As the University of Alabama fell to the University of Oklahoma, 45-31, in Thursday’s Sugar Bowl game, the Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron walked off the field dejected with the loss sealed by his fumble in the final game of his college career.
But there’s a story about McCarron, a senior who has been hailed for the legacy he’s leaving, that is enough to make even staunchest Crimson Tide fans loosen their blame on McCarron’s two uncharacteristic fumbles in the Thursday night game.
It starts with another man, also named AJ.
AJ Starr used to peek through the fence to watch the Crimson Tide practice. Loving sports since he was a child, Starr always wanted to be on the field, but he has cerebral palsy.
As Starr explained in his struggled voice to ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi in a touching feature, oxygen was cut off to his brain when the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck during birth.
“And so, I kind of received brain damage,” he said.
As a result, Starr, like other patients with cerebral palsy, has problems with muscle coordination. He also finds it difficult to make friends. Though he thought enrolling at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa in 2012 would be a fresh start, “it’s hard to make friends when you’re different,” he said.
But these struggles are not viewed by Starr as many might think.
“I don’t really look at cerebral palsy as something, like, to be down about,” he told ESPN. “I just keep going.”
One day last year, Starr was trying to catch the attention of a bus to hitch a ride home. But the driver didn’t see him and moved on. As Sports Illustrated put it, Starr couldn’t walk fast enough to flag down the bus.
Then it started to rain.
All the while, McCarron was watching.
“I just heard someone scream, like, ‘Hey, do you need a ride?’” Starr told ESPN. “And I get closer and closer and I’m like, ‘That’s AJ McCarron.’”
For this die-hard Crimson Tide fan, a ride with McCarron talking about football and cerebral palsy was a dream.
But how it impacted McCarron was even more profound.
“When I dropped him off, I started bawling,” McCarron told Sport Illustrated in an in-depth feature in November. “Here’s this kid who has this disorder, and all he wanted to do was watch us practice.”
McCarron knew he had to do something. After the car ride, the quarterback called the team’s operations director and asked where Starr might fit in on the crew.
“Maybe he can help in the weight room or something? Equipment room? Doing laundry. Something?” McCarron told Sports Illustrated.
Working unpaid in the equipment room is where Starr has been ever since.
“Man, I don’t want money,” Starr told ESPN. “I just want to be a part of the team in any way.”
Of friendship, Starr told ESPN’s Rinaldi that it’s “someone that’s there for you no matter what.”
“He saved me. I mean, I thought about just giving up because I couldn’t make friends here; I couldn’t be accepted,” Starr said later in the clip.
While the two AJs might have a special bond, Starr has become beloved by all members on the team.
“They’re all my family here. I have the biggest and best family possible,” Starr said. “I’m probably the luckiest guy in the world right now.”
Watch the full clip from ESPN — and grab the tissues: