For a good part of his childhood, the Jaguars’ A.J. Bouye grew up with a single Dad who took the term “tough love” to some uncommon levels.
Bouye started playing organized football at age 4 with the North Georgia Jaguars in Stone Mountain, being coached by his old-school father, Steve, through eighth grade. There’d be no shortcuts taken in making sure A.J. reached his full athletic potential.
“If it wasn’t for my Dad, I know I probably would have been getting in a lot of trouble,” A.J. said. “He was very strict on me.”
Before A.J. was a teenager, Dad would get home in the early morning from his night-shift job at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta, making sure cousin Cheryl — or whoever in Steve’s inner circle was babysitting the Jaguars’ cornerback — had already awakened his son to go run hills nearby before breakfast.
“[A.J.] had to work out before he got a meal,” said Steve. “He had to show me he was hungry [to develop his game].”
This father-son dynamic, which had its moments of contentiousness, was critical in Bouye’s journey toward the NFL. For one, the Jaguars’ free-agent acquisition from the Houston Texans needed the push of a strong male role model to get noticed by football schools, most of whom regarded him as a non-prospect.
Steve worked a lot of overtime to get the money needed to send his only child to Mack Brown’s University of Texas camps. And even after a solid career at Central Florida, where Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles was his teammate, A.J. had to prove himself all over again after he tore up his knee as a junior and went undrafted.
“I believe in my son’s ability, but A.J. had no recruiting stars [going into college],” Steve said. “I made sure I did what I needed to do for my son to have a successful upbringing. I spent my last dollars to get him in the best football camps.”
The 55-year-old Bouye also saved up enough money to send A.J. to private school at Hopewell Christian Academy (grades 1-8), as well as sometimes reaching into his own pocket to help other kids that he coached in his AAU basketball program.
There was good reason for Steve Bouye being a relentless taskmaster. Part of it was some regret about his own football past – the former Sam Houston State linebacker was on a practice roster for two years with the CFL British Columbia Lions, but never activated in regular season. The other was far more personal.
A.J. spent nearly all of his formative years without a mother in the house. At 15-months-old, he lost his mother, Jackie Baskin, to cancer. Steve was crushed, but he had to be strong for his son.
“She had a lump on her breast and six months later, she was in a wheelchair when it spread into her brain,” said Steve. “It was one of the worst things ever.
“After she passed, I looked at A.J. straight in the eye at 15 months and said, ‘Don’t worry, I will take care of you.’ I’m still his hardest critic.”
Steve remarried Karen about a decade later, and gives her much credit for positively influencing his son. But in his father’s time as a single parent, A.J. acknowledges he laid a foundation that propelled him on a successful football track.
Life has never been better for A.J., who signed a five-year, $67.5 million contract with the Jaguars in March and is slotted to be their starting corner opposite Jalen Ramsey.
“It’s always tough to know what my Dad had to sacrifice to get me here now,” said A.J. “I’ll do everything in my power to take care of him and make sure he’s good.”
For the last two years, and especially on this Father’s Day, the 25-year-old Bouye has come to a fuller understanding of those sacrifices. A.J. is also a single father, co-parenting with his ex-girlfriend, Princess, who lives in Houston, in raising their 2-year-old daughter, Zoe.
A.J. positively glows when talking about his only offspring. While he laments his 18-month romantic relationship with Princess “didn’t work out,” he’s determined to make Zoe’s upbringing as seamless as possible, which includes Steve acting as a go-between when needed to get his daughter from Houston to Jacksonville and vice-versa.
If there was one thing that made Bouye a bit uneasy about signing with the Jaguars, who offered an annual salary that was $1.5 million more than Houston, it was the 870-mile separation from Zoe.
“I wanted to go back to the Texans to be closer with my daughter, but my agent said they didn’t want to give me what everybody else was offering,” said A.J. “I thought, being closer to Georgia and my Dad, this would be a good fit.”
Sunday is A.J.’s last day with Zoe after she stayed with her father the past three weeks. He’s looking forward to having Zoe, who wears his No. 21 jersey, for three-day weekends at all Jaguars’ home games this season. Now with his own responsibility of raising a child, A.J. has gained a much greater appreciation for what his Dad went through and treasures the idea of enjoying Zoe’s life with him.
“Being a father is exciting for the simple fact I have a little me,” A.J. said. “I just wanted a healthy baby. On top of that, with everything going on with my Dad not being able to work, I thought this changed his life a lot, too. To watch my Dad and daughter together, I live for those days.
“Zoe is outgoing and energetic. One of the best feelings in the world is when you have a stressful day, it’s great to come home and see her running to you and screaming, ‘Daddy!’ “
Bouye’s Twitter account (@AJBOUYE21) is a pretty clear indicator of how much he’s become a doting father, but in a much different way than Steve was with him.
“Daughter had me watching princess and the frog today… TWICE!” says one post, which prompted multiple shout-outs from Jaguars and Texans fans. When A.J. asked for gift suggestions for his daughter’s second birthday in March, he interacted with dozens of fans after they posted gift ideas.
“I always tell people I don’t spoil Zoe, but I really do,” A.J. said almost apologetically. “She gets what she wants.”
As for Steve Bouye, who turned down A.J.’s offer last year to buy him a truck, all he wants for Father’s Day is for his son to live up to the mega-contract the Jaguars gave him, which included $26 million in guaranteed money.
In some respects, nothing has changed in their relationship from the time A.J. was a kid. Steve is as demanding as ever when it comes to his football performance, which is also driven by his own regret of not working harder to make it in the pros.
“When you’re young, you do wrong stuff like not listening to coaches and partying,” said Steve, who was forced to go on disability last year after major neck surgery. “If I had to do [football] all over again, I would have done it differently. I didn’t take stuff seriously enough. If there’s one thing about my son, I didn’t want him to go down the wrong road.”
Steve Bouye knows all about people taking that path, having transported celebrity prisoners like former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick and mobster John Gotti during his time as a federal corrections officer.
He expects A.J. to become the elite-level player that his contract suggests, and if not, you can bet the Jaguars’ cornerback is going to hear about it. Dad isn’t shy about handing out the same kind of scouting reports on Mondays that his son will get from Jaguars’ coaches in tape study.
“I’m going to tell you the truth. I want A.J. to be in the Hall of Fame,” Steve said. “To do that, you have to treat every play like it’s your last play. He knows he’s got to face me, and I want to make sure he does his job right.
“I’m proud of my son and I’m excited for this new opportunity [with the Jaguars]. I’m not trying to be cocky, but I’ll be disappointed if he doesn’t make the Pro Bowl.”
Arlandus Jacob Bouye, whom Jaguars secondary coach Perry Fewell calls “Sweet Feet” because “his quickness is second to none,” has long grown accustomed to trying to reach the high standards his father has set for him. Yes, he wants to make certain every NFL game is miserable for the receivers he’s covering. But more than anything, A.J. wants to be the strong, consistent presence for Zoe that Steve was for him.
“He just instilled hard work into me and to always be a good person,” said A.J. “One thing about my Dad, no matter what he goes through, he’s always smiling. I don’t want my Dad to ever see that I messed up by not representing Zoe or him the right way.
“When she grows up, I want her to know her Dad was a great person who lived out his dream and kept working hard no matter what.”
So far, by trying to adhere to the demanding path Steve Bouye outlined for him, it’s worked out pretty well.
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