KANSAS CITY, Mo.—Tyler Palko knows full well that the most popular guy in town is the backup quarterback. He's the one every fan wants to see at the first sign of trouble, whose name floats across the airwaves whenever the starter is struggling.
Well, Palko has a chance to earn some of that popularity now.
The Kansas City Chiefs' backup has been thrust into the spotlight with Matt Cassel sidelined with a likely season-ending injury to his throwing hand. A journeyman once cut by a UFL team will make the first start of his career Monday night at New England.
"I don't think you can play quarterback and really worry about stuff like that," said Palko, who etched his name alongside Dan Marino's in the record books during a standout college career at Pittsburgh.
"There's so much that goes into playing quarterback, from studying all week to understanding what everyone has to do on every play, at least in my mind, I don't have any time to think about it," said Palko, the son of a high school coach. "When I get in there and the lights are on, you'll have a `Wow, this is really happening moment,' but until then, I don't have time to think about that stuff."
He doesn't have time to think of the predicament the Chiefs have put themselves in, losing back-to-back games at home to Denver and Miami, dropping them to 4-5 this season. He doesn't have time to think about the brutal stretch of games that he'll have to navigate, which includes Pittsburgh, Green Bay and Chicago in addition to the Patriots.
He sure doesn't have time to consider how far he's come.
Palko went undrafted out of college and signed with the New Orleans Saints, but he was among the final cuts in 2007 and spent the following year out of football.
He gave it another try with Arizona the next fall, with the same frustrating result. So he signed with the California Redwoods of the United Football League -- and was cut again.
Palko wound heading to Canada, signing with the Montreal Alouettes in 2009, where he toiled in obscurity until the Steelers lost Ben Roethlisberger and Charlie Batch to injuries. Palko spent some time as the backup quarterback in Pittsburgh, never seeing time in a game.
It wasn't until he signed with Kansas City that he finally made his NFL debut.
He played the final minutes of a 31-0 loss to San Diego on Dec. 12, 2010, nearly four full years after he last played a down in college. But he showed Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli and coach Todd Haley enough that they decided to give him the starting job behind Cassel during this preseason, rather than signing a veteran backup like David Garrard.
"Tyler has a high, high football IQ," Haley said. "He's a very competitive person, and that translates into his quarterback ability. That competitiveness is a good trait to have."
Much of that can be traced to the nights he spent at the dinner table with his father, Bob, who coached him at West Allegheny High School. Palko admits that his father pushed him harder than he did most players, intent on molding him into a quarterback worthy of the NFL.
Cassel hurt his right hand late in the Chiefs' 17-10 loss to the Broncos last Sunday, likely when he landed on the turf getting sacked by Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller. Cassel said after the game that the thought he'd be ready for New England, but Monday revealed the extent of the injury.
Haley said it will likely require surgery and Cassel could be done for the season.
The injury puts the Chiefs in the hands of a quarterback who has appeared in four games and thrown all of 13 passes in his entire NFL career.
"We know he's ready to step in," fullback Le'Ron McClain said.
Standing in front of his locker in a mostly empty locker room Monday afternoon, Palko was asked if he could remember the first time he made a start in college.
"You know what? I got a concussion my first college start," he said, "so I don't remember my first college start. I think it was against Ohio."
He does remember his first high school start, way back in the ninth grade, winning 7-6: "I remember that one. I didn't get a concussion that one."
He's surely going to remember his first NFL start.
Against the Patriots, on the road, under the lights on Monday night.
"You trying to intimidate me?" Palko asks with a smile. "You just have to go out there and try to execute the offense, and that's how I look at it. All that other stuff falls into place."