CHAMPAIGN — After a year off due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Illinois football team will resume its annual Lift for Life campaign Friday morning at Memorial Stadium. The yearly event was started in 2012 to honor former offensive lineman Andrew Carter, who saw his college career with the Illini come to an abrupt end after being diagnosed with acoustic neuroma — a rare disease that affects a person's hearing and balance.
Uplifting Athletes, a non-profit organization for college football players, has raised money for rare disease awareness, research and treatment for several years. The Illinois chapter is eager to continue contributing to the cause — while also competing against each other.
"I'm confident, I love the position I'm in and that we're in," senior offensive lineman Alex Alex Palczewski said of his Lift for Life group Wednesday at Memorial Stadium. "I feel like the 225-bench is going to be real good. Myself, (offensive lineman Blake) Jeresaty, (defensive lineman) Rod Perry, (linebacker) Seth Coleman and (linebacker) Shammond Cooper is also a beast on the bench press."
Although the Illini will be working toward one common goal Friday, the team has been split into 10 groups, with 10 players assigned to each group. The groups, which will square off for bragging rights, were picked through a recent internal draft held in strength and conditioning coach Tank Wright's office. The competitive juices have been flowing ever since.
"I felt like I was in an NFL Draft room, just talking about different dudes," Palczewski said. "It was a great time just being able to draft guys and it truly makes it fun and brings a lot of energy around Lift for Life."
Palczewski added that he selected linebacker Isaac Darkangelo with the No. 1 pick, and the junior was so excited he "called his parents."
Senior tight end Michael Marchese, who is a president of Uplifting Athletes' Illinois chapter alongside Palczewski, enjoyed the draft process as well. He explained that the Illini will participate in several different events like the aforementioned 225-pound bench press, as well as chin-ups and pushing wooden sleds across the field. So with that in mind, he tried to build his group around who would shine in one specific area.
"Honestly, we see each other work in the weight room and we kind of had an idea of the events and what they were going to be because we've done it in the past. So (you pick based off) who we've seen really excel at some of these lifts, Marchese said. "Like for example, (linebacker) Khalan Tolson just knocks out chin-ups, and that's one of the events, so obviously I had to take him for that event."
As Marchese and Palczewski prepare to lead their groups Friday, they'll also continue their personal transitions with the Illini's season opener on the horizon. Illinois will host Nebraska on Nov. 28 in front of what could be a sold out crowd at Memorial Stadium.
Marchese, who was elevated from a walk-on to a scholarship athlete in the spring, has switched from linebacker to tight end. Meanwhile, Palczewski continues to rehab from a torn right ACL, which forced him to miss the last four games of the 2020 season.
Palczewski didn't offer much insight into his recovery, but Marchese said his position change has been exciting and challenging.
"We were halfway through camp and I thought I was having a decent spring ball at linebacker before the transition," Marchese said. "And then (first-year Illinois coach Bret Bielema) was like, 'You want to play tight end?' And I was like, 'I'll do whatever. I'm just trying to win games here, so if you think it's right, I'll do it.' The gaining weight part is a little difficult. I'm still getting accustomed to it, but everything is going great."
Regardless of their goals on the field, however, Palczewski believes all of his teammates' attention will focused on a much bigger picture Friday.
Because after all, football is just a game.
"Football isn't everything," Palczewski said. "This is easy. Actual life is hard."
To date, the Illini have raised over $130,000 for Lift for Life, and Palczewski and his peers are champing at the bit to add to that total.
"Just being able to actually have a voice for someone else that might not have the platform that we do, and just knowing that every single rep or whatever we do, every single workout, even if it gets tough, we know that this lift is not for us," Palczewski said. "It's for someone else who can't fight or someone else who's going through a tough time."
🏈 16 NFL stars with Illini roots
Geronimo Allison // WR
James Crawford // LB
Clayton Fejeldem // SAF
Josh Ferguson // RB
Justin Hardee // DB
Michael Hoomanawanui // TE
Ted Karras // OG
Matt LaCosse // TE
Corey Liuget // DE
Whitney Mercilus // DE
Hardy Nickerson Jr. // LB
Carroll Phillips // DE
Dawuane Smoot // DE
Akeem Spence // DT
Jihad Ward // DE
Tavon Wilson // FS
Follow James Boyd on Twitter: @RomeovilleKid