University of Alabama senior student and Crimson Tide football team equipment manager AJ Starr spent his Christmas break in Centre. He was glad to be back home for the holidays, but part of him yearned to be on the sideline with the team he loves, wishing he could help the Tide earn another national championship.
Alabama fell short of that goal after its 34-28 loss to Auburn in the Iron Bowl on Thanksgiving weekend, but Starr still had a special Christmas nonetheless.
His unique relationship with Tide quarterback AJ McCarron – first detailed in a November Sports Illustrated feature on McCarron – has been the subject of numerous stories in the national media ever since.
Prior to the Tide’s Sugar Bowl game against Oklahoma on Jan. 2, ESPN featured a segment on Starr’s battle with cerebral palsy and his heartwarming story of how he and McCarron met.
That interview was seen by former Tide walk-on and website designer Brent Thomas, who was inspired by the story to create the “We Love ‘The Real AJ’” Facebook page. The page had over 17,500 likes in just a few days since its creation.
Now, Starr’s story is escalating into a possible foundation being created with cerebral palsy centers across the state.
Starr’s father, Neal, his uncle John Starr, family friend Buddy Knapp, and Thomas are all spearheading the effort to create such a foundation.
“I’m really excited about giving back,” AJ Starr said. “I feel like this is my opportunity to be a blessing to someone. So much has been given to me, and I just want to give that back, help others with cerebral palsy to gain jobs and reach their goals.”
Neal Starr said when his son and McCarron’s story was told on television, a tremendous outpouring of supportive phone calls and emails ensued. That led him to think about how his son could turn that support into something even greater.
“I told AJ this would be a good platform to help those who have a condition like his,” Neal Starr said. “I think this (foundation) is a great venue to bring things together. It’s not about AJ. It’s about helping those children with cerebral palsy. We’re all human beings, no matter what our disabilities, our likes or dislikes are about.
“One of the things AJ wants to do with the foundation is if someone sees somebody or encounters somebody with a disability, just encourage them, support them, say a kind word to them. Sometimes making a connection with people is hard, but if we can make a connection with them, it makes things better for us all.”
Neal contacted his brother John Starr, a 28-year veteran Georgia high school football coach, to ask for his input and help in putting something together for AJ.
John Starr wasted little time in contacting friend and retired coaching colleague Knapp to help formulate a plan.
John Starr and Knapp had worked together on a major project before. They were instrumental in developing a series of high school all-star football games played at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
Ironically, John Starr and Knapp put their ideas on the table for an AJ Starr foundation together during the Tide’s Sugar Bowl game against Oklahoma on Jan. 2.
“It’s been crazy how this all went down,” John Starr said. “Buddy and I were texting back and forth during the Sugar Bowl game, and he got really excited about the idea. He saw the potential of this project.”
Knapp met with the Starr family to detail their plans that Sunday, which included meeting with cerebral palsy officials throughout Alabama.
“When Buddy gets his mind on something, he gets a burning desire for it. When he gets that burning desire, it’s going to happen,” John Starr said.
In the meantime, John Starr’s daughter Janai had found Thomas’ “We Love ‘The Real AJ’” Facebook page. She made a connection with Thomas, and in turn, John Starr contacted Thomas to tell him of their plans for AJ Starr.
Thomas was more than happy to help the cause. He has volunteered to set up the foundation’s website.
“This story transcends any particular football team. It’s just impacted people so much,” Thomas said. “We’ve gotten so many great comments and messages on the (Facebook) page. It’s just a powerful story that has taken on a life of its own. People are just showing their support, and we really appreciate it.”
Thomas, who attended the University of Alabama in 1989 and 1990, first saw the ESPN feature story on Facebook and was immediately hooked.
“I was just like AJ McCarron. I just bawled,” Thomas said. “I wound up watching it a few more times. I was just so impacted by that video, I couldn’t get over it.”
Thomas said he wanted to do something to show his support for AJ Starr. He talked with his wife Robin about what he could do, and they came up with the idea of starting their own Facebook page “just to give some Alabama fans kind of a venue to show support for AJ.”
“I set it up on a Friday afternoon,” Thomas said. “I sent out invitations to all my friends and they started liking it. It started growing to a few hundred by Friday night. By Saturday morning, my daughter (Krista) gets in touch with a page called “Alabama Nation,” and they wound up posting it. It went from a few hundred people on Friday night to Saturday itself gaining 10,000 likes. People see the story and just want to show their support. It’s been great.”
As impressive as those numbers were to Thomas, he’s just as taken with the responses people are leaving. Some have been as far away as Ireland, Thomas said.
“We’re getting messages and comments on our wall and some private messages from some parents who have kids with disabilities. AJ Starr has become their hero,” Thomas said. “I lost it reading some of the posts about how some of their kids have cerebral palsy, and they saw the story about AJ and they just lit up. They just love him. He’s now going to have a very positive impact on a lot of kids with disabilities.
“Some of the things he wants to do with the foundation is to help make those kids’ lives much better. It’s going to be outstanding. AJ is going to be a great ambassador for that organization. There’s going to be a lot of good things coming down the road.”
AJ Starr said he never dreamed his story would elicit such an outpouring of support.
“It tells me how much my story meant to them,” he said. “Their kindness, those comments they’re making to me means more to me than they will ever know.”