TAMPA, Fla. (WCIA) — Day No. 2 in Tampa for the Illini brings their first Florida practice as Illinois will workout several times leading up to Monday’s game against Mississippi State at Raymond James Stadium.
Tuesday’s practice was closed to the media, but it’s the first time the team has practiced together since before Christmas. For head coach Bret Bielema, there’s still work to accomplish on the field before Monday’s game at the home of the Bucs.
“We’ll have a normal game week Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and see what we can get on Saturday,” Bielema said.
It’s the final few practices as Illini for super-seniors like Alex Pihlstrom, Michael Marchese and Alex Palczewski, who were true freshman back in 2017 playing in a game here at Raymond James Stadium.
“I want to leave this place better than how I came here and I would say I’ve been able to do that,” Palczewski said.
While that was a goal for the lineman, it seemed far off his freshman year when the Illini finished 2-10. But as the sixth-year senior heads to his last game at Raymond James Stadium for the ReliaQuest Bowl with an 8-4 record, it’s a full circle moment as he ends his college career where he got his first road start in 2017.
“It was a little bit of a trial by fire,” Palczewski said. “As we know we didn’t end up going that well that year, but it kind of gave us the foundation to help bring future success to this program.”
“The growth he’s had as a player, as a person, great leader, just an absolute steady Eddy,” Bielema said. “He’ll be ending his career at his very first start that he had in his career. I don’t think they won that one, so hopefully we can win this one on a better note.”
The journey hasn’t been easy. The offensive lineman didn’t know if he’d get a bonus year in orange and blue after initially turning pro and playing in the Hula Bowl. But an NCAA waiver cleared Palczewski for a sixth season at Illinois, allowing him to make history, becoming the Big Ten leader in career starts at 64. He will tie the all-time FBS record at the ReliaQuest Bowl.
“It’s a little bit unreal especially going back from last year,” Palczewski said. “Obviously I thought I was done, three surgeries on my legs and being able to bounce back and come back here for one more year and kind of leave on my note has been truly something special.”
But “Palcho” was raised knowing nothing comes easy, the All-American said he had to work hard every day and control what he could control which allowed him to be the first one in his family to get a degree. With his eyes on the NFL, he hopes to repay his family that sacrificed so much for him to live his dream.
“To be able to have my parents retire a little bit early,” Palczewski said. “They came here as immigrants. One suitcase, no language, no money, no family, and just took an opportunity to take care of their family and eventually give us an opportunity at something greater.”
We’ll have coverage all week leading up to the ReliaQuest Bowl on Monday, including the Your Illini Nation Bowl Special. Watch WCIA3’s Sports Director Bret Berhens Thursday night live from Tampa, a one hour show in primetime all devoted to the Illini. Join Bret, Andy Olson and Brice Bement as the WCIA3 Sports Team gets ready for the game on Jan. 2.