Illini OT Palczewski breaks new ground for Big Ten longevity

When he finally hangs up the Orange and Blue helmet, Illinois offensive tackle Alex Palczewski should consider writing a Big Ten travelogue.

When the Fighting Illini visit Michigan in a few weeks, the Mount Prospect native will have played in all 14 Big Ten stadiums.

"That would actually be funny, go through all the locker rooms, see which ones are the best, which ones the worst," he said this week in a phone interview. "I'd definitely put Purdue at the bottom."

This Saturday against Nebraska, Palczewski will set an impressive record. He'll start his 60th career game, which is the most in Big Ten history.

He can break the NCAA record of 65, set by Appalachian State receiver Thomas Hennigan, if he finishes the regular season, Illinois makes the Big Ten title game and he plays in a bowl.

Palczewski is a legitimate sixth-year starter. The journey began in 2017 when he started 11 of 12 games as a true freshman, then it just kept on going. Palczewski missed four games with an injury in 2020 but otherwise started every game until now. The pandemic allowed him to be granted a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA.

"It's a nice record," he said. "I've been able to stay relatively healthy, but one of my cornerstones of the way I play is just the consistency I'm able to play with and the availability I always have. It's nice, but it's not a main goal for me right now."

The Illini had several veteran offensive linemen who started throughout the Lovie Smith era. But while Doug Kramer and Vederian Lowe moved onto the NFL, Palczewski decided to return because he felt there was more to accomplish in Champaign.

He had ACL surgery at the end of the 2020 season and also two surgeries to repair a lisfranc injury in his left foot. So without much an offseason, he didn't feel like himself in 2021.

"I didn't start running in my rehab until July," he said. "When I found out I could come back for another year and have my first full offseason for the first time in two years, it kind of felt almost like a no-brainer to come back and get a full year of development and be able to show what I'm truly capable of.

"It's crazy how much better I feel. It's having the full offseason to have time for my legs to fully heal, that's been amazing."

Now Palczewski anchors a new-look offensive line, which includes another sixth-year player in center Alex Pihlstrom from Glenbard West, and two junior college transfers.

"When we talked to compliance and said, 'Hey, can we do this?' I sold (Palczewski) on the fact that if we can get a full year of development with you on your lower body, we're going to take your play to another level," Illini coach Brett Bielema said. "That's exactly what's happened. I can tell during fall camp, (offensive line coach Bart Miller) and I both were like, 'Wow.'"

Saturday's game at Nebraska will be important for the No. 17 Illini. A win will basically turn the Big Ten West into a two-team race with Purdue, which visits Champaign on Nov. 12. A loss keeps hope alive for the rest of the West.

It's been a decade since the Illini have enjoyed this type of success, but Palczewski feels like nothing has changed from his perspective.

"It's extremely easy, especially right now, everyone's putting us kind of on a pedestal.," he said. "Our goal is eventually Indy (for the Big Ten title game) and after that whatever, but Nebraska's is in the way of that and that's where all our efforts are going."

Many years ago, when Palczewski was at Prospect High School, the scholarship offer came as a complete surprise. He assumed he'd become a carpenter when high school ended.

"I didn't play at all my junior year of high school because I had a neck injury," he said. "So after my senior year I had no idea what was going to happen. I think in November the offensive line coach Luke Butkus hit me up on Twitter and invited me down to a game, then they offered me the next day.

"They were the second offer. My first offer was from Virginia Military Institute. It was weird, I didn't know football was a thing until my sophomore or junior year, that you could make a career out of it."

Six years later, Palczewski will almost certainly get a shot to play in the NFL, and his career goals have changed.

"I think now (my goal) is to stay in football," he said. "I've got my undergraduate degree in kinesiology, so that's kind of like sports science. I always thought about being a strength coach or opening up a gym or something like that would intrigue me.

"It's going to be weird (leaving Champaign), but that's life. My door will be closing here in a couple months, but new ones will open up."

That line at the top of the Big Ten record book may not change for a while, though.

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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Alex Palczewski celebrates during the win over Wisconsin. By David Craan/Illinois Athletics
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