Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Meet the students behind Big Al


He is the only cheerleader whose ears double the size of his head and the only elephant that walks on two feet. His eyes are always gleaming, his high-fives brighten your day, and no one else rocks out to the Million Dollar Band quite like him. He is every child’s best friend, the Crimson Tide’s biggest fan and our favorite elephant. He is Big Al.

“We like to say there is only one Big Al. He just has five helpers,” said senior Melinda Tilley, one of the students who give life to the University of Alabama mascot.

Tilley and her four teammates, senior Macee Thomas, senior Justin Sullivan, sophomore Parker Branton and freshman Zack Weston, pride themselves on being Big Al’s “helpers.” To them, it is an honor and one of the most defining experiences of their time at the University.

“You can never replace or replicate that gameday experience,” Tilley said. “Those are the stories that you tell your kids and your grandkids one day. You got to be there, you were on the field, and you got to hype up the crowd.”


Becoming Big Al is no easy task. Tryouts take place every April on the Thursday before A-Day weekend, lasting for three days and consisting of a series of cuts and interviews. Applicants are slowly narrowed down to the five students who will be helpers for the next year.

Contenders participate in a sit-down interview, learn the character walk, signature and mannerisms and then get to put on the suit for the first time. Friday morning, everyone returns and is judged individually on their character walk. The first cuts are made following lunch. Friday afternoon, those remaining make their first field walk in the suit. They are judged on how they interact with people while in the suit and if they are able to maintain the walk and mannerisms.

On Saturday, the remaining participants attend A-Day as Big Al to be judged on their field presence and on how they respond to a large crowd atmosphere. Each contestant has a chance to be Big Al at some point during the game. Final cuts are made at the end of A-Day, and Big Al’s five helpers are officially named.

Team members have various reasons for why they chose to become Big Al.

“I was actually a mascot in high school and middle school, so this is actually my 10th year being a mascot,” Thomas said.

Weston, like Thomas, also had prior experience as a mascot before trying out for Big Al.

“I didn’t get to do a lot of athletics in high school,” Weston said. “And so I wanted to do something physical or through an athletic department. I did mascoting in middle school, and so I just decided to look it up, figure it out and went to tryouts.”

Tilley and Branton said they tried out because they saw Big Al and wanted to be him. When they found students could try out, they couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

“It was totally spontaneous,” Branton said.

Sullivan said he was looking for a way to get involved at the University when he chose to try out.

“I just wanted to do something that was bigger than me, at a school that was bigger than me,” he said.

During the summer, all Big Al teammates attend a national mascot camp where they practice, prepare for the upcoming fall and are evaluated on how well they present their character. Schools from around the region attend the camp, including Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Auburn and University of Alabama at Birmingham. The week concludes in a skit where all five teammates participate in costume. It is the only time there is ever more than one Big Al in the room.


Everyone on the Big Al team agreed that gameday is an unforgettable experience. From running out with the team to singing the last lines of “Rammer Jammer,” there is never a dull moment for the Big Al team on fall Saturdays.

“My first run out [with the team], that was pretty cool and one of my favorite moments because it was [at home] against Arkansas,” Branton said.

The Big Al team meets at Coleman Coliseum three hours before kickoff, and from there, they are transported to the stadium. Each team member has their own tailored Big Al suit to accommodate the rapid changes on gamedays and their personal comfort.

“We have to have multiple just because they are back to back,” Tilley said.

The Big Al suit is not ventilated, so team members must be careful and make sure they stay hydrated, she said.

“You just have to keep drinking water,” Tilley said.

Especially in the early months of football season, Big Al’s helpers have to be sure they are hydrating days before the game. Tilley said it is crucial to wear light clothes and stay healthy. Members must be constantly aware of their surroundings, because, should an emergency arise, Big Al has to be able to escape from the public eye before he or she can take off the suit. No one should ever catch a Big Al in transition.

“You never want to shatter somebody’s illusion,” Tilley said.

Every member of the team is Big Al at some point during the day when the Crimson Tide plays in Tuscaloosa. Team members rotate through a schedule, and each person is assigned a specific time when they will put on the suit and become Big Al – pregame on the Quad, the first and third quarter, the second quarter, the fourth quarter and the postgame.

“I was in the suit during the fourth quarter of the LSU game, and that was a rockin’ ‘Rammer Jammer,’” Tilley said.

Two members travel to away games, and that schedule also rotates. Should the Tide make it to a BCS National Championship game, seniority comes into effect, and the students who have been a part of the Big Al team for the longest are usually the ones who travel to the game.


When they aren’t cheering on the Crimson Tide, Big Al and his team are still hard at work in Tuscaloosa and throughout Alabama. In fact, it is community appearances that make the most profound impact on the Big Al team. Although the gameday excitement is exhilarating, the team agreed it is the community influence – making other people happy – that brings them the most joy.

“The hype of the game lasts for the game,” Sullivan said. “But the hype from the community service lasts a lot longer.”

Thomas, who has been Big Al since her freshman year, said her favorite memory from her time as Big Al took place when she visited the Stallings Center, home to the Rise Program and a popular place for Big Al appearances.

“One of the classrooms that I went to, there was this little boy there,” she said. “I’m not really sure what his disability was, but he had never responded to any kind of stimulus and never smiled or reached out for anything. He reached out for Big Al’s trunk and smiled for the first time.”

Big Al is also known to grant wishes. Sullivan said he remembers the team being contacted by a woman who said there was a little boy who really wished to see Big Al, and he was the helper assigned to be Big Al for the meeting.

“I wasn’t really sure what was going on, but I got there and found out this kid was going blind,” Sullivan said. “He was going blind, and his wish was to see Big Al before he went completely blind. He was going to the doctor over the next couple of weeks to see if they even had any hope of helping him. I went to his house. It was just me and his family, and he sat in my lap and just looked at me and felt Big Al.”

During the week, Big Al travels all over Alabama, making appearances in Birmingham, Montgomery and anywhere that requests his presence. Although the schedule is demanding, every member of the Big Al team agreed that the effort is worth the reward.

“That’s what we do,” Thomas said. “We make people happy.”

While Weston and Branton said they both hope to continue with Big Al, it is a bittersweet year for seniors Thomas, Tilley and Sullivan. They said being Big Al has changed their college experience for the better and that it’s an adventure they will never forget.

“It’s a lot more than just the suit and just the character,” Tilley said.

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