One of the most intriguing players coming into the 2023 East-West Shrine Bowl was former Illinois offensive tackle Alex Palczewski. While he suffered a minor injury on the first day of practice and didn’t participate the rest of the week, he’s a player with a lot of pedigree.
As a senior, Palczewski paved the way for a rushing attack that averaged over 160 yards per game for a resurgent Illinois team that finished 8-5 and was named a Third Team AP All-American. He also tied the FBS record for games started, as he started his 65th game in his final collegiate game in the ReliaQuest Bowl. While Illinois was one of the nation’s leading rushing teams, Palcewski excels as a pass blocker as well, as he went 713 pass-blocking snaps in a row without allowing a sack. During an interview at the Luxor Hotel during Shrine Bowl Week, Palczewski talked to Steelers Depot about his journey to the NFL.
“It’s a pretty cool record. 65 games started, that’s a little bit kind of obscene,” Palczewski said about his record for most career starts in FBS history. “I like to say it helps me just the availability, durability I have. I’ve had a kind of big injury history, but just knowing that I’m going to do whatever I have to do to be able to end up playing on the field at the best possible way I can. So that’s kind of a chip on my shoulder that I’m proud of.”
Palczewski’s injury history dates back to his high school days when he suffered fractured vertebrae in his neck during his junior season. At Illinois, he suffered a torn ACL and had two other surgeries to fix a Lisfranc injury in his foot, one that he suffered six weeks before the torn ACL. Still, he was able to come back stronger than ever, starting all 25 games at right tackle during his final two years in college. He was an All-Big-Ten honorable mention in 2021 (although Palczewski wasn’t pleased with his performance that year) before having his breakout 2022 season.
“Six weeks post-op on my ACL, I got surgery on my Lisfranc. I’d have to go to my car, put my scooter in the backseat, hop on my freshly repaired knee. But it was a tough time, especially the rehab. And obviously, 2021 it was a terrible season for me. I just didn’t have the strength. I didn’t even start running until July before that season. So it was a tough year, but I was able to be granted a waiver for a sixth year, and just to be able to kind of have a full offseason for the first time in two years, and just truly kind of go back to what I knew my freshman year, just go to work,” Palczewski said. “There’s no secret to success. It’s just keep working and keep grinding and that’s kind of something I just put my head down and work everyday.”
That work ethic is something he credits to his parents, who immigrated to the United States from Poland. Palczewski said his parents are his “why”.
“They came here from communist Poland, they immigrated here. No family, no money, no language even. They met here, so they didn’t come over here as a couple. I always think about, my dad’s a carpenter and my mom’s an ICU nurse. That’s as blue-collar as it gets. But the work ethic they’ve instilled in me, and the one thing I was able to think, they gave me an opportunity. They sacrificed everything to come here to America and at a chance for a better life. That’s one thing I’ll always think about. And it kind of pisses me off whenever I see people just squander these opportunities cause there’s so many people in this world that would love them. That’s why just being able to take advantage of it every single day and not take for granted any single day. Cause it could be your last day any single day, but just knowing that having purpose and having a desire and chasing something, it’s what I owe to them to chase that dream every single day ‘cause they gave up so much in their lives just for me and my brothers to have a better one.”
Palczewski said getting granted the sixth year, which he found while after playing in the 2022 Hula Bowl, was “almost like a lease on life.” He said he wasn’t sure if he was going to be able to build up enough strength coming off his injuries to be productive in an NFL training camp.
“The NFL is not a developmental league. That was something I was extremely worried about, but just kind of being able to be gifted another year is something I never even thought of, because I thought I was done, but just to be able to get another year, and I’ve had that perspective before, but to kind of realize that perspective gain of just being able to cherish everyday and just not take anything for granted was something that just was really able to take advantage of this entire year.”
Palczewski weighed in at the Shrine Bowl at 6’6, 314 pounds, but he was just 260 pounds when he arrived at Illinois. He credits his former offensive line coach and current Green Bay Packers offensive line coach Luke Butkus, a nephew of former Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus, for teaching him “how to play football” even when he wasn’t the biggest.
“I started as a true freshman and I was 260 pounds when I got to Illinois, I was 280 playing my freshman year. And he taught us, like, all these guys I’m playing against have four, five years of college strength training, they’ve been able to craft and work on their technique. So the way that I could hold my own was to just be a gritty asshole on the field. That’s the one thing that I’ve been able to realize, all the years I’m gonna to get strong, my technique is going to get better, but I know if I keep that same kind of gritty mentality, to be able to combine all of those together, it’s gonna make my career a lot better.”
Guys have different ways to prep for a game, and one way Palczewski does so is through visualization. He said former Illinois punter Blake Hayes gave him The Mental Edge by Kenneth Baum to read, and that the book has added an extra element to his routine and his game.
“It just kind of gives you different tools that you can use to help make yourself mentally stronger, mentally tougher. It’s not even just before games, but throughout the offseason, affirmations, writing down goals and just writing down what you want to do. It sounds a little bit yuppie at times, but it truly works. Just visualization before games, I love to take 10 minutes maybe the day before games, just truly sit down, quiet place, close my eyes and go through our playbook and the plays and the looks we might have and just be able to visualize, make calls, think about the steps, kind of feel what I’m feeling in 24 hours from that point.”
Palczewski first started playing football in high school, and said that one of his favorite players to watch was former NFL guard Larry Allen. Now, he says he finds himself watching New Orleans Saints offensive tackle Ryan Ramcyzk and Indianapolis Colts tackle Braden Smith.
“Just kind of the way that they play I really enjoy. They’re not super flashy or something, they just come to work everyday. I watch their set. It’s very similar a lot of times. It’s just, they trust their vertical set and they function and lock guys down. They’re extremely technical guys that just love their sport and perfect their craft every single day.”
Despite spending six years at Illinois, Palczewski will be just 24 years old on the day of the NFL Draft. Given his insane college production and versatility (he played some guard at Illinois and said he’s working on getting more comfortable at the position) he’s a guy the Steelers could be interested in during the later rounds of the draft for some offensive line depth.
“I always kind of think about how I can create value myself. I understand that a team, they’re only gonna dress maybe eight offensive linemen. You can’t just be, ‘Oh, I’m a right tackle,'” Palczewski said. “I kind of want to pride myself in being able to play guard, tackle, maybe even dabble in snapping a ball every so often.”
He was a late bloomer given that he didn’t start playing football until high school, and there’s definitely some potential for him to grow into a good NFL player. He could be a potential steal in the later rounds of the draft. If the Steelers don’t address offensive tackle in the first two rounds, Palczewski will certainly be a name to watch to potentially land with the Steelers.