One year ago, Alex Palczewski was a big unknown to the college football world.
A big question was if he would even play again, since a neck injury after his first varsity football game at Prospect appeared to threaten his athletic career.
But on Wednesday, the 6-foot-6, 270-pound senior offensive lineman was officially on his way to the Big Ten to play football. A whirlwind recruiting process saw Palczewski sign his National Letter of Intent with Illinois, which confirmed the verbal commitment he made two weeks ago to be part of head coach Lovie Smith's first recruiting class.
"I'm really happy," said Palczewski, who also wrestles at heavyweight and throws the shot put in track for the Knights. "It's a weight off of my shoulders."
It has been quite a turn of events for Palczewski considering he could not lift any weights or do any physical activity at this time last year. During his senior season the only scholarship offer he had was from Virginia Military Institute.
But Prospect offensive line coach and track throws coach Tim Beishir went to work for Palczewski. All of a sudden in November, not only was Illinois interested, but Vanderbilt and Syracuse offered scholarships. Beishir said Michigan, Oklahoma and North Carolina also stopped in to meet Palczewski.
"The distance he has traveled in 15 to 16 months has been immense and it's been impressive," Beishir said, "Obviously it's not just hard work and that he's a great kid, but he's also 6-6 and you can't teach that.
"It was a 15-to-18 month process that we tried to do in six weeks. Ultimately it was a great result for him and a great situation."
The situation he was in at the start of his junior season was not so good. Palczewski had played football since the fourth grade to follow in the footsteps of his older brother at Prospect. He spent two years on the undreclass levels as he adjusted to his rapid body growth.
Palczewski played in the season opener against Jacobs and felt fine. But at practice the next Monday he was experiencing some neck soreness. Beishir also noticed something wasn't right and told him to see the Prospect athletic trainer.
The training staff had some concerns about a possible fracture so he was taken by ambulance to Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights. A problem was detected on a CT scan and he was transferred to Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago, where an MRI showed a fractured C6 vertebrae in his neck.
Fortunately, he did not need surgery. Unfortunately, he would be in a neck brace for six weeks and out of any action for approximately six months.
"I had worked my tail off all summer and I wanted to make the team better," Palczewski said. "When you're told you can't play football, you can't do anything -- one thing I learned from it is you are never guaranteed anything Any day it can all end."
But Palczewski didn't see that day coming just yet. The support of Beishir and his doctors helped during the inevitable emotional ups and downs.
"When it happened and we were in the hospital my parents were telling me, 'You're done with football, you're done with sports,' " he said. "I didn't tell them at that point but I knew I wasn't done playing football.
"I only had one year left. I was going to make sure I made the most of that year and hopefully I would play football the next four or five years."
He would have to do it after missing significant time to get stronger. He started his return when he came out for the track team for the first time and threw 48 feet in the shot.
During the summer he continued to work out and would spend additional time with exercises to strengthen his neck. He started at guard in the season opener but then moved to tackle.
"Week to week his growth was almost startling at times," Beishir said. "Once he learned some of the things he needed to do he gained a lot of confidence on the field."
Beishir set out to let colleges know about Palczewski. He and his family were ready to take the Virginia Military offer but Beishir asked them to be patient because other possibilities might be out there.
Beishir said he got Illinois offensive line coach Luke Butkus to watch Palczewski's film on a Thursday evening. Shortly after that, Butkus wanted Palczewski to come to the Iowa game in Champaign that weekend for an unofficial visit. Then Smith called on Sunday.
"It all happened extremely fast," Palczewski said of the weekend that culminated with a scholarship offer from the former Bears head coach.
But his parents told him to take some time before making a commitment. Other Power Five schools entered the picture, but after an official visit to Illinois, Palczewski knew it was the right place for him.
"I wanted to stay home and fight for Illinois," Palczewski said. "If all of the top recruits and good players in Illinois stayed and played for Illinois, imagine how good we would be."
"Lovie Smith, with the energy he is bringing, you can feel the resurgence in the program. And coach Butkus, I really like him and know he coaches really well."
Palczewski, who has a 3.89 grade point average on a 5.0 scale and scored 27 on the ACT, wants to study kinesiology after what he went through with his injury. Beishir thinks Palczewski has just scratched the surface of what he is capable of because of the lost time on and off the field.
"I think 100 percent his best football is in front of him," Beishir said.
And that's a long way from thoughts of Alex Palczewski playing football being behind him.