CHAMPAIGN — Illinois offensive lineman Alex Palczewski told the media Wednesday that he was "confident" his Lift for Life group would be in good shape Friday. When the time came to deliver, it didn't disappoint.
On Friday morning, Palczewski's squad won every event of the Illini football team's annual fundraising event, which is geared toward helping the rare disease community. The team's roster was split into 10 groups, with about 10 players in each group, and they had the chance to square off in various events such as bench pressing, tug-of-war, chin-ups and tire flips.
Palczewski, a fifth-year senior who continues to work his way back after tearing his right ACL last season, was one of 10 players who served as a general manager during an internal team draft to pick the groups. His strategy was to choose "high-grade" guys, and he made sure they dressed for the occasion. Every member of Palczewski's group wore a collared shirt and tie, although sleeves seemed to be optional since Palczewski's shirt didn't have any.
"A lot of (the other groups) already called camo and neon and all of that, so me and (junior linebacker Isaac Darkangelo) and a few other guys were at Walmart yesterday and just decided to go business casual," Palczewski said, while adjusting his tie.
When jokingly asked about releasing a menswear line, Palczewski responded, "Probably in two or three weeks."
Fellow fifth-year senior Michael Marchese, who recently switched from linebacker to tight end, was another group leader, and he wasn't all that disappointed to come up short against Palczewski's squad. After all, the two of them are the presidents of Uplifting Athlete's Illinois chapter. The non-profit organization, comprised of college football players around the country, has raised money for the rare disease community for several years through Lift for Life.
Friday's event, which was originally supposed to be outdoor at Memorial Stadium but was moved to the team's indoor practice facility due to rain, was simply the latest installment of a cause that never gets old.
"All of this, it's nice, but it doesn't compare to the real world," Palczewski said. "There's actual people going through tough challenges, and (we want) to let them know that we have their backs and just using our platforms to raise awareness and help them in any way we can."
Marchese, whose team was outfitted in camouflage, shared a similar outlook. He explained that coming together for a higher purpose made the competition even more fun.
"I loved the energy from my guy, (freshman defensive back) DD Synder. Shout out to him. He did a really good job for us (Friday)," Marchese said. " ... It's really important for us to put on a good show, and like (Palczewski) said, help people fight harder battles than we are."
Illinois strength and conditioning coach Tank Wright, who was hired in January, was the overseer of the team's Life for Life competition and chose the specific events. He said the idea for an internal draft came from Marchese and Palczewski, and it simply enhanced an already competitive atmosphere within the program.
Wright added that he makes sure every Illini football player is challenged in the weight room daily, but Friday was a welcome change of pace.
"I think creativity-wise, they came in with a smile. They had on their different gear — jerseys and swim trunks. I mean, you got a chance to see some character come out of some guys (that) you've never seen before, so the team-bonding was good," Wright said. "The way they competed, they rallied around each other, they wanted to win, so the competitive nature was there."
Perhaps the most difficult event was pushing a weighted sled — 889 pounds to be exact — across the field. At the start of Wright's tenure, he said their were only two players able to move the sled, but Friday was a different story as about a dozen athletes pulled off the feat.
"(It's a) combination of putting their cleats in the ground and getting some more force and power behind them," Wright said. "So seeing them do it is pleasing. They're gonna have a chance to do it again. They embrace the heavy (sled) work, which just shows how they've been progressing from January to (Friday)."
Illinois' annual Lift for Life campaign, which was canceled last year due to COVID-19, began in 2012 to honor former offensive lineman Andrew Carter. He was diagnosed with the rare disease acoustic neuroma, which affects a person's hearing and balance, and was forced to end his Illini career prematurely.
Since then, Illinois has raised over $130,000 for the rare disease community through Lift for Life, including over $3,500 this year. Marchese, who still has one more year of eligibility, looks forward to participating again in 2022.
"(Palczewski) put together a good squad. They deserve to win if they're going to sweep every event," Marchese said. "(Palczewski) is a great leader. Got his team ready to go, got the boys going. We'll come back next year, set the foundation, get back in the weight room and come back for that championship."
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