Iowa Football

From immigrants come some fine Big Ten football stories

3 players at league's media days had parents who started over in U.S.

Illinois offensive tackle Alex Palczewski at the Big Ten football media day in Chicago on 7.18.19.
Illinois offensive tackle Alex Palczewski at the Big Ten football media day in Chicago on 7.18.19.

CHICAGO — Immigrants.

This isn’t a political screed. It was just interesting that some of the players the Big Ten Conference brought here for interviews at their football media days are sons of people born in another country who came to the U.S., have contributed to society, and raised children who are held in high regard.

Minnesota running back Mohamed Ibrahim, who rushed for 1,160 yards as a freshman last season, is the son of a native Nigerian man.

Illinois junior tackle Alex Palczewski, ranked the Big Ten’s No. 4 offensive tackle by Pro Football Focus, is from Mount Prospect, Ill., about 20 miles from the hotel in which the Big Ten extravaganza is being held. His parents are from Poland.

Nebraska senior linebacker Mohamed Barry grew up in Grayson, Ga., an Atlanta suburb. His parents are from the Republic of Guinea on Africa’s west coast.

The parents are people who came to America for better lives. They’re people who raised sons who were coveted by Big Ten football coaches for their talents, sure, but also their character and an appreciation for work.

“My dad came to Baltimore from Nigeria when he was in his teens and lived there the rest of his life,” Ibrahim said. His father is an auto mechanic and has been one for a long time.

Ibrahim’s culture change wasn’t quite as dramatic when he left Baltimore for Minnesota, but “winter is so tough,” he said.

“But honestly, I got used to it.”

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Palczewski’s mother came to Chicago from Poland in 1985. Her father did likewise in 1989. Bozena and Andrzej Palczewski met in Chicago, married, and had three sons. The 6-foot-6, 290-pound Alex is the youngest child.

“At the time they came here,” Palczewski said. “Poland was still communist. They came here for better opportunities.”

They sent money to their parents in Poland, then near the end of decades of dominance by the Soviet Union.

“Oh my gosh, my parents are the toughest people that I know,” said Palczewski. “They’re super hard-working. My mom’s a nurse. My dad’s a carpenter. My mom gave birth to all three of us without epidurals and we were all 10-pound babies.

“My dad wakes up at 5 a.m. and goes and does hard construction labor, comes back home at 5 p.m., and still makes dinner. He’s been doing that the past 30 years. If he can do that, I can do way more than this.”

Tough is playing offensive tackle in the Big Ten. Tougher is coming to America with nothing, not speaking English, and starting a life.

“They came here literally with just a suitcase of stuff,” Palczewski said, “They had no friends here, didn’t know the language. My dad figured out how to speak the language by watching cartoons.

“It was great growing up. My parents made it awesome.”

Barry is a senior linebacker who didn’t have a command of reading or speaking English until he had been in elementary school in the Atlanta area for several years. He didn’t lack intelligence by any means. He lived in Guinea with his grandmother from ages 1 to 6 because it was a family tradition that children grow up there. He learned three languages there, but English wasn’t among them.

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So that was hard, but here Barry was Thursday gracefully representing his team in interviews, owning a college degree and a 3.2 GPA. His mother, Kadiatou Bah, didn’t wait for good luck to find her when she moved to the U.S.

“She started work as a (hair) braider,” Barry said. “Later, she started a braiding business. Her business took off and now she’s doing great for herself.”

When she came to America, Barry said, “She knew there was adversity. She didn’t expect people to say they feel sorry for her and make her feel better. ... She built a business that fellow Americans attend, and seek her services.

“We never struggled. My mother and my father always made sure we were good. My mother’s success today shows me I’ve got to grind. I’ve got to make a life for myself. My mom has been such a huge inspiration to me.”

I’ve said it before here, and I’ll say it again. The players and their families are the very best things about college football.

l Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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