His birth was an ignoble one, a pitiful, stumbling entrance onto life’s stage.
A.J. was a runt, no use mincing words. Tipping the scales at a cool two pounds and eight ounces, with lungs that could barely draw air let alone produce that all-telling, life-affirming wail, he’d have been left to his own devices if the indifferent white coats had had their way.
Only the compassionate nursing team, matronly Marion and blue-eyed Beth, cared enough to intervene. They massaged A.J.’s pencil-eraser-sized lungs until he could suck in cold breaths on his own.
As I said, it wasn’t a proud beginning.
Only the mythical presence of an unseasonal harvest moon, a blood orange that hung over the South Carolina pines down the sterile hallway and out the grimy little window, foretold at an all-Conquering future to come.
The hint would soon be joined by a steady stream of others.
As you might have noticed from his entrance—three weeks and two days before his due date—A.J. was never much for waiting.
He took his first steps at nine weeks, was off breastfeeding by five months. He graduated to solid food by age one, was cutting his own meat by a year and a half. There never was any need for rubber sheets in the aging, colonial Manigault Drive house. He sped out of diapers and bypassed the training seat.
His first word, “Run,” babbled out at three months, and a week later he knocked his doting father flat on his ass during a playful game of toss-the-ball.
A.J. grew up fast and he grew up tall—measure his height in No. 2 pencil on his bedroom doorframe, and you’d have to tack on a few inches overnight.
Training wheels proved superfluous; only the law kept him from getting behind the wheel of his car as a toddler. A.J. was no fool, you see. His was—is—a God-fearing people, and he kept his humility even as his exploits steadily increased in outlandishness.
His first kiss came in the fourth grade with the pretty, petite, brown-eyed reining homecoming queen. He made his first start on the varsity football team by middle school, poured in 59 points in a district championship basketball game at age 12.
A.J. was Summerville’s unlikeliest of folk heroes, their student body president, valedictorian, prayer leading, soup-kitchen-serving, bench-press-school-record-setting 2009 Wing Fling champion, extra-spicy division. Their opponent-hated, cheerleader-prom-dating high school All-American.
He stole roster spots, made Region VIII his private fiefdom for a half decade. Yet he retained everyone’s affection and always had outstanding offers for free meals at every restaurant on North Main Street.
A.J., to summarize, did all the prophesizing that his unimpressive birth could not.
His was to be a once-in-a-generation life, a Paul-Bunyan-esque 80-plus without the Blue Ox.
A.J. was merely waiting around for somebody to point him in the right direction, waiting around being all relative, of course. He was ready to spread his wings. Big fish in a small pond is for mortals.
Not even three years languidly striding to the top of the amateurs was enough to satiate his ambition.
A.J. took his powers for granted for a time. Or, more fairly, directed them in a decidedly dark direction. He had convinced himself that not even the professional ranks were a suitable challenge.
A.J. scoured Athens for the dankest, seediest, floor-stickiest bar in town.
He walked in and bellowed a challenge: “I’ll bet a pocket of silver against you’re livers, ‘cause I think I’m better than you”—a not-so-clever Charlie Daniels twist, this being Georgia and all.
Some 50 challengers and even more whiskey shots later, he got tossed into the star-struck night and woke up in a ditch. These were the bad times, the hero-questioning-his-motives times.
Fate delivered him to the coach. And the coach was never a man to second-guess divine intervention, his flesh-and-blood Superman, ready to save or destroy at command.
Upon their first meeting, the coach walked right up to his superhuman, looked him in the eye and grumbled, “You ain’t shit,” without deigning to change his expression.
That was the Willy Wonka golden ticket, the challenge A.J. had waited two decades to hear.
Three years later, he strode into battle, as dominant as he—or fate—had ever dreamed was possible. The Conqueror felt his strength coming full circle.
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