Glenbard West grad goes from walk-on TE to starting offensive lineman
Alex Pihlstrom's transition from a walk-on tight end to a scholarship offensive lineman at Illinois came with a 5,000-calorie-a-day diet, hours of hard work, and lots of extra cooking from his mom.
Pihlstrom, a 2016 Glenbard West graduate, made his first start for the Illini on Oct. 31 in a 31-24 loss to Purdue.
Two days before that game Illinois found out starting quarterback Brandon Peters and redshirt freshman tight end Griffin Moore tested positive for COVID-19. Due to contact tracing protocols, the Illini were forced to play without 12 other players including four-year starting center Doug Kramer from Hinsdale Central.
So left guard Kendrick Green moved to center, and Pihlstrom stepped into Green's spot.
"We knew something like this could happen, every college football team could," Pihlstrom said. "Especially this year the protocols, everybody has to be ready this year, doesn't matter who it is."
That completed quite a journey for the 6-foot-6, 285-pound junior whose father Mike played football at Minnesota from 1984-88.
A two-year letter winner for Hilltoppers coach Chad Hetlet who also played basketball and tennis, Pihlstrom had FCS offers out of high school. Instead, he chose to walk on in the Big Ten.
"I felt I could go bigger and compete at that level," Pihlstrom said. "A lot of hard work and a lot of believing in myself and I could compete with everybody out here."
"I'm not surprised at his success as he has always worked hard and will fight to the end," Hetlet said. "We are very proud of him for earning his spot."
After a redshirt year in 2017, Pihlstrom earned academic all-Big Ten in 2018, and he played in one game at tight end against Rutgers last year.
A member of the scout team, Pihlstrom made the move to the line last year after an injury to a teammate.
"I told coaches, why don't you just put me in there at left tackle," Pihlstrom said. "I had no idea what I was doing but I'll play hard, I'll give you a look. I don't know what technique I was using, just tried to play hard."
After three days tight ends coach Cory Patterson asked Pihlstrom about a move to the line, one that would require adding 45 pounds.
"I'd love to play on the field and get my shot so I would do whatever it takes," said Pihlstrom, who added those pounds over the last eight months while enjoying Chinese takeout and his mom's ravioli and chicken.
"Quarantine was rough on my mom because she had to make so much food for me. And I was like, 'Mom, I need more. I know you are making it for the whole family but I just need as much as I can right now.'"
Pihlstrom put on the weight and cracked the Illini two-deep. He was ready for his chance, nervous at first but quickly settling in.
"It was kind of like a range of emotions and I knew I had to be ready and knew we had walk-throughs," Pihlstrom said. "I felt very comfortable knowing my assignments. I just wanted to go as hard as I could."
Illini coach Lovie Smith said with young players, the coaches never know what position they're going to end up at. If they eat right with proper nutrition and keep lifting, coaches will see what their body tells them as far as where they play.
"He was on the scout team for a long period of time and he was dominant down there," Smith said. "He was good at tight end and kept getting big. I knew he would help us somewhere. Normally when you deserve to play, something happens where you get a chance to and you've got to answer the bell, and he answered the bell.
"That's what our program's about too. Alex walked on here. Sometimes everybody doesn't get a scholarship right away but you can earn that."
That's exactly what happened Thursday. Smith awarded Pihlstrom a scholarship in front of the entire team, who quickly mobbed him in a happy celebration.
"Definitely a dream goal but in my mind I didn't want to worry about that as my only goal and I wanted to get better every day," said Pihlstrom, whose Illini teammate from Neuqua Valley Donny Navarro also went from walk-on to scholarship last year.
"My main goal was to get on the special teams. I just wanted to be on the field and help the team."