This is the final football season for A.J. Palazzolo.
This is the final football season for A.J. Palazzolo.
No, really, this is it. The end. Kaput. Or, most appropriately, finito, because his swan song is happening in Italy.
Palazzolo, a former South Medford all-conference quarterback, is the new signal caller for Briganti Napoli of the Italian Football League.
There is room for skepticism, of course, because Palazzolo's football career has had more stops and starts than a city bus line.
At age 24, he's been on five college football teams and one other European professional club, the Hildesheim Invaders of the German Football League 2.
The 2012 season in Germany was supposed to be his last hurrah. He returned home and enrolled in the fall at Oregon and worked toward his communications degree.
"I wasn't going to play," said Palazzolo, who has had two games with Briganti, going 1-1, and will suit up for the third today. "I didn't really have any desire to play. I was ready to just kind of go on to the next phase of life."
Little did he know it would be all about football. Again.
He found himself working out with Duck receivers last spring as they prepared for pro camps; petitioning the NAIA and discovering he had one college season left; turning that knowledge into a nondescript campaign last fall at Hastings College in Hastings, Neb.; then drawing interest from the European ranks to the point that his online portfolio made him the top choice of a first-division coach in Naples, Italy.
Back at Oregon, Palazzolo roomed with high school buddy E.J. Singler, a member of the Duck basketball team.
"I just got to be a student and hang out and focus on school and have fun," said Palazzolo. "It gave me a chance to relax and figure out what college was all about without having the responsibility of being the quarterback of a football team."
One of his good friends is Will Murphy, who had completed his senior season as a wide receiver for Oregon. In the 2008 Les Schwab Bowl, Palazzolo hit Murphy, who played at West Albany, with a 66-yard touchdown pass to cap a 24-6 victory for the South team.
When last spring arrived, Murphy — who is now on the Philadelphia Eagles' roster — grabbed Palazzolo as a workout partner for himself and a few teammates.
"It was fun for me," said Palazzolo. "I got to throw with a pretty high caliber of receiver, and those guys I worked out with were pretty complimentary."
The experience stoked an ember. Could he possibly have another year of eligibility, even after playing in Germany?
NAIA headquarters gave him the OK to pursue one more season, said Palazzolo. It was up to individual schools whether to grant him eligibility.
"For me, I wanted to do it just to know there wasn't a chance," he said. "I was trying to exhaust all opportunities and make sure it was out of the question. The NAIA kind of gave me the green light and I'm like, oh my gosh. So then I was kind of in it."
The competitive nature that led him to stops at Cal Lutheran, Pacific Lutheran, Shasta College and Southern Oregon would prompt him to send inquiries to a couple dozen schools with quarterback needs.
Hastings was one of several that followed through.
"Some teams were wary of the Germany situation, and I totally understand that," said Palazzolo.
At Hastings, he would compete for the No. 1 job but ultimately played second fiddle to Matt Overmiller, a junior and homegrown talent.
Palazzolo played in seven games, completing 46 percent of his passes for 866 yards, six touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Most of his playing time came after games were decided and he was forced to throw in all-out passing situations, said Palazzolo. Hastings was 2-8 overall and 1-8 in the Great Plains Conference.
In the games he went the whole way, he passed for 334 yards and two TDs against Dakota Wesleyan and for 271 yards and three scores — but with five interceptions — against Midland.
While it was a sour experience, Palazzolo did find something palatable.
"It led me to this," he said of Briganti, "and kept me in shape. It made me think I could play again. For that, I'm thankful."
He didn't intend to pursue European football again, but Tim Speckman, the son of former Willamette coach Mark Speckman, asked Palazzolo if he'd return to Germany with the Hamburg Huskies, whom he coached. Hamburg is in the same league as Hildesheim and expected to lose its quarterback.
Palazzolo updated his profile on Europlayers, a website that connects players and teams, so the Hamburg folks could research him.
"If I didn't have any full-time job or anything, I would think about going back," said Palazzolo.
That he played a year in one of Europe's top leagues prompted a flurry of emails from teams other than Hamburg, he said. When Hamburg's quarterback elected to stay, Palazzolo figured that was the end of it. He had told friends the only other scenario he'd consider was with a first-division team in Italy.
"Just because I'd always been infatuated with the Italian culture," he said. "We have strong, strong Italian roots, and my dad (Jim) is from the East Coast, and they're a classic Italian-American family."
About a month later, Matteo Garofalo, president of Briganti, reached out to him. A month after that, Garofalo emailed to say the team would choose a quarterback soon, and Palazzolo had his vote. That vote carried, and Palazzolo had two days to accept the offer.
He did, and that began a whirlwind period. He drove home from Nebraska, spent a few days in Medford, then was off to Naples. He had six practices before the team's opener.
Briganti returned to Italy's 11-team top division this season for the first time in years, creating a buzz locally and allowing it to sign up to three American players. The level of play is close to that of NAIA and the German league Palazzolo played in, he said. Teams practice two or three times a week and the players have regular jobs.
Palazzolo, who earns about $700 a month and has virtually everything paid for, is of Sicilian descent.
"It's kind of a big deal over here that there's actually an American with an Italian-Sicilian surname," he said. "They've had a fun time with the marketing and stuff."
European football is old-school compared to the version in America, and Palazzolo acclimated quickly despite a language barrier. He considers football "a universal language," but there's still a lot of nodding and pointing, and breakdowns happen. He relies on fullback Tomasso De Angelis and linemen Raffaele Albo and Roberto De Giovanni to translate.
Offenses huddle and the quarterback is often under center. The ground game is emphasized in most cases. Passing schemes are basic.
"If you have an American quarterback and can protect, you can get some passes off," said Palazzolo.
Briganti's first game, on March 16, was quite an event. The team's field is in a park, Parco Virgiliano, with breathtaking views of the sea at one end of the field. A rock band played and dignitaries turned out. Locals delighted in a 13-12 victory over the Bologna Warriors.
For Palazzolo, the end result was far more pleasing than the beginning. His initial two passes were intercepted. Colace, the coach, called a post pattern on the first play and it wasn't open, so Palazzolo checked down to a tight end over the middle who didn't turn in time. The ball sailed past him and into a defender's hands.
Bologna fumbled it back to Briganti, and Colace went back to the post play, but the deep ball was picked off.
"I just felt miserable for the first quarter," said Palazzolo. "That's the last way you want to start it."
Things picked up thereafter and Briganti held on.
"You could just tell how hard these people have worked, and they were so proud to be back in the first division," said Palazzolo, who is 17 of 45 for 221 yards, one TD and three interceptions in two games. "The fact we won the game was like best thing that could have happened."
A week later, following a 10-hour bus trip, Briganti fell 45-14 to the Turin Jaguars. Briganti didn't travel well, said Palazzolo, noting that four starting defenders were absent because of their jobs.
Briganti was off last week and today visits the Parma Panthers, four-time IFL defending champions.
"It's been pretty great," said Palazzolo, "and the team's been amazing. They've made me feel so welcome."
He plans to enjoy this last go-round.
"I'm just gonna give it everything I've got for this last season," he said. "Everything is a bonus at this point. I've done everything that I've wanted to do, and I've proven everything to myself that I've needed to."
He'll be content, he believes, to say ciao.
Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email firstname.lastname@example.org