The game has just begun, and Neyland Stadium towers above in orange glory as the Tennessee crowd roars. Alabama students are confident about the match-up, but the opposing noise is overpowering as the Crimson Tide makes its second drive down the football field. Between each play, Dakota Williams silently leads every chant with the Alabama cheerleaders. On the eighth play of the drive, Alabama’s quarterback Jalen Hurts completes a 36-yard touchdown pass to his receiver ArDarius Stewart. Alabama fans go wild and sing Yea Alabama at Williams’ direction. They don’t know him as Dakota, they know him as Big Al.
“I have always loved being the someone else of Big Al,” Williams, a senior biology and marine science major from Macon, Georgia, said. “It’s incredible how I have seen people’s lives change.”
That exact thing happened when Williams and another Big Al traveled to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to meet a 2-year-old girl named Brynn Clark. She had suffered from a brain injury called an epidural hematoma when she fell and hit her head on a tile floor in a café.
“Big Al is taught to lead a selfless life from a different perspective,” Williams said. “I’ve seen people struggling with illnesses and their faces light up when they see him.”
Her parents feared for her survival as she immediately underwent brain surgery to relieve the blood clot in her brain. Clark not only survived, but she continued to improve. The doctors had warned her parents of the obstacles she would face during recovery, one of them being speech development. She recovered speech and other motor skills at a miraculous rate, and her first words were “Me Roll Tide.” When Williams heard about this remarkable little girl, he knew he had to meet her as Big Al.
“We can’t talk at all in costume,” Williams said. “So it was even more humbling to meet her and receive so many ‘thank you’s’ and not be able to say anything in return.”
Williams has been the famous pachyderm for three years. He was the bulldog mascot at his high school, and once he achieved his dream of coming to The University of Alabama, he knew he could not miss such an opportunity. This year, he is one of four men donning the costume, and it is the first of many years that there was not a woman on the spirit squad. He and the other Big Al’s do most events and traveling with the cheerleaders.
“I have known Dakota since my very first year,” said Millery Null, a junior co-ed cheerleader from Meridian, Mississippi. “He was there with us as we ran the team out to play in the national championship in Phoenix.”
Null said that they work hand-in-hand with Big Al for most appearances and events. She and other cheerleaders stand as the go-between when fans talk to Big Al, since he is unable to speak. They talk to Big Al through the eyehole in the costume and fix his outfit if there is ever a wardrobe malfunction.
“Big Al seems to be the fans’ favorite to interact with,” Null said. “I believe it’s because he is the mascot of our huge university, and when your football team does as well as ours, this is super important.”
Null said the spirit coordinators are very selective on who becomes Big Al. They have to have an incredible personality with or without the suit on.
“We are not very secretive about who is Big Al,” Williams said. “I know Auburn’s Aubie is kept top-secret, but we don’t believe in all that.”
Big Al makes around 400 appearances a year, and Williams himself has made around 375. Williams said being Big Al is much more than being at football games, although that is the most exciting part. The squad makes volunteer-based appearances at fall festivals, elementary schools, charity events, Bama Bound and more. They are paid to attend birthday parties, and the university receives $400 for every wedding and business event they attend. The Big Als and their sponsor, Jennifer Thrasher, have meetings every week to decide who will take what event.
The silence aspect of being Big Al was one of the most difficult things for Williams to master. He struggled at his first few appearances not to talk, but he got the hang of it with the help of one of his best friends who was Big Al before him. That friend is now a mascot for the NFL’s Tennessee Titans, and his success has Williams thinking about a career as a professional mascot.
“Since seventh grade, I have wanted to be a radiologist,” Williams said. “I have a thing for X-Rays, and I love helping people.”
Williams said that is also why he loves Big Al, because he gets to individually help people like Brynn Clark. One of the reasons being Big Al was so appealing was it helped so much with involvement on his medical school application, but now he says it may be an ulterior career path.
He has applied to be Viktor, the mascot of the Minnesota Vikings, an NFL team. Williams said he would prefer to work in major league baseball, but he will go wherever a job opens. Juggling this big life decision has become second-nature to Williams, and he is not worried about the future in the present.
“I am staying on top of my classes, and I’ve still applied to multiple medical schools,” Williams said. “I am going to be wherever I am supposed to be.”
Williams said the opportunities the university has given him as Big Al are worth a lifetime. Some of his best memories are getting to meet Robin Thicke and Josh Duhamel to film the college football playoff commercial last year, racing the Fighting Duck of The University of Oregon in a commercial for ESPN and AT&T, and meeting Marcus Spears on the sideline in Tennessee. He and a few other Big Als were almost allowed to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania, and put on the suit when it was airdropped from a helicopter at the summit, but the university decided it was too much of a liability. This past January when the Crimson Tide won its 16th national championship in Phoenix, Arizona, Williams was live streamed on Good Morning America as Big Al three days in a row.
“Big Al is a little kid in a big kid’s body, along with being a lady’s man as well,” Williams said.
Williams’ goal as Big Al is to try to keep the character the same as it always has been. He said he wants to come back in 20 years and see Big Al acting the same as the one he portrayed during his time at UA.