My uncle Al Hansen died in his sleep, following a short battle with cancer, last Thursday morning. He was 69.

When I heard the news of Al’s passing, I immediately thought back to a fall Saturday morning in 1988. My Butte Central Junior High eighth-grade football team had a game at the old Butte Civic Center field, and Al was there to watch me play.

He told my aunt Cecilia that he thought I would be an awesome football player, and that is why he was there that morning.

I wasn’t really big, but I wasn’t small, either. I was a year older than most of my classmates because third grade was so hard, so I should have had an advantage.

It is hard to say if that is what Al was thinking, but he went to the field that morning expecting greatness.

He would never say it, but I had a feeling that Al left that game less than impressed with me. He probably learned something that my coaches could have already told him.

I wasn’t all that athletic, and I didn’t always play as hard as I could. I would take lots of plays completely off, even though I was lined up on the offensive or defensive line. I was Jalen Carter without the upside.

That’s because playing on the offensive line was not fun at all. I wanted to play quarterback or running back, but the coaches discriminated against me because of my lack of talent.

Luckily, Al showed up to watch me play on the day Mike McLaughlin busted out for a big game.

Mark O’Connell was our usual running back, and he was a beast. Mark was stronger and faster than everyone else on the team. 

Nobody could tackle him or catch him. We all thought he was going to be an NFL Hall of Famer because we did not take into account that he was just one of those boys who developed faster than the rest of us.

While our voices were barely beginning to crack, Mark had to shave twice a day in junior high. At 14, he could have bought beer without a fake ID.

Mark, though, sat out the game that morning with an injury, and Mike got the start at tailback.

Mike put on an unbelievable performance in that game. He ran fast, and he ran hard. He didn’t have O’Connell’s breakaway speed, but he must have run for 200 yards as we picked up a victory.

Simply put, Mike was great.

Our coaches talked to us for a while after the game, like they always did, and Al was gone before I walked to the sideline. I saw him at his house late that weekend, and I asked him what he thought of the game.

Al’s eyes opened wide as he told me what my teammates and I already knew. 

“That Mike McLaughlin is awesome.”

Mike was awesome in so many ways. Whether it was playing linebacker, running the ball, stealing the basketball and taking it for a layup or swinging a golf club, Mike was fun to watch.

Our teammate who tragically passed away in 2012 was always fun to be around, too. He was always smiling.

I think Al saw a little bit of himself in Mike that day — both in demeanor and playing style.

Al was the starting fullback for Butte High in 1970 and 1971. He was a big, bruising runner.

As a junior, Al was listed as 6 foot, 1, 192 pounds. As a senior, the paper called him 6-foot and 206 pounds.

I don’t think he actually shrunk an inch. I think that was just a goof by the school, which spelled Al’s last name “Hanson” instead of Hansen. So, the newspaper always had his name wrong.

But by all accounts, Al was a beast on the football field. 

The great Montana Standard sportswriter Hudson Willse once described him like this: “Booming 206-pound fullback Al Hanson has consistently racked up more than 100 yards a game with his power running. (Coach Wayne) Paffhausen calls the big senior ‘the best fullback in the state.’”

In 1971, Al finished sixth in the Class A with 568 yards on 121 carries. He averaged 4.7 yards per carry.

Later in his senior season, Willse wrote about the “bone-crunching thrusts of fullback Al Hanson and the capable quarterbacking of veteran Rich Hawe.”

As a side note, when I worked with Hud at the Standard years later, he laughed at me for describing a girls’ basketball team as “stacked” in a game preview story. “You can’t say that about girls,” Hud said, and we reworded the sentence.

I really wish I would have known that 30 years earlier the same guy wrote about my uncle’s “bone-crushing thrusts.”

If you talk to Al’s teammates, though, they will back up Hud’s description. They say he was a hard-nosed runner who was light on his feet for a big guy.

After Butte High fell 27-20 to Buddy Walsh’s Butte Central Maroons in 1970, the Bulldogs bounced back to beat BC 14-0 in 1971.

Al caught a pass from Hawe and took it to the 6-yard line, setting up Chris Milodragovich’s tiebreaking touchdown in the second quarter.

That loss, by the way, was the only one the Maroons suffered during their run of three straight state titles from 1971 through 1973.

In 1971, the Bulldogs came within one win of playing in the Class AA State championship game, falling 35-21 in their final game at Great Falls High.

Al was larger than life on and off the field. He had a booming personality and a contagious laugh. His former teammates called him “Big Al,” and they all loved the man who was the life of every party.

There was never a family gathering that wasn’t made better by Al being there.

Of course, Al was his happiest when he was watching his grandchildren play, so 2022 was a dream year for him.

In the summer, Al proudly watched as his grandson Trey Hansen helped lead the Butte Miners to their first state championship in 69 years. Trey was the winning pitcher in the clinching games at District, State and Northwest Class A Regional tournaments.

During the fall, Al beamed as he watched Trey pick up bruising yards as a running back for the Bulldogs. Later in the school year, his grandson Jaeger Hansen qualified for the Class AA State wrestling tournament at 126 pounds. 

As an eighth grader.

All that came after grandson Kyler Raiha played for the Bulldogs during their 2019 run to the Class AA State championship football game.

So, it is safe to say that when cancer took Al away from us, he died a proud and happy man. 

That is the way any grandpa would like to go, if he has to go.

It wasn’t just athletics, either, Al was just so proud of the people his children and grandchildren turned out to be. He was even proud of his nieces and nephews.

Al wasn’t related to me by blood. He married my mom’s sister.

Yet, Al is the only person to ever go watch me play because he thought I would be a star. The rest went out of family obligation.

I took note of that on that Saturday morning in 1988. That made me feel really good, and I will never forget that Al went out of his way to watch me play.

I’m just glad my buddy Mike McLaughlin was there to make sure Al went home impressed.

— Bill Foley, who was also bailed out by Mike McLaughlin a time or two on the golf course, can be reached at Follow him at Listen to the ButteCast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.