TideIllustrated - Behind the mask: A closer look at Big Al as the Alabama mascot turns 40 (2023)

The workouts begin at 5:30 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays inside of Alabama’s indoor practice facility. They start with stretching and continue with shoulder work and multiple rounds of cardio. Twenty sit-ups are followed by a run to the 50-yard line and back. Then 18 sit-ups accompanied by the same run. Then 16 sit-ups and so on down to zero.

All this to shake your belly in front of more than 100,000 screaming fans every weekend.

Big Al, Alabama’s anthropomorphic elephant mascot, has been stomping on the Crimson Tide’s sidelines since his debut during the 1979 Sugar Bowl when he saw Alabama beat Penn State to claim its 10th national championship.

Forty years later, the friendly, big-eared entertainer will continue to cheer on the Crimson Tide this week as it takes on Arkansas for Homecoming. Of course, he wouldn’t be able to do so without five of his best friends.

TideIllustrated - Behind the mask: A closer look at Big Al as the Alabama mascot turns 40 (2)

The “Pals of Al” is made up of five UA students who anonymously help keep one of Alabama’s favorite traditions alive. From football games to 5-year-old’s birthday parties and everything in between, becoming Big Al isn’t as carefree as the playful pachyderm makes it out to be. With Homecoming approaching, here’s a look behind the mask of Alabama’s favorite mascot.

The smaller details of becoming Big Al

Tryouts for Big Al are held two weeks before the A-Day game in the spring and involve a three-day process where candidates are evaluated on their personality, creativity and how well they interact in suit.

Once selected, new Pals of Al get their trial run in front of a full stadium during the annual scrimmage. Skills are refined over the summer as Alabama hosts a cheer camp where teams from across the nation are graded by instructors. That’s where the new members really learn Big Al’s idiosyncrasies, from his belly shake to his signature stride.

“A good Big Al walk, you’ve got to have high knees and big strides, but you can’t look like you’re marching,” said Big Al 1, a senior in his third year with the program. “There’s a flow and bounce, and your hands swing up pretty high. Also, we can’t see straight ahead of us in the head. So when we walk, we kind of turn our head so we don’t run over kids or anything like that.”

Big Al’s most discernible trait is his whimsical demeanor. One Pal of Al describes the mascot as “a little kid trapped in a big body while also being a bit of a flirt.” Those who wear the suit must take on that same happy-go-lucky outlook.

“I can say that my personality is starting to change outside of suit to be more like him,” said Big Al 2, a sophomore in his first year with the program. “I’m not 100 percent Big Al. I wouldn’t say any of us are. I think different parts of us make up who Big Al is, and so I think that’s a really cool part of the team dynamic.”

Outside of mastering Big Al’s mannerisms, Pals of Al must also withstand the physical tolls that come with wearing the suit. In total, the Big Al costume consists of a head, a body, two hands, two feet and a jersey to cover up his mesh underbelly. When worn, the heavy garb adds about 20-30 degrees to the outside temperature. That presents quite the challenge for outings such as Alabama’s Sept. 7 game against New Mexico State earlier this season where the heat index hovered around 105 degrees.

“Obviously, it’s super hot in there,” Big Al 1 said. “A lot of times we’re in there for an hour, so you have to have very good cardiovascular health. That’s why we work out with the cheerleaders every Tuesday and Thursday. You have to be in pretty good shape to handle it."

Gameday game plan

To help manage the often extreme conditions on game days, in-suit duties are split amongst all five Pals of Al.

The first shift involves only the Quad as Big Al visits various VIP tents while also taking part in the pre-game pep rally and Elephant Stomp on the steps of Gorgas Library. Shift No. 2 handles both the pregame activities at the stadium as well as halftime entertainment. This includes joining the Million Dollar Band for Tusk as well as leading the team out of the tunnel.

The actual game itself is broken into three parts with the second-quarter and fourth-quarter shifts standing alone as they tend to be the longest two quarters. The lone remaining shift involves the first and third quarters. However, only one of those periods is spent on the field as Big Al roams the stadium for box visits during the third quarter.

“Quad’s a really hard one,” Big Al 2 said. "Everything inside the stadium, if you’re dying from the heat you can take a break back in the locker room and take the head off for five minutes. Once you’re out on the Quad, there’s really no escape.”

Even out of suit, Pals of Al are on hand to help as they are given sideline passes to serve as a safety net in case a problem arises. While Big Al is unable to talk, he has a series of non-verbal cues to signify when he needs assistance. The most popular move is to cross his legs to pretend that he needs to use the restroom which allows him to retreat back to the cheerleading locker room.

Due to the restricted view of the suit, an extra element of scouting is also required. On top of maintaining a good feel of the layout inside of Bryant-Denny Stadium, Pals of Al also make their way to a few band practices at the beginning of the year to identify spotters in order to easily maneuver in and out of different marching formations.

Without proper practice and awareness, things go downhill rather quickly.

“There are a lot of issues that can arise from not being able to see,” Big Al 1 said. “One guy didn’t practice waving the flag in suit before, so he tried waving the flag really close to a police officer standing on the field. The police officer had his back turned, and Big Al was waving the flag. The first two waves were so close to his head, and the last one just dinged him right on the head. We were like, ‘Oh my gosh no!’”

TideIllustrated - Behind the mask: A closer look at Big Al as the Alabama mascot turns 40 (3)

Mascot mishaps

More often than not Big Al’s mistakes come at his own expense. One current Pal of Al remembers accidentally getting his trunk stuck in the toilet while changing at a 5-year-old’s birthday party. While embarrassing, at least no one got hurt. Big Al isn’t always that lucky.

Routinely surrounded by little kids, the huggable mascot has to also be able to withstand the occasional rouge punch to the chest or groin. Former Pal of Al Justin Sullivan remembers being in suit when a young girl asked if Big Al was a boy or a girl. Once the mascot turned his head, the curious bystander got her answer with a swift kick to Big Al’s groin. It wasn’t the first time Sulivan was subjected to a painful mishap.

Now working as the Tennessee Titans’ mascot, T-Rac, Sullivan prides himself on his dancing ability. So when Big Al was called onto the floor for a dance-off during a charity event, he was determined to come away victorious.

“It was an event with a bunch of fifth-graders, and I was like, ‘I’m not about to let these kids beat me and beat Big Al,” Sullivan recalled. “This kid was doing all these pop-culture, really popular dances at the time. I could compete with him, but it’s a little boy doing it compared to a huge elephant. His moves just sold better than mine. To be honest with you, I was thinking, ‘You’re going to lose if you don’t do something here.’”

Then a thought came into Sullivan's mind.

“I was like, ‘OK, jump-split. You can do that,’” he remembers. “ Except, I had never done that in my life. So Justin jumps up and thinks he’s invincible, that he’s going to do this jump-split and win. Big Al won, but Justin lost really bad.

“My hamstring popped, and I could not get off the floor. When you pop those muscles, they’re known to make a legit sound. They heard my muscle pop, and they were like, ‘We’ve got to get Big Al out of here.’”

While the popping sound gave Sullivan’s injury away, he was trained not to express his pain in suit. Fighting off a few anguishing moments, he was able to keep it together long enough to be carried away from earshot.

“You bite your lip real hard,” he said. “It’s one of those things, you take all that pain inside, and after you get out you can breathe and you can take it out at that point.”

"A character that holds character”

Usually, when Pals of Al have to hold their composure in suit it’s for emotional purposes. While the bright lights of Bryant-Denny are what bring most people into the program, past and current members say it’s the off-the-field events that can be the most rewarding.

From parties to charity events, Big Al spends the majority of his week spreading cheer across the community. While most of the appearances are light and trivial, every now and then one will serve as a reminder of how important a smiling face can be.

“I remember signing up for a leukemia walk in Birmingham, and during the walk this older mom stopped me and was just so happy to see me,” Big Al 1 said. “She was crying because she said that her son passed away and always wanted to meet Big Al. She said it means so much to him that Big Al is here right now for him.

“I lost it. I was literally sitting there crying. I’m just some dude in a suit, and this person is talking about me showing up for her son. That was definitely the most emotional thing I ever felt.”

Sullivan still says his most impactful encounter came after he was asked to make an appearance for a young boy who was going blind and facing surgery in the coming days. The boy’s mother, not knowing if her son was ever going to see again, wanted to make sure he saw his favorite character one final time.

Happy to oblige, Sullivan made his way over for a surprise home visit. What he thought would be a quick 10-minute appearance soon turned out to be a moment he’ll never forget.

“The boy opens the door and is instantly enamored by Big Al’s stature and who he was and what that character meant to him,” Sullivan said. “I ended up staying for more than an hour, with him just sitting on my lap and smiling the whole time. I was crying through the suit. His mom and dad were crying. His grandparents were crying. There wasn’t a dry eye.

“Appearances like that rip at your heartstrings. They really show that (Big Al) is really bigger than me. One thing I always say is that character is more than just athletics. It’s a character that holds character, and he means so much to a lot of people.”

TideIllustrated - Behind the mask: A closer look at Big Al as the Alabama mascot turns 40 (4)

Big Al turns 40

This will be a busy week for Big Al as he helps the Crimson Tide prepare for its Homecoming festivities. The cheer team will also celebrate Big Al’s 40th anniversary as Alabama’s official mascot as it plans to hold a reunion for past Pals of Al.

“Being a mascot is not just what you see on Saturdays in Bryant-Denny,” Sullivan said. “The impact goes a lot further and a lot longer, and it reaches a lot deeper than you would imagine.”

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TideIllustrated - Behind the mask: A closer look at Big Al as the Alabama mascot turns 40 (5)

Andrew Bone, of BamaInsider.com, is a real estate broker in the state of Alabama.

Contact Andrew Bone for all of your real estate needs; buyers, sellers, investors, developers. Property management; BoneHomeTours.com Call 205-531-5577 or click here

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