The telephone rang late last Sunday afternoon, about midway through the sixth round of the NFL draft. The Green Bay Packers had just taken California linebacker Desmond Bishop. Or maybe the Dallas Cowboys had just selected Connecticut fullback Deon Anderson. What difference does it make? What matters is the person on the line. It wasn't just any caller. It wasn't New Orleans Saints quarterback coach Pete Carmichael or personnel guru Rick Mueller or even general manager Mickey Loomis. It was coach Sean Payton calling with an intriguing sales pitch.
"If you don't get drafted, I'd love to get you down here and have the chance to work with you," Payton said.
It's not hard to imagine Tyler Palko being speechless.
Maybe for the first time in his life.
There Palko was, at a draft-day get-together at Grandma Vesta Price's house, feeling pretty unloved despite being surrounded by his family. It had been a long, brutal weekend. Saturday wasn't so bad; Palko knew it was going to be a reach for a team to take him in the first three rounds. But Sunday was a bear. A total of 11 quarterbacks would be selected by the time the draft was done. Coastal Carolina's Tyler Thigpen was among them. Palko was not.
Now, here was a coach with a lifeline.
Not just any coach, though.
The NFL Coach of the Year.
The architect of the league's top-rated offense last season.
Can you say Drew Brees, Reggie Bush, Deuce McAllister and Marques Colston?
Palko grabbed on to that lifeline with both hands.
"It seemed like he was excited about having me," he said of Payton. "I'm ecstatic about the opportunity. I'm not a No. 1 draft pick and I didn't sign for $35 million. But I still have the chance to live my dream and play in the NFL."
Palko leaves Friday for Saints minicamp. As an undrafted free agent, he faces a long, difficult road, one he never imagined having to take during his playing days at Pitt. How did he put it? "I worked my whole life to hear my name called on draft day."
Anybody who saw Palko throw a record five touchdown passes at Notre Dame as a sophomore in 2004 and lead the Panthers to the Fiesta Bowl that same season couldn't have imagined that he wouldn't be drafted, either. There have been better players at Pitt -- better quarterbacks -- but it's hard to believe there have been many better competitors. The kid loved everything about the game. The three-a-day practices at training camp. The film study. The weight-room work. The chance to compete on the highest level ...
That last thing, maybe most of all.
Palko cried after his final game at Pitt last season. Sure, because the Panthers lost to Louisville, finished 6-6 and missed out on a bowl trip. But also because he knew he wasn't going to be reviewing the game tape the next day and putting on the pads for practice on Monday.
It was a rough ending to a trying final two years at Pitt for Palko. His junior season turned out to be a virtual throw-away year as the program made the transition from Walt Harris' pass-happy offense to the more balanced offense preferred by new coach Dave Wannstedt and offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh. He played well as a senior, but Pitt didn't win enough games, losing five in a row down the stretch.
Still, Palko was told by some NFL people that he probably would be drafted late in the third round, certainly early on the second day. He isn't the first player to be pumped up like that and then have his heart broken and he certainly won't be the last. What do you figure the scouts told Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith? He led the Buckeyes to the national championship game last season and won the Heisman Trophy but wasn't drafted until the Baltimore Ravens took him with the final pick of the fifth round.
"Unfortunately, a lot of NFL teams go by the measurables," said Wannstedt, himself a former NFL coach. "They sometimes overlook the intangibles. That's a major mistake."
The knocks against Palko are the same ones he heard since his high school days at West Allegheny when some suggested he would make a better safety than quarterback. He's not the ideal size. He doesn't have the strongest arm. His throwing motion isn't picture-perfect.
"None of it is breaking news to me," Palko said.
That won't stop him from taking his best shot with the Saints. "If I didn't believe in myself, I wouldn't even go down there." The truth? He has a better chance than a lot of free agents. The Saints' quarterbacks behind Brees are veteran Jamie Martin and young Jason Fife. At the very least, Palko should be able to stick on the practice squad for a year and learn Payton's system.
Palko has one other thing going for him:
This is a quarterback-friendly coach who treasures the intangibles -- managing the game, making the right decisions, etc. -- just as much as he does arm strength. Don't just look at the phenomenal success he had last season with Brees, who was coming off shoulder surgery. Go back further, back to '03 when Payton was the Cowboys' quarterbacks coach. He talked Bill Parcells into signing an undrafted free agent from Eastern Illinois.
You might have heard of him.
"I think Tyler has a heck of a shot," Wannstedt said. "They're going to have a hard time running him out of there. If you have a football team, you want that kid on it. It won't take those people long to figure that out down there."
Said Palko, his ego maybe bruised but his spirit clearly undiminished:
"A lot of people would love to have this opportunity."
Ron Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .