It was 5 a.m., and A.J. Bouye felt his stomach churn as his father, Steve, drove past two gas stations, a Church’s Chicken and a stoplight before reaching the front gate of the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta, where the armed guard soon waved the father and son through.
This was the summer of 2007, way back when Bouye – now an All-Pro cornerback of the Jacksonville Jaguars – was just 14 years old. Steve, a federal correctional officer, was about to begin his daily shift, but not before putting A.J. through another tortuous workout.
It had become routine at this point, so much so that A.J. had grown to despise the mere sight of the prison and the small, nondescript building that housed the employee gym – complete with a bench press, a squat rack and a single treadmill – he was forced to frequent as many as five days a week that summer.
“I used to hate all that,” A.J. says now, shaking his head. “I used to hate it.”
Steve knew, but cared little. Steve had long ago decided his son would be disciplined and respectful of authority; after growing up without a father himself, he would not allow his son to squander his athletic talent the way he had so many years earlier, when he failed to latch on in the NFL – he believes – due to his stubbornness and proclivity for arguing with coaches and generally “acting a fool.”
“I wanted him to understand that whatever you want in life, you’ve got to work for it,” says Steve, a former star linebacker at Sam Houston State.
There was no way for A.J. to know it at the time, but one day, he would not only come to appreciate the discipline, humility and mental toughness these workouts instilled, but also the occasionally overbearing zealousness of his father – who made him do a seemingly endless loop of pushups, sit-ups, ladder drills and sprints throughout his entire childhood – as well.
Because in retrospect, there’s no doubt in the 26-year-old’s mind that he would not be where he is today – an All-Pro NFL cornerback, and rich beyond his wildest dreams – without the presence of Steve, whose involvement in his son’s life not only saved A.J. from a potentially life-destroying decision late in his teens, but also fulfills a promise he made to A.J.’s mother 25 years ago.
“No matter how much we didn’t get along at times, he was always there,” A.J. says, “My dad was tough on me, but he didn’t want me to be at the prison he was working at one day.”
A promise made
Only months after A.J. was born, his mother, Jackie Baskin, dialed Steve, who was working at a Dallas juvenile detention center but was planning to move to Atlanta to take a higher-paying job at the federal prison there.
“There’s a lump on my breast,” she told Steve.
Doctors confirmed she had breast cancer, but Steve moved to Atlanta anyway; the plan was for Jackie to get better and for Steve to get transferred back to Dallas within a year. They needed the money. But her condition plummeted quickly, as the cancer eventually spread to her brain. Within six months of her diagnosis, she was in a wheelchair, and nine months after that, she died – but not before she made Steve promise, on her deathbed, to always look after their son.
“You don’t have to worry,” Steve pledged.
And on the day Jackie died, Steve gathered his 1-year-old son in his hands, looked him straight in his eyes and made another promise.
“Bruh, you don’t have to worry about nothing – Dad is gonna take care of you,” Steve said. “You’ll never want for nothing.”
A burgeoning talent
Around that time, A.J. began showing athletic promise. He dunked on kid-sized basketball hoops, and Steve put him through mini-workouts – 10 pushups and 10 sit-ups a night – when he was only 3 years old.
When he was 4, Steve forged A.J.’s birth certificate so he could play in a league with kids ages 5 through 8, and when he was 6, he was juking and embarrassing kids twice his age with his quickness and vision with the football in his hands.
But it’s a cold world, and Steve knew that part of fulfilling his promise to A.J.’s mom as a single dad meant instilling toughness in the young boy. One time, when a 13-year-old laid A.J. out during a practice, the child ran to his father, only to find zero sympathy.
“You can sit your ass down,” Steve told his 6-year-old son, “or you can be a man, get back up there and get back with them. You don’t cry for nothing.”
When A.J. wiped his tears away, trudged back to the older boys and kept playing, Steve realized his son was tough enough to handle more intense training. He graduated to 50 pushups and sit-ups a night and was essentially force-fed protein shakes. When A.J. reached driving age, Steve wouldn’t even let him go anywhere until he’d finished his home-directed daily workouts.
If he didn’t – or if he disobeyed Steve in any other way – there was hell to pay.
“I couldn’t say no; he was bigger than me,” A.J. says now with a chuckle. “I knew better than to not listen. I had one of the old-school dads.”
Add that component to Steve’s hypercritical eye, especially on the football field, and that bred some degree of understandable contentiousness between the two.
“He used to criticize me so much,” A.J. says. “His whole thing was, if I’m angry, I play better. But I used to hate it.”
But over time, all that hard work and discipline paid off. While Steve married his now-wife, Karen, when A.J. was in eighth grade (and credits her for raising him, too), A.J. kept getting faster, stronger and stayed out of trouble. And eventually, the moment came when A.J. would realize that same hands-on nature he grew to quietly resent had actually saved him from a horrible mistake.
A life-saving decision
By the time A.J. was a senior in high school, he was largely regarded as an under-the-radar talent, despite all his hard work. He was only a two-star athlete, according to Rivals, with only one scholarship offer, to Central Florida.
Yet, in retrospect, A.J. is grateful he was even able to go to Central Florida in the first place. One night his senior year, he was hanging out with his girlfriend when he made some soft plans to hang out with his best friend later on.
Then, his phone buzzed.
“Oh, you coming home?” Steve asked, sternly.
With curfew looming, A.J. knew that wasn’t a question – it was more like a command, and dad’s orders were not to be defied. So he dropped his girlfriend off and went home while his best friend went ahead and met up with some other guys. They ended up at an apartment complex, and while A.J.’s friend stayed in the car – apparently unaware of what was happening – the other two went inside and robbed a guy.
“I was supposed to be with them that night,” A.J. says. “Looking back on incidents like that, I’m grateful for where I’m at. It’s not a fluke I’m here. God’s got me here.”
A.J.’s best friend ended up spending a year in jail as an accomplice, a fact that was not lost on Steve.
“He could have easily been caught right up with that bull crap, and he’d be doing a 9-to-5 job right now at McDonald’s, flipping fries,” Steve says.
Instead, A.J. went on to UCF where, after a killer senior campaign in which he made all-conference and was bandied about as a possible third-round pick, he looked forward to the 2013 NFL draft, the day all his hard work would be rightfully rewarded.
The tears had long begun to well in A.J.’s eyes, and although the phone kept going to voicemail, A.J. kept dialing his father.
This was April 27, 2013, the final day of the NFL draft, and after A.J. watched every pick of it without hearing his name called, he was fed up. He was tired of being disrespected, tired of not getting the recognition he deserved. He wondered if it would ever come, and if all his hard work would ever pay off.
“I didn’t really know much about setbacks,” A.J. says. “My dad’s been through a lot, so he was able to talk me through it.”
When Steve – who was working at the jail at the time – could finally answer, he renewed his son’s spirit with some words of faith.
“Listen to me son, real good,” Steve told him. “Wherever you go as a free agent, remember – this is the best thing that can happen to you. Trust me when I say this – when you go to camp, you will be the best DB on the team.”
Steve has never been much for candy-coating things, so when he told A.J. this, he believed and quickly shut down any thoughts he might have had of quitting.
“But if I didn’t have my dad,” A.J. says, “it would have been a whole ‘nother story.”
Eventually A.J.’s agent called and told him Houston was interested in signing him as an undrafted free agent. They needed corners after failing to draft one, and an assistant DB coach had promised Bouye would get reps if he signed with the Texans.
“Go to camp, and do your thing,” Steve told him.
Pathway to a payday
A.J. impressed early in Houston, latching on as a fifth cornerback as a rookie and slowly earning more responsibility over the next four years. He made some plays his first three years, but he also gave up too many because he wasn’t as focused as he should have been.
“There were weeks I wasn’t even watching film because I didn’t think I was gonna play,” A.J. says.
After one awful game in which he was roasted multiple times in a 44-26 loss to the Miami Dolphins in 2015, A.J. started pointing fingers and Steve – who watches A.J. on every play of every game – was having none of that.
“You had a terrible game,” Steve told him. “You need to be accountable. You played like s—, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you got cut.”
A.J. fumed; he didn’t talk to Steve for two weeks. But once again, he soon realized his father was right. After the Texans demoted him for a few weeks, he began preparing better, and A.J. approached the 2016 season – a contract year – with a more mature approach.
He continued to study hard, even when the team placed him at linebacker to open the season, despite the fact he’d outpaced all the other cornerbacks in interceptions throughout OTAs. He ran with the opportunity, opening some eyes early on by locking up the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce and the Titans’ Delanie Walker, a pair of Pro Bowl tight ends.
“My whole thing was, somebody’s watching – I’m gonna get paid,” A.J. says. “Someone’s gonna give me the opportunity.”
He continued to shine when he was finally allowed to move back to corner due to injuries later in the season, too, and by December, Bouye was being recognized as one of the game’s best young corners and someone who was about to get paid in free agency.
Then-ESPN announcer Jon Gruden even stopped a production meeting before the Texans’ Christmas Eve game to walk up to Bouye and tell him so.
“Tell your dad I know he’s proud,” Gruden said. “You’re gonna be a rich man. The way you carry yourself, I love it.”
A promise fulfilled
A few months later, Bouye inked a five-year deal worth $67.5 million with the Jacksonville Jaguars that made him one of the game’s highest-paid corners. During the news conference in Jacksonville, Steve stood next to his son, beaming. All of his son’s hard work had finally paid off.
“Everybody wants to take the credit,” Steve says. “I don’t even take the credit. He did it on his own. He did what I asked him to do – he busted his ass. He had to work for every ounce of what he got.”
“That’s why he was hard on me,” A.J. says.
Now that A.J. is a single dad himself – he has a young daughter he sees on weekends – he also has a new appreciation for all Steve did in his life. He’s tried to show it, too. Although Steve turned down his offer to buy him an Escalade, he did let A.J. pay off he and Karen’s house, and he can’t stop talking about the shiny new Rolex that A.J. just bought him for Father’s Day.
But while the gifts are nice, the truth is, the thing that Steve truly treasures is seeing his son continue to blossom as a football player – A.J. nabbed a career-high six interceptions with the Jaguars and was named All-Pro last season for the first time in his career – and man.
A.J. gives thousands of dollars back to his old high school, and he sponsors his father’s AAU basketball team. He also works actively with the American Cancer Society to fight the disease that took his mother, who he calls his guardian angel.
Steve knows that if Jackie were here today, she would be proud.
“He got his degree, he never got in trouble and he’s a respectable young man,” Steve says.
It’s something that, no doubt, can be attributed to all those brutal morning workouts and a father’s tough love.
“We argued a lot, but at the end of the day, he knows Dad was right,” Steve says. “If I had to do it all over again, I’d do it the same way.”
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