It was a Saturday afternoon in February and the halls of Pitt's South Side football facility were quiet. The coaches were on a much-needed break after wrapping up another recruiting class and the players were off. Spring practice wasn't to begin for another month.
A light was on in the office of offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh, but the offensive coordinator was nowhere to be found. The only person in the room -- in the building, for that matter -- was senior quarterback Tyler Palko, who was watching game film from the Panthers' disappointing 2005 season.
"You know, you can go home once in a while," sports information director E.J. Borghetti told Mr. Palko. Mr. Borghetti had run in for a minute to grab something out of his office.
"I can't really think of any place I'd rather be right now, to be perfectly honest with you," was Mr. Palko's reply. "This is what I do, it is what I enjoy."
That is a snapshot of the passion Mr. Palko has had since his first experiences with football when he was 4 years old and an honorary ball boy for Jeannette High School, where his dad, Bob, was an assistant coach. Mr. Palko is so competitive that he can approach the game only by trying to be the best.
"He's always striving to be perfect and he always has," said Bob Palko, now the head coach at West Allegheny High School. "In his mind, the greatest competition he will face is his competition with himself. ...
"But I know him and I know how he thinks about things and to him, watching film in February was his way of preparing to try and win a national championship. He hasn't begun a single season in his life without believing he could lead his team to a championship."
Pitt (6-5, 2-4) will host Louisville (8-1, 4-1) Saturday and the 23-year-old quarterback will be one of 16 seniors playing their final regular season game for Pitt.
Mr. Palko is third among Pitt's all-time career passing leaders (8,036 yards) and third in career touchdown passes (66). Saturday's game will be the end of another chapter in one of the most closely watched and scrutinized careers in Western Pennsylvania football history. He has grown up in the spotlight, his every move watched since the day he became West Allegheny's starting quarterback as a high school freshman.
While playing for his father, Mr. Palko led the Indians to three WPIAL Class AAA titles, three PIAA title games and a PIAA championship, then decided to stay home and play for the Panthers despite offers from higher profile programs. He put a bulls-eye on his chest when he declared that he wanted to lead Pitt to a national championship.
"As a father, I worried if it would be too much pressure on him, the spotlight and everything he's gone through," Bob Palko said. "You just never know how a kid will handle it all but he's done an amazing job, not just of handling the spotlight, but of conducting himself the right way. That's the thing I'm proudest of. Sometimes you think had he gone somewhere else, he wouldn't be scrutinized so much and he'd have more of a private life, but it has never changed him."
But Tyler Palko's first two seasons at Pitt didn't go as he had planned. As a freshman he was locked in a battle with junior Rod Rutherford for the starting job when a wrist injury sidelined him for several weeks during training camp. Mr. Palko had developed tendonitis from overworking his wrist because of extra throws he was making between practice sessions.
Mr. Rutherford earned the starting job and kept it for two seasons.
As if being a reserve wasn't a tough enough adjustment for Mr. Palko, he also was locked in a high-profile battle with Steel Valley High School graduate Luke Getsy for the role of heir apparent to Mr. Rutherford. Mr. Palko redshirted his second year, then battled Mr. Getsy throughout the spring and summer of 2004 before then-coach Walt Harris named him the starter. Mr. Getsy transferred to Akron.
Mr. Palko said he learned a lot about himself during those years and he learned how to handle adversity. He said he learned to appreciate football, his family and the fact that he was a Division I athlete, things he had started to take for granted.
"This is the greatest game, the ultimate team sport," Mr. Palko said. "I remember coming out of high school, everything, all the talk about me was positive. I was going to be 'the next Dan Marino,' the sky was the limit for me. Then I had to battle through some things and it really taught me -- or at least reminded me -- that nothing is handed to you, nothing is given to you in this world or in this game, you have to earn everything."
Picking up a life skill
Mr. Palko's competitive fire and his work ethic have become legendary around the Panthers' offices. And he is known as much for his willingness to sacrifice his body as he is for his touch and precision passing.
Sometimes, Mr. Palko's competitiveness has gotten him into trouble with his teammates, but Mr. Cavanaugh said the guys who complain are the ones who aren't committed to pushing themselves enough. He said Mr. Palko serves as a great role model for what it takes to play the game at the highest level.
"The way he is, his approach, it has a positive affect on the guys we can count on," Mr. Cavanaugh said. "Those guys who want to get better, they see his success and what he's done to achieve it and realize if they want to get better they need to mimic him. ...
"I think the one thing he is learning is an important life skill and that is you can't judge everyone based on your own work ethic to the point where you discard them if they don't live up to your standards. You have to nurture them, be patient, show them the way, and he's grown in that area as well."
Mr. Cavanaugh, a former star quarterback at Pitt who played and coached in the National Football League, said that when he joined the Pitt program last year, he saw Mr. Palko's natural talents but he also saw some rough edges. He said Mr. Palko too often tried to win games on his own and tried too often to make the perfect pass or the perfect play.
The Panthers' best year with Mr. Palko at the helm was 2004, when they were 8-4, co-champions of the Big East conference and played in a BCS bowl. The team has struggled the last two seasons, but Mr. Cavanaugh said Mr. Palko is a better quarterback today than two seasons ago.
"Tyler is by far the most dedicated quarterback -- a guy who works at his trade -- I've been around since Trent Dilfer," Mr. Cavanaugh said. "Trent had a lot of Tyler's characteristics -- loved football, wanted to talk about it all the time, wanted to hang around the meeting rooms and be a part of the game planning -- and that's how Tyler is. He loves it and wants to learn more about it every day."
Ready to go pro
Pro football coaching veterans Mr. Cavanaugh and Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt say Mr. Palko is ready to play in the NFL. In fact, Mr. Wannstedt said Mr. Palko likely will get drafted in one of the first three rounds.
Most NFL scouts seem to agree with that assessment. Mr. Palko has been rated as high as the fifth-best quarterback prospect in next year's draft. Scouts Inc., for example, has him rated as the eighth-best quarterback prospect but said his stock as rising.
The main knock against Mr. Palko is his size (Pitt lists him at 6-foot-2, 220 but he's probably closer to 6-foot-1) but his leadership skills, his toughness and his arm strength are rated high.
Joe Butler, who runs the Metro Index Camp for high school players and does some NFL scouting, said Mr. Palko has improved his stock by the way he's played this year. He said his toughness, his work ethic and his mobility have never been in question, but the area he's made the biggest leap is in his decision-making.
Mr. Cavanaugh said that Mr. Palko has transformed himself into an NFL quarterback because in the offseason he committed himself to learning how to manage a game. Mr. Palko has completed 189 of 272 passes (69 percent) for 2,564 yards, 24 touchdowns and only six interceptions this season. He is the third-rated passer in the NCAA with a passer efficiency rating of 173.4
"The NFL is looking for guys who are mobile, who have good arm strength, are committed and will work at it, have good mental toughness and can manage games," Mr. Cavanaugh said. "Tyler has all of that and he's had a great season, even though we haven't won enough for any of our liking.".....
Mr. Palko, who has already earned a degree in communication and rhetoric and is studying economics this year, said he will begin training for the NFL as soon as Pitt's season ends. He has been invited to play in the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., an all-star game where the squads are coached by pro coaches.
Mr. Palko said he is having a hard time believing his college career is coming to an end.
"I've accomplished a lot in my career and I don't have any regrets about my choices, to come here, to play here, I know I've given my best every day and that's all I can control," Mr. Palko said. "The ups and downs are a part of the journey, they are what made this trip so much fun. Nobody could put more pressure on me or demand more out of me than me, and that's not being arrogant, it is just who I am.
"I love this game, I love the euphoria a victory brings, the sense of accomplishment you get in the locker room with your teammates. That's a feeling we haven't had enough of this year, but chasing that feeling is the reason a lot of us keep getting up after we've been knocked down."Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
Pitt quarterback Tyler Palko flings a pass against Michigan State Sept. 16.
Click photo for larger image.
Palko's finale at Heinz Field
Paul Zeise can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1720.