CHAMPAIGN — Alex Palczewski hopped out of the cold tub during wrestling season of his senior year of high school and made his way to check his phone.
When he picked it up, he let out a shriek that was so loud it sent a trainer rushing into the room to check on him inside Prospect High School in Mount Prospect.
Was Palczewski OK? Better than OK, actually. He had just gotten his first college football scholarship from Virginia Military Institute.
He got dressed, hopped in his green 1999 GMC Suburban and howled all the way home to tell his parents about the offer.
“It was a small school but it was so cool because I was like, wow, I’m guaranteed for the next four or five years that I get to to go school for free," Palczewski said. "My parents don’t have to worry about that anymore. I’m able to help them in a way."
He didn't take that offer. Instead he ended up signing with Illinois and has blossomed into a 6-foot-6, 300-pound sophomore tackle on an offensive line that has paved the way for a much-improved offense.
But to understand why Palczewski's playing football is so important, it starts with a look back at his parents — his father Andrzej and mother Bozena Palczewski.
Andrzej and Bozena are both Polish immigrants. Bozena came to America in 1985 and Andrzej in 1989 from then-communist Poland. That makes Palczewski and his older brothers, Adam and Alan, first-generation Americans.
Palczewski watched his father, a carpenter for three decades, work well beyond the standard eight-hour days to to provide for his family. When Andrzej and Bozena first moved to America, they worked to send money home to their own parents.
Therein a work ethic was instilled in Palczewski that only grew further when he pushed his parents for details of their immigration. When they first arrived in Chicago, they lived in a one-bedroom apartment on the north side with four other people. They didn't retroactively complain about their beginnings in America to Palczewski when he asked, so how could he report back home with a list of his own complaints from Champaign?
“Every single time, this was big during training camp last year and this year and you’re in Week 3 and you’re like, wow, this is taking a toll," Palczewski said. "I think about it like, I have a scholarship here to do what I love. My dad has been a carpenter for 30-plus years, wakes up at 6 a.m., comes home at 5 p.m. and keeps on working. If he can do that, I can easily do this."
Palczewski grew up on soccer, or futbol, not American football, but he saw his older brothers play and picked it up himself. Until high school, Palczewski played both soccer and football, and when he had to choose between the two, he chose American football.
Andrzej and Bozena implored him to keep his academics up while playing sports. Football has a shelf life, and until that first offer came in from Virginia Military Institute, that shelf life appeared to have an expiration date of high school graduation. He even missed his entire junior season with a fractured vertebra in is neck.
"They thought, all right, this is a nice hobby, but it’s not going to take you anywhere special," Palczewski said. "It’s nice, but we don’t care what you do there, make sure you take care of school. That’s what’s going to help you later on in life.
“That’s still true because you can only play football for a certain amount of time. Once I figured out I was going to get a scholarship to play football, it was an amazing feeling."
As a freshman last year, Alex became a starter at guard in the season's second game. On a rebuilding Illini team, there was a market for someone of his stature and length. But his skill set appeared destined to be moved to tackle, and with last season's starting tackle Larry Boyd in an academic redshirt season, Palczewski found and opening.
He found out about the switch in the summer, and worked to adjust to his new position.
After the loss to Nebraska on Saturday, Palczewski was named to the Big Ten Offensive Team of the Week by Pro Football Focus.
"He’s kind of blossomed into the player we all thought he would be," Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith said. "He’s got some talent. He was just a raw young pup. Now he’s a veteran almost, hell, if you can say that being a sophomore. He’s had a lot of starts under his belt and he’s seen a lot of action, and a lot of different schemes."
Head coach Lovie Smith said that Palczewski, and sophomore defensive end Bobby Roundtree, are players to build a program around, both on and off the field.
They don't miss practices or take snaps off. For Palczewski, that likely traces back to his father's work ethic.
“You get the same guy each day working hard," Lovie Smith said. "He’s a smart player. With his position he’s on an island at times. He’s relentless, he’s tough ... you could go on and on about him."
Andrzej and Bozena are staunch supporters of their son's football career, which turned from a hobby into a legitimate career path as soon as he picked up the phone at Prospect High School. His parents have attended all of his games except last season's game at South Florida and this season's games at Maryland and Rutgers.
“They’ve done so much," Palczewski said. "They’re not used to this whole thing. They went from Prospect High School with maybe 300 people in the stands to now these huge stadiums. They love it and I’m happy because I get to make them proud and they get to come and see all of my games."