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Safety Dance

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The instant the 2007 NFL Draft concluded without Tyler Palko being chosen, I received a phone call from a football fan wondering whether the former West Allegheny High School and Pitt star would have been among the 255 selections if he’d played safety instead of quarterback.

Think John Lynch, the fan said. Lynch began his career at quarterback for Stanford, but switched to defense and became a perennial Pro Bowl safety in the NFL.

My mind immediately drifted back to a story I had written about Palko shortly after he made a verbal commitment to Pitt in 2001.

This sentence in particular stuck in my mind: “The whispers about Palko are that for as good of a quarterback he can be in college, he’d be a potential All-American and NFL first-round pick if he concentrated on playing free safety.”

At 6-foot 3/8, 217 pounds, Palko’s size is better suited for safety. At West Allegheny, he had a reputation as a rover who could intercept passes or deliver crushing blows to receivers coming over the middle. His football smarts, which allowed him to read offenses and call plays, combined with his toughness made him a natural leader.

Some college coaches and recruiting analysts even projected him as a safety. Although SuperPrep’s Allen Wallace ranked Palko among his national top 100 players, it was as an athlete. In fact, Wallace called Palko a “very strong candidate in the secondary.”

But Palko was adamant that he wanted to play quarterback and quickly eliminated schools that spoke of a future on defense. Here was his rationale: “When you step in a huddle, everybody is looking at you and the guys on the sideline have put trust in you and know you can get the job done,” Palko said. “I want to be a leader. I don’t think I have the most talent, the strong arm or that I’m the fastest quarterback. But I have toughness, work ethic and leadership skills. I want to win. Those things are why I want to play quarterback in college.”

Palko was being true to himself, believing that he could overcome obstacles and shortcomings alike. To some extent, he did. Palko finished his career as one of the most decorated quarterbacks in Pitt history, ranking tied for second with Alex Van Pelt with 66 touchdowns and third with 8,343 passing yards, only 254 behind Dan Marino.

Had Palko played in a bowl game in either his junior or senior seasons, he would have surpassed Marino. Not that Palko ever cared much about statistics. Bill Stull, for example, passed for more yards (5,572) in two seasons at Seton-La Salle than Palko did (5,553) in four seasons at West Allegheny. But Palko led West A to three consecutive WPIAL Class AAA crowns and capped it with a PIAA title, a feat likely unparalleled by another Western Pennsylvania quarterback.

That success never translated to the college game, where Palko finished with a 19-16 career record. He pulled some impressive feats, becoming the first player to pass for five touchdowns at Notre Dame, leading Pitt to its first Big East Conference title and BCS bowl berth and tying a Big East-record with 10 300-yard career games.

The sad irony is that what doomed the Panthers in Palko’s final two seasons, especially his final two games against West Virginia and Louisville, was that their defense lacked precisely what many had projected he could have become.

A great safety.

It’s easy, in hindsight, to wonder what would have happened if Palko hadn’t been so headstrong about playing quarterback, if he had pulled a John Lynch and switched to safety when Rod Rutherford won the starting job in 2002.

For Palko, it was about living out a dream. His was to play quarterback, in college and the NFL. His was to get drafted – as a quarterback, not a safety. Some dreams die harder than others. Palko still can make the NFL after signing a free-agent contract with the New Orleans Saints – as a quarterback, not a safety.

Tyler Palko wouldn’t have had it any other way.

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