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Many undergraduates are understandably unsure of their futures, their aspirations, their goals. Not Tyler Palko, though. The Pitt Panthers quarterback knows exactly what he wants to do, and that could make the upcoming football season very entertaining.

Well Armed

Bill Modoono

One football analyst calls Tyler Palko “as determined and focused a young man as I have seen in a long time.” (Photo courtesy Department of Athletics)
Ask Tyler Palko about that game he played at Notre Dame last fall, and he’ll tell you it’s all a blur. “I remember none of it,” he says, not even one of the record five touchdown passes he threw that day. Ask Tyler Palko about the game played against Nebraska, however, and he recalls it all: the missed center-quarterback exchanges, the three interceptions, the second-half comeback that nevertheless fell seven points short. Ask Tyler Palko about the 2004 football season—in which the team caught much of the college football world off guard by upsetting Big East title contenders Boston College and West Virginia and making it to a Bowl Championship Series game—and he’ll express his disappointment that it was not an undefeated season.

Ask Tyler Palko about the 2003 football season, and he will tell you all about how difficult it was for him to sit out an unexpected redshirt season. (Redshirts are kept out of collegiate competition for a year to prolong their sports eligibility.) “That season was hard for me,” he says, even as he concedes the maturity he gained from that extra season helped him both as a quarterback and as a person.When you consider all the winning Tyler Palko, Pitt’s redshirt junior quarterback, has done in college and high school, and all the accolades he has acquired along the way, it’s surprising how much inspiration he finds in negatives. But find it he can. Everyone who knows Palko knows how much he wants to win, but he is obviously just as motivated by an intense dislike of losing.

“You’ve got to appreciate the hard times,” says Palko, “or you’ll never be satisfied. You’ve got to remember the struggles. Those are the things that make you better.”

Palko appreciates the hard times even as he does his best to eradicate them. He admits he didn’t grow up in suburban Pittsburgh dreaming of becoming the latest hometown hero to make it as a star quarterback at Pitt, but now that he’s arrived, he has embraced the role.

Sports pundits were not expecting a New Year’s Day bowl from the 2004 edition of the Pitt Panthers. Palko held promise as a quarterback, certainly, but for someone who had completed just two passes in his first two seasons, there were likely to be growing pains. That Palko was able to lead his team to an 8-3 regular season record, a berth in the Fiesta Bowl, and a share of the Big East title, was remarkable to many—but not to Palko, who had predicted a national title prior to the start of the season and who insists he won’t be happy at Pitt until he wins one.

“Don’t tell me I can’t do something, don’t tell my team we can’t do something. That’s not the type of person I am.”

The type of person he is—as if this did not become readily apparent in 2004—is a leader. A leader on the field when he needs to be, a leader off the field when that’s required. The kind of person who wants the ball in his hands when the game is on the line and welcomes all the pressure that’s connected to being the quarterback of a team in a city that demands winners.

Two plays in 2004 bring a sense of Palko’s leadership style into sharp focus. The first was widely questioned; the second, widely cheered. Both demonstrated an understanding of the game and a maturity that not all quarterbacks share.

The first was “the slide.” With less than a minute left in the first half of a game at Connecticut, Pitt had a third down, just outside UConn’s 10-yard line. Rather than risk a costly turnover, Coach Walt Harris directed Palko to run toward the middle of the field and go down, setting up what eventually proved to be an easy field goal. Pitt got the three points but ultimately lost the game.

Palko, an aggressive player by nature, did not agree with the call and said as much afterwards. But he also understood the thinking behind the decision, and he understood it was his role to execute the play as called. “The coach has to make the decision. We didn’t want to force a ball in there and not get the three points.”

Two weeks later, Palko was involved in another play that some say turned Pitt’s season around. In a game against Boston College, Palko was running for a first down toward his team’s sideline. As he approached the sideline, he saw a BC defender moving up to bump him out of bounds. Rather than simply run out of bounds and avoid the hit, Palko initiated contact and dropped the defender (knocking the BC defender’s helmet off in the process) as both players collided. The Pitt bench erupted, the fans at Heinz Field roared, and the Panthers went on to win the game, as well as five of their next six. Was this Palko’s way of sending a message to his teammates and Pitt fans that they could count on him to do whatever it takes to win? He says he was just playing the game. “I like to be aggressive, but I like to be smart, too.”

“He understands the role of a quarterback,” says Pat Haden, an NBC analyst and former NFL quarterback, who was in the TV booth the day Palko set a record by throwing five touchdown passes against Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. “Tyler Palko is as determined and focused a young man as I have seen in a long time. I’ve never been around a guy who prepares like he does.”

That’s to be expected, perhaps, because he is the son of a football coach. Palko had a 48-7 record in four years as quarterback for West Allegheny High School’s football team, which was coached by his father, Bob. West Allegheny won three consecutive Western Pennsylvania championships and the Class AAA state championship in 2001, Tyler’s senior season. Palko was also named high school player of the year in Pennsylvania in 2001.

Bob Palko says that Tyler’s passion for both the game and the quarterback position wasn’t something drummed into him by a demanding father/coach. True, the infant Tyler did sport a “Future Quarterback” T-shirt before he even made it home from the hospital, but quarterback was his father’s position, too. No, Bob says it was simply his son’s love of the game and desire to compete that shaped him.

“If we bought the boys (Tyler and his younger brother, Luke) toys or trucks at Christmas, five minutes after the presents were opened, they would be making balls out of the wrapping paper and playing some sort of game,” says Bob. “I never had to ask them to play; it was what they wanted to do.”

What they had at the Palko home was nothing short of “controlled chaos,” his father recalls. “Let’s say it was action-packed,” he adds.

That could also be how Pitt fans would describe Palko’s first full season at quarterback. After some expected early season mishaps and a few sophomore mistakes, Palko emerged in midseason as a formidable offensive force. Over the final five regular season games, Palko averaged 320 yards passing per game while throwing for 16 touchdowns against only two interceptions. Down the stretch in which the Panthers won four of five to get to the Fiesta Bowl, he completed 60 percent of his passes for 1,570 yards.

More impressive than the statistics was the style he exhibited while producing them. There’s an unpredictable streak to his game that shocks opponents, even as it thrills Pitt fans. He’s an incessant improviser when he has the ball in his hands, capable of throwing a flip pass to an unsuspecting receiver just as he’s about to go out of bounds, or keeping the ball when it looks like he’s trapped for a loss and somehow scrambling for a first down.

He says he models himself after Green Bay’s Brett Favre, a physical quarterback who takes big gambles which often (but not always) pay off in big plays and big wins. “I’m more of an aggressive player than a passive player,” Palko says. “But I would never put my team in a situation where my risky play would hurt them.”

If there’s a knock against him as a quarterback, it’s that he doesn’t have the world’s strongest arm, and yet all season he completed passes that belied that description.

“For some reason, I think with lefthanders there’s an optical illusion,” says Haden. “For some reason, his arm doesn’t look as strong as it actually is. Believe me, his arm strength is more than sufficient.”

For Palko, the questioning of his arm strength is another negative he uses to motivate himself. He recalls that when he was being recruited at Pitt, many experts in the media and elsewhere predicted he’d eventually wind up as a defensive back.

Palko doesn’t understand that kind of thinking. In high school, all he did was win football games. In college, he’s doing more of the same. It’s all he wants to do; it’s all he really cares about. “I like being the guy in charge, I like having the ball in my hands with a game on the line. I really thrive in highly pressurized situations. I’ve always enjoyed it when you can win or lose a game on your play. That’s the fun part. You learn how to handle yourself in those situations. And you understand why you didn’t get the job done when that happens.”

Palko, a multi-time Athletic Director’s Honor Roll student, guards against that happening by being prepared both physically and mentally. Palko may not have appreciated his redshirt year, but he used it the way football players have always used it—to get bigger. At 6-feet-2, 227 pounds, he’s 30 pounds heavier than he was in high school and that much stronger. “That’s important for me,” says Palko. “A big part of my game is being physical. As a quarterback, you always challenge yourself mentally. But the physical part is there, too. I find when I get tired, the mental part shuts down.”

To get prepared mentally, Palko puts in extra time every day during game week, staying late for 90 minutes or more each day to study films and work on the game plan. Being a coach’s son doesn’t make Palko any better at watching film, but it does give him a perspective on what’s important. “I understand the coaching aspect because I’ve seen the ins and outs of that.”

So much so that part of the Palko legend includes one about how Tyler, as an elementary school student who used to accompany his father to football practices when his father was an assistant coach, actually drew up a play on the blackboard in the coach’s room for the team to use in a real game.

“It was a pass to the tight end,” says Bob. “It worked.”

“As a coach’s son, he understands the game, understands the quality of leadership,” says Haden. “A lot of times, coaches’ sons are spoiled brats. But Tyler’s of a different ilk than that. He’s not of the ‘Hey, look at me,’ mentality. His parents raised him well.”

His father even says that Tyler’s willingness to be in the spotlight as a player is in contrast to his very private persona. “Some people say he’s cocky; he’s almost the opposite. Around the football field, he’s a leader. Off the field, he’s really very reserved.”

He will reveal this much, however: Even though he will graduate with his class in April 2006, with a degree in communication, he plans to stay at Pitt for a full five years to accomplish his biggest goal. “I want to bring that crystal trophy home.”

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