How Dan Campbell’s cousin helped a local USFL hopeful get his shot on the big screen

Detroit Free Press

Tyler Palka was sitting on a couch with his family a few days before Christmas in 2020 when he got a text from Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell’s cousin asking if he was interested in being in a movie.

Palka, a former Saline star who bounced around professional football’s minor-league circuit after splitting his college career between Saginaw Valley State and Gannon University, had tried out for the Arena League’s Philadelphia Soul a few months earlier and remained in contact with Soul coach Clint Dozlel even after the league folded.

Dozlel, who grew up with Campbell in Texas, intended to sign Palka before the league shut down, but now he was reaching out about a new opportunity.

Palka told his family about the text and was met with bewildered amusement.

“I looked at the text, I said, ‘Hey, Clint texted me,’” Palka said. “My dad was like, ‘All right, what’d he say?’ I said, ‘He said, Tyler, do you want to be in a movie?’ And we all like looked at each other like, ‘What? Is he serious?’ And everyone started laughing cause they thought I was joking. And I’m like, ‘No, he actually said, Do you want to be in a movie?’ So they were like, ‘All right, text him back and find out more.’”

Dozlel had signed on to be a quarterback consultant during the production of “American Underdog,” the film about Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner released this Christmas, and was helping producers find stunt actors to play football-playing roles in the movie.

Palka, who was awaiting a chance to join the developmental Spring League football league at the time, texted Dozlel back and told him he’d love to be in the movie but he had a question first: “Is this going to be a legitimate movie or something I don’t want to be associated with in five years?”

“And all he said was, ‘The main character is Zachary Levi, produced by Lionsgate, movie’s going to be legit,’” Palka said. “And for me, knowing Clint, that’s all I needed to hear and I’m sending in headshots and doing everything else to try to solidify it and I was on a plane within two months.”

Palka, 26, is one of about 450 players still clinging to the chance to continue playing professional football as part of the draft pool for the new USFL.

The eight-team league, which includes a revival of the old Michigan Panthers franchise (now based in Birmingham, Alabama, like all of the league’s teams), was scheduled to hold the first 12 rounds of its position-based draft Tuesday night.

The Panthers opened the draft by taking former Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson with the first pick.

Wide receivers are scheduled to be drafted Wednesday in rounds 13-17, and a supplemental draft for undrafted players will be held March 10.

“At minimum, it gives me another opportunity because I know a lot of guys that didn’t make the draft pool that are really good receivers, so at least it’s another opportunity to get a shot, to get a look,” Palka said. “And hopefully someone will take a chance and when they do, they’ll be able to see what I can bring.”

Palka has lived a journeyman’s career while chasing his football dream, one that’s been smiled upon by good fortune at times and supported by his close inner circle, including his father, Joe, the head coach at Saline High School; his Saline-based agent Doc Ping; and family friends at Crooked Creek Golf Course in Ottawa Lake, who’ve given him a flexible work schedule in between football gigs.

Palka played in 16 games at Saginaw Valley State, attempting 143 passes, before transferring to Gannon after the 2015 season. At Gannon, he played an all-purpose role as a running back, receiver and wildcat quarterback.

He tested well enough at his pro day after his senior season to earn an invite to Pittsburgh Steelers minicamp, and when he was cut by the Steelers he signed a reserve contract with the Ottawa Redblacks of the CFL.

After a short stint in Canada, Palka played two games for the Columbus Destroyers of the Arena League, around the same time he worked out for Dozlel, then talked his way into a spot on the XFL’s DC Defenders after a chance meeting with Pep Hamilton at a Saline football practice.

Palka, an assistant coach at Saline when he’s not playing football, introduced himself to Hamilton one day when the former Michigan football assistant took his young son to a practice. Palka told Hamilton he had just taken part on the XFL combine and was looking for a way into the league, and Hamilton arranged a workout later that day with Defenders quarterbacks Cardale Jones and Tyree Jackson.

“You couldn’t really have scripted that story,” Palka said. “He walked into practice a month after the XFL combine, which he was at. And I said, ‘Hey Coach.’ I don’t want to be rude to him, but I was just at the combine. He said, ‘Were you really?’ He said, ‘OK, I’m going to look you up.’ He looked me up, he texted me, ‘You have good numbers, let’s get you working out after practice today.'”

As unlikely as that connection was, nothing beats the opportunity Palka got to be on the big screen.

About six weeks after Dozlel’s text, Palka flew to Oklahoma City for what he described as a movie minicamp with other football players cast through Game Changing Films, a production company that specializes in casting and coordinating sports scenes.

“Guys got cut,” Palka said. “They just didn’t look the part. They weren’t catching the balls, they weren’t finishing, and it was legitimate. I remember calling my people, my dad, and I said, ‘Dad, we’re running through training camp right now.’ He was like, ‘What? This is supposed to be your break? It’s supposed to be enjoyable,’ and it was. I told him don’t get that confused with the amount of pressure that is here and the cameras that are everywhere and the heavy-hitter names that are watching this unfold. It has to be perfect. And the movie has very good reviews so they did a great job.”

Palka spent two months on set in Oklahoma City and played several roles in the movie.

He is a background character in one scene where Levi, who plays Warner, is in a meeting room while with the St. Louis Rams. He plays Ty Detmer in a scene when Warner was with the Green Bay Packers. And he plays a receiver who catches a touchdown pass during Warner’s days in the Arena League.

Palka said the Arena League scene was especially meaningful considering his brief career in the AFL and that his Arena League connection to Dozlel landed him a spot in the movie.

The scene took nine shots, and Palka’s stumbling touchdown catch — on a pass from his former Redblacks quarterback Will Arndt — was somewhat unscripted.

“I catch the first one, it’s fantastic,” Palka said. “I catch the second one, it’s great. The third one, I’m getting tired and it goes right through my hands. So I’m like, ‘All right, starting to feel the pressure.’ Now, there’s people there, there’s extras there. Kurt Warner, everyone’s there. So I drop the third one and the pin drops. I’m worried like, ‘All right.’ I’m looking over my shoulder, someone else is getting ready to go in and do it. And I had to kind of reload, refocus, think to myself, ‘OK, this is the real deal. It’s time to make the play.’

“And I make the catch (on the ninth one), and like I said, I’m stumbling. So I’m legitimately just trying to get to the end zone to catch the touchdown. At the time, they cut out the celebration but I spiked the ball. I go crazy, cause it feels like it’s game day. The pressure was on, no question about it. So yeah, it was legitimate.”

After the catch, Palka said the film’s directors came running on the field, congratulated him on the catch and told him that was the shot they needed.

When the film hit the box office in December, he went to watch an early release at the Ann Arbor 20 IMAX with his mom, dad, sister and brother-in-law and was amazed at what he saw.

“It was honestly incredible, kind of surreal,” he said. “When it hit me was when it’s in the theatres, ’cause at the time, we’re all filming it, we’re a bunch of — we’re football players. We’re pro athletes and we’re getting coached by Clint, pro coaches. And at the time it just feels normal to an extent. You’re playing football, there’s cameras like there would be any game. But when it really hit me was when it started to gain a lot of media attention and it was like third or fourth in the box office and everyone was going to it. People were tweeting about it. All my friends were talking about it and I’m like, ‘Guys, I’m in the movie.’

“That to me was when I’m like, ‘Man, this is awesome.’ So I had to go home, I had to buy the set poster. Just to be able to enjoy it, because as a football guy trying to make it to the NFL and trying to get back to workouts, you go through years and months of just training before you can get to the XFL, before you get workouts and to have that in my back pocket is something that I never thought I’d be able to do and it’s something that I’ll always be able to have.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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