Sorensen: Legend of WSU's Big Al grows taller

WE HADN’T TALKED in three decades, but Allan Kennedy knew my voice the moment he picked up the phone and heard me boom “Big Al!” The passage of time hasn’t changed my old Washington State and San Francisco 49ers teammate one bit. He’s still as friendly and unassuming as ever. The gentle giant is still gentle.

But by today’s football standards he’s not all that giant.

Back in 1976-80, when Al was checking in as a 6-foot-7, 275-pound offensive tackle for the Cougs he was dubbed the largest human to wear a WSU uniform since the school began playing football in 1894.

Thus the nickname Big Al.

Ol’ No. 72 wasn’t just big, though. He was good. Really good. First-team All-Coast and all-Pac-10 good. And twice named honorable mention All-America good.

So good that he’ll be inducted into the WSU Athletics Hall of Fame this Friday at a dinner celebration in Spokane. Another one of our old teammates from those days, tight end Pat Beach, will be inducted as well, along with a host of other great Cougs including Jerome Harrison, Steve Broussard, Lamont Thompson, Marcus Trufant, Keith Millard, Wayne Foster, and Geoff Reece.

The thing I loved about Al was his attitude when the ball was snapped. In 1999, in the first column I ever wrote for, I picked my All-Sorensen Team of the “scrappiest, spirited or up-by-the-boot-straps” guys in my then-two decades of playing with or watching the Cougs. Allan Kennedy was one of my five offensive linemen. Mike Utley, shown at left in the photo above with Allan in 2007, also was one.

When I chatted with Al earlier this week by phone from the Bay Area, where he is a long-time vice president with Maloney Security, he didn’t hesitate when asked what it means to be inducted into the WSU Hall of Fame.

"Honored and humbled at the same time,” he said. “It really focuses all the support over the years from family, teammates and coaches. I’m so appreciative. This is by far the greatest honor I have ever received.”

Typical Al. With him, the old saying that there’s no “I” in the word team was never more apt. He was the consummate team player, so confident and comfortable in his own skin that he never, ever hesitated to direct the limelight toward others.

By the way, when Al says he’s appreciative of his coaches, he’s not talking about one or two. Between head coaches and position coaches, he worked under an array of them at WSU. The staff room was equipped with a revolving door in those days.

Kennedy was the cover man on the 1980 WSU media guide.

Coming out of El Camino High in the Los Angeles area, he signed with WSU under Jackie Sherrill, who left for Pitt after Al’s true freshman season. Warren Powers took over and left for Missouri after one season before Jim Walden finally brought stability when he was elevated from assistant coach to head man in 1978. Al’s O-line coaches in that time frame were Dick Beachner, Dave Walker and Pat "Golden" Ruel, who is now with the Seattle Seahawks.

Al redshirted in 1977, but not before playing in two of the most memorable games to open a season in WSU history: back-to-back road wins against Nebraska and Michigan State. He went down with an ankle injury in East Lansing and missed the rest of the year, but it was early enough in the campaign that he was able to earn a redshirt.

He would start for the Cougs for the next three seasons, 1978-80. In a mock draft after his senior year, he was tabbed for the first round. But when the real NFL draft came around, his name wasn’t called until the 10th round, the 267th pick, by the Washington Redskins.

I asked Al what happened and he said there was some misinformation on him coming out of the Canadian Football League that scared off NFL teams. Because he had been born in Canada, he was coveted by CFL teams – a great player who wouldn’t count as a foreign import. And in those days, NFL and CFL salaries (especially for offensive linemen) were much closer than they are today.

"Big Al" Kennedy was on the 49ers' Super Bowl-winning teams of 1981 and 1985.

Long story short, after the unexpected drop in the draft, the Redskins waived him in training camp, the 49ers picked him up and he went on to spend five seasons as a backup on those great Bill Wash/Joe Montana teams. He walked away with two Super Bowl rings. In that same era, two of Al's WSU teammates (Eason Ramson and Mike Wilson) also won Super Bowls with the Niners. Sadly, I never made it beyond one season on the 49ers’ practice squad!

This weekend, at HoF events in Spokane and Pullman, Big Al will be joined by his parents, Jim and Maryanne, sister Cheryl and numerous old Cougar teammates, including Mike Walker, Mike Wilson and Greg Sykes, and Coach Walden.

You can bet that in Al’s acceptance speech, all the attention will be focused on those who were around him in his days at WSU. Big Al is no longer the largest player in Cougar football history, but when it comes to giving credit to others, no one stands taller.

Paul Sorensen played safety for the Cougars from 1980-81, earning first-team All-America honors as a senior. He then spent two seasons in the NFL on the Bengals' and 49ers' practice squads and later played in the USFL. From 1985-98 he was the color commentator on radio broadcasts of Cougar football and has been the color analyst for Eastern Washington University broadcasts for many years since then. He also was a long-time assistant coach in the Greater Spokane League. Paul has been writing periodically for CF.C since 1999. His columns here are labeled SLAP! The acronym stands for Sorensen Looks At the Program. The word also aptly describes the way Paul played safety and the way he does color commentary: in-your-face, nothing held back.

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