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East Lansing native partly blames football for diagnosis

(Photo: Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press)

Kreg Palko’s favorite part of being a college football player was the crowds.

Saturday, 27 years after what he thought was his last big crowd, the East Lansing native got to experience one more, as the honorary captain for the game between the football team he played for at Air Force and the one his father played for at Michigan State.

But unlike his last college game, Palko didn’t run out onto the field this time.

He came out in the wheelchair he’s now required to use, not from an injury suffered on active duty in the military, but one he believes was caused in part by playing football.

It all started in 2013 when Palko, an avid surfer, was unable to stay on his surfboard during a trip to California. After returning home he couldn’t stop dropping his keys.

A quick Google search of his symptoms left him with one of two options: he either had Multiple Sclerosis or ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Since most ALS patients live only two to five years after diagnosis, he was put in the unusual circumstance of hoping for Multiple Sclerosis.

But after a year of testing, his worst fears were realized.

ALS is a degenerative brain disease that causes victims to lose motor function along with the ability to speak.

Palko, who will turn 50 this year, has gone from skiing, surfing and a decade in the military to being unable to stand and requiring the help of his wife Elizabeth to translate his speech.

“I’d be kidding myself if I didn’t think football played some part in it,” said Palko, who said he’s lost count of how many concussions he’s suffered, dating back to childhood. “But I loved playing football. It opened the door to many opportunities, including getting me into the Air Force Academy. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Nobody knew.”

After hearing of his former teammate’s diagnosis, Bob Lietzke, a fellow Michigan native, knew he had to do something.

As a fellow surfer, Lietzke originally thought of filming himself with a Go Pro camera surfing in Palko’s old No. 41 football jersey.

It wasn’t until he was awoken in the middle of the night that a new idea hit him that showed Palko's impact.

Lietzke decided to send Palko’s jersey to all of his former Air Force teammates around the world for them to sign and take a photo. Since then, more than 100 people have signed the jersey, including a Heisman finalist, a three-time Super Bowl winner, three of Air Force’s four members of the College Football Hall of Fame, along with many others. The jersey’s travels, along with Kreg’s journey have been documented on the website that Palko’s daughter started.

Palko – whose father, Andrew, swam at MSU and played a year of football in the mid-1960s -- said he will hang the jersey in his house so he can see it every day and former defensive backs coach Cal McCombs said the response shows the qualities that make Air Force players special.

“Those guys are brothers and they see themselves as brothers even after they leave and enter the Air Force,” McCombs said.

Lietzke finally got to deliver the jersey to Palko on Friday in front of the Air Force team and said after Palko’s speech there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

“It'll be a combination of joy, sadness, frustration,” Lietzke said before the game of seeing his friend on the field. "I'm sure I'll be crying."

Yet the only time Palko cried in talking of this weekend wasn't in recounting the past two difficult years or his hope for three more.

It was in thinking of the love his teammates have shown.

"Words can't describe it," he said through tears. "I'm going to want to get out of my wheelchair and play again."

To help Kreg Palko, join Team Kreg at

Story Source: The above story is based on materials provided by DETROITFREEPRESS
Note: Materials may be edited for content and length

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