“I bleed IU,” Big Al said. “I have ever since I can remember.”
“Big” Al Carpenter has cerebral palsy, which has not only prevented him from learning to read or write, but it has also always prevented him from playing the game he loves: football.
When you meet Carpenter, though, he’ll shake your hand, introduce himself as “Big Al,” and then bring his hands together and reveal a championship ring from the 1979 Holiday Bowl.
His name will never appear on the Hoosiers’ 1979 roster or on that coaching staff, but, thanks to former IU Coach Lee Corso, Carpenter was part of the program he longed to play for.
“I remember hearing my first game on the radio when I was five years old,” Carpenter said. “I loved IU football ever since. I owe so much to that man, Lee Corso. He’s the greatest man I know.”
Carpenter has never been able to walk, so, beginning in 1973, he used his crutches to get to the street, where he would continue to struggle down the road until he was able to hitchhike a ride to IU practices.
“You know how hard it is to hitchhike a ride when you got a helmet on?” Carpenter said. “And when the cars or trucks went by, it blew it right off, and it’s round, you know, so it just kept rolling and rolling.”
Corso was in his first season as the Hoosiers’ head coach in 1973, after guiding the Louisville Cardinals to a 17th rank in the nation in 1972 and ending his four-year stint with a record of 28-11.
With IU having just reached its first bowl game in 1967 — and having lost it to USC 14-3 — it came as a surprise that Corso took the job in Bloomington following a 9-1 season in Louisville.
“Coach Corso came up to me one day and said, ‘You know what? You get people. How would you like to be on the team?’” Carpenter said.
Corso had known Carpenter for six years by the time 1979 arrived.
The 25-year-old had stood with the team on the sidelines with his crutches in every game.
The most success Corso had found with the Hoosiers by that time was a 5-5-1 season in 1977, and during his first six years coaching IU he had recorded a 19-45 record.
“I knew Coach Corso worried a lot,” Carpenter said. “About his job, about the team. I always told him, ‘Don’t worry, Coach. We’re going to a bowl in California this year.’”
Ending the season with a record of 7-4, Corso and the Hoosiers saw the Rose Bowl Carpenter had promised far out of reach, and Corso wondered if his first Hoosier bowl game would even call that season.
Sure enough, the Holiday Bowl called.
From San Diego.
“I told him we’d be in California,” Carpenter said.
Slated to play the No. 9 Brigham Young Cougars, the Hoosiers were underdogs, as BYU had finished its regular season undefeated at 11-0, compared to IU’s four losses.
Late in the fourth quarter, IU lined up to defend a BYU field goal while leading by one point, 38-37. A successful field goal would finish the Hoosiers.
“Coach Corso looked over and said, ‘What do you think, Al?’” Carpenter said. “I said, ‘Don’t worry, Coach. They’re gonna miss it.’”
When the Cougars’ kicked, the ball sailed left of the goalposts. The Hoosiers had won their first bowl game in program history.
In front of 52,200 fans, the players carried Corso and Big Al off the field.
“I can’t even put it in words,” Carpenter said. “I was so happy.”
In addition to 1979, Corso coached the Hoosiers to one more winning season in 1980, when they went 6-5 — and the Holiday Bowl was the only bowl game IU reached in Corso’s era.
He was fired after the 1982 season, his 10th season with the program.
“He came to my house to say goodbye,” Carpenter said. “It really hit hard because that’s Coach Corso, one of the greatest men I know. I just told him maybe he could find a job in TV, like they do on ESPN.”
That’s exactly what Corso did.
After ending a 27-year career as a football coach in 1984, following a one-year stint with Northern Illinois, Corso was contacted by ESPN, which was starting a program in 1986 named College Gameday.
Even though Corso is now traveling around the nation, he doesn’t forget about Carpenter in Bloomington.
“I have his phone number and he has mine,” Carpenter said. “He called me a couple days ago just to see how I’m doing. We talk about everything that’s going on.”
In 2007, Carpenter was riding in the passenger seat of a car when it was hit from behind, fracturing his right leg in two places and sending him to the hospital.
“Coach Corso flew to the hospital just to see how I was doing and make sure I was alright,” Carpenter said. “I’ve never met a man like him.”
Now living near Bloomington High School South, Carpenter makes a one-hour, three-mile ride on his scooter to the stadium every Saturday and sometimes appears at practices.
“When they play, it feels like I’m playing,” Bhe aid. “There’s nothing I love more than to watch these kids play.”
Carpenter has missed just one game in the 42 years he has been involved in the program.
That game was the 2010 loss to No. 16 Iowa, when the Hoosiers were defeated 18-13. He recalled “mini-migraines” he used to have, and one in particular had caused him to miss that Nov. 6 game.
He arrives to every game two hours early and looks onto the field, remembering times with Corso and hoping for a win that day.
“I wish he was here to talk about things,” Carpenter said. “Football isn’t a game for pussies. Nobody understands how much these kids sacrifice just to play this game. I’d give anything to be on the field with them.”