning after McCarron's St. Paul's team got eliminated from the post season. About how the spring football game was set for that Thursday and how the two had been arguing all spring. Siskey simply wasn't going to let him play if baseball was over. Take a break. Hadn't been out there all spring.

"The morning after the baseball season is over I had to stop by the field on the way to church to pick up something," Siskey said. "About 7 or 8. I park the car and I notice the nets that the quarterbacks use to throw balls are on the field. He's out there running and throwing."

They don't say anything to each other. They stare at each other. McCarron threw for more than 300 yards in the first half of the spring game.

Which doesn't surprise David Morris, the quarterback consultant who runs the school Country QB and has been working with McCarron since he was in ninth grade. But this offseason had been just a little different.

"It used to be I'd call him and say, 'OK, are we on for tomorrow, or, 'Are we on for this week?'" Morris said. "Not this year. It was consistent. Every week in the offseason, three or four days a week, until May."

 Morris accompanied McCarron to Tom House's renowned quarterback camp at USC for a week in February, a gig that had been recommended to McCarron by Dalton. Morris cringes when McCarron says he changed his college throwing motion.

"I wouldn't say that. He's got a natural throwing motion," Morris said. "What I would say is that he's better educated now as a thrower."

It wouldn't surprise Morris, either, that McCarron spent a good chunk of his off day Tuesday at Paul Brown Stadium with practice squad quarterback Keith Wenning preparing for the 49ers.

It certainly wouldn't surprise Siskey. McCarron did his off-season throwing at Mobile's University of South Alabama. Siskey, just named South Alabama's wide receivers coach, showed up for his first day of work early and who, of all people, but McCarron should be sitting in his office.

"There wasn't even a name tag on it," Siskey said. "I asked him, 'Where's my office?' and he said, 'Here.'"

The ultimate gym rat.

There are a lot of these conversations going on in the state of Alabama this week when they talk about what we'll see in San Francisco this week.

"Knowing how hard he prepares," Morris said. "It's hard for me not to see him being lights out."

"I know this," Siskey said. "Whether it's the Pittsburgh Steelers or the San Francisco 49ers or Williamson High School, he'll be the same."

The Real A.J. has a pretty good idea what Bengals fans will see.

"AJ is very passionate," A.J. Starr said. "He's passionate about playing, he's passionate about people."

There may be a little change in his church schedule this week.

"I'd like to see the whole game, but CBS isn't showing it here," Starr said. "I'll probably go to the sports bar with my mom."

He'll have plenty of friends.

Cincinnati Ben-Gal Cheerleaders perform during the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cincinnati Bengals game 12/13/2015

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