He’s getting married in a month, but during a lunch break at the Cincinnati Bengals’ three-day mandatory minicamp this week, rookie quarterback AJ McCarron didn’t mention his beautiful wife-to-be, the model and former Miss Alabama, Katherine Webb.
He instead talked lovingly about the other girl in his life.
She’s the one who showed up at an Alabama game at Bryant-Denny Stadium last September wearing McCarron’s No. 10 Crimson Tide jersey with “AJ’s Girl” printed on the back.
She’s the one whose relationship with McCarron was best explained by AJ’s mom, who once said: “He loves her to death and she loves him.”
That was evident this week as McCarron stood in the middle of the dressing quarters at Paul Brown Stadium and noticeably lit up at the mere mention of her name.
“Just to see pictures of her now, to see her smile, that’s so cool to me, “ he said.
As for Webb, she need not worry about the rival for AJ’s heart when she walks down the aisle on July 11. In fact, “AJ’s girl” will be walking right in front of her.
She’s the couple’s flower girl.
Her name is Starla Chapman. She’s from Bay Minette, Ala., and she’s 5.
And to borrow a descriptive phrase from McCarron, she helps make for the “coolest” story coming out of Bengals camp these days.
She and the quarterback met on Christmas Eve in 2011.
McCarron, who would lead Alabama into the BCS national championship game against LSU in just 16 days, was with his parents handing out presents to sick kids at the University of South Alabama Children’s and Women’s Hospital in Mobile. It’s the same facility where 5-year-old AJ once lay clinging to life after he had suffered a severe head injury in a jet-skiing accident.
In September 2011, when she was 2, Starla had been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (ACL) and by Christmas Eve that year she was very sick. She was undergoing chemotherapy sessions for her cancer, but treatment was, in turn, badly damaging her heart.
Regardless, she followed in the footsteps of her dad, Korey, and was a big Alabama football fan, so much so that her favorite saying was “Rolllll Tide!” And that Christmas Eve she was wearing a little Crimson Tide cheerleader’s outfit when McCarron walked into her room and gave her a present.
She responded with a gift of her own and handed him a bright yellow rubberized wristband that symbolized her struggle for life. It bore the message “Just Trust.”
DeAndra Chapman, Starla’s mom, said that’s basically what their little daughter had told them when they had gathered fearfully the day before the first chemotherapy treatment:
It’s from the biblical verse, Proverbs 3:5 — “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”
When she gave the bracelet to McCarron, he told her he would wear it and this week he explained why he had made good on the promise:
“I felt like she was at a stage in her life where she needed something like that. I felt it was the right thing to do and it was important for me to do it for her when she asked me to wear it. During that time she just really needed that.”
She certainly did.
Ten days later — on Jan. 3, 2012 — Starla suffered a seizure and her heart stopped. It took two minutes of chest compressions to revive her, but after that it was discovered that her heart was operating at just six percent. Her numbed parents were told to gather the family because it was feared she would not survive.
When McCarron got the news, he already was in New Orleans preparing for the national title game, so he sent his mom, Dee Dee Bonner, to the hospital to pray with the family.
Six days after that McCarron led Alabama to the national crown with a 21-0 victory over LSU. He completed 23 of 34 passes for 234 yards and was voted the game’s MVP.
Back in that Mobile hospital room, where Starla now lay comatose, Korey and DeAndra gave him their MVP vote, too, but for different reasons. As they and the rest of America watched McCarron throw pass after pass after pass, they couldn’t help but notice that bright yellow bracelet on his right wrist.
He had kept his promise.
A few days later he returned to the hospital to see Starla. She was still comatose, but DeAndra has claimed when she announced “AJ’s here to see you….AJ’s here!” her little girl began to kick.
Soon after, Starla came out of her coma and on January 22 her breathing tube was removed and she began to make remarkable progress. And in the more than two years since, the charming little girl and the big-time quarterback have developed an ever-growing friendship.
“I’ve gotten to see her get a second chance at life, kind of like what I got after my wave-runner wreck,” McCarron explained. “I can’t tell you how great it is to see somebody else — especially a little kid like her who has gone through so much — get a second chance and be able to live life to the fullest.”
Last spring McCarron and Alabama teammate Kenny Bell signed autographs for several hours at a Mobile mall to help raise money for Starla’s care. The Chapman family has also started a Proverbs 3:5 Foundation to help gather funds for other sick children.
But as McCarron stood in the dressing room before a team meeting and talked about Starla — all while clutching his Bengals’ playbook in his right hand — you couldn’t help notice something was missing.
That yellow bracelet he’d worn in the 2012 BCS championship game and when he won the 2013 national title game too; the bracelet he refused to let doctors cut off when he had shoulder surgery and the one he wore when he was drafted in the fifth round by the Bengals this spring was no longer on his wrist.
“The colors were fading and it was starting to get old and I didn’t want it to break and I’d lose it,” he said. “I framed it with my jersey and now it’s with the rest of my stuff at my mom’s house.”
But while the yellow band is gone, the bond between the charming little girl and the big-time quarterback has never been stronger.
A few months back the Chapmans asked McCarron to be the godfather of Starla, who is now in remission.
And then in May he and Katherine asked Starla to be a flower girl in their wedding.
In response, “AJ’s Girl” gave the perfect response.
She simply said: “Rolllll Tide!”