KANSAS CITY, Mo.—Taking a deep breath, Tyler Palko walked into a crowded little room and confronted frightening moment No. 1 in what could be a very scary week.
"This stuff I'm not so comfortable with," Kansas City's shaggy-haired quarterback told a swarm of cameras and reporters. "Be easy on me, guys."
For the most part, they were. Bill Belichick is not likely to be.
Four years after every NFL team passed him up in the draft and two years after he was cut by the California Redwoods of the United Football League, Palko will finally see his dream come true. He will be a starting quarterback in the NFL.
Fate could have chosen calmer waters for his baptism by fire. Stepping in for the injured Matt Cassel, Palko will lead the struggling Chiefs against Belichick's New England Patriots -- on the road and on Monday night.
"I don't think you can ever prepare yourself for this, exactly," said Palko, the 28-year-old son of a successful Pennsylvania high school coach.
"But I think the big thing is just mentally preparing. This is where you're really tested if you're paying attention or not when Matt was in, asking questions and getting involved with him."
The Chiefs (4-5) would have been big underdogs to the Patriots (6-3) even if Cassel had not hurt his throwing hand last weekend during a dismal 17-10 loss to Denver. Injuries have savaged Kansas City, particularly on offense where tight end Tony Moeaki and Pro Bowl running back Jamaal Charles have both been out almost all year.
But the underdog role seems to fit Palko. He was out of football altogether in 2008 and he was a last-string backup at New Orleans and Arizona before landing in Kansas City last December.
More than once while struggling to find a foothold in professional football, he thought about giving up. But he didn't. Now his moment is at hand.
So how long will it take Monday night before he gets past the "wow" factor?
"I would hope it doesn't last very long because if it does, we're going to be in trouble," he said. "I hope it happens when I get off the bus and before I take the suit and tie off. It's something that's going to be there. As a starting quarterback and as a professional, those guys in the locker room are looking at me as a professional as well."
Altogether in his NFL career, he's thrown 13 passes. But Chiefs fans looking for hope can point to the fact he passed for more career yards at Pittsburgh than Dan Marino. Plus, as a redshirt sophomore, he went into Notre Dame and became the first visiting quarterback to throw five touchdown passes against the Irish.
But even Palko admits it's a long way from Notre Dame to Monday night on Tom Brady's home turf.
"Going into Notre Dame Stadium as a college kid is pretty special," he said, his thick brown locks billowing out from under a faded, scruffy baseball cap. "Playing on Monday Night Football -- I don't think you can get any more special than that. The NFL is the best league in the world. It's going to be a big spotlight, a big game. The New England Patriots are a good football team. But so are we."
Coaches and teammates say they're confident their inexperienced new quarterback can get the job done.
"I've watched how he prepares each day to do his job," said coach Todd Haley. "He's professional in every way, shape and form about that preparation. I've seen him practice enough to know that he has the skills necessary to play quarterback in this league and play successfully. Now the next step is he's going to get a chance top be the guy."
One of his biggest fans is rookie wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin, who followed him as a star at Pittsburgh.
"I know Tyler real well. He's a competitor," Baldwin said. "He lives for moments like this. He'll definitely be ready, and we'll be ready as well."
It's all in how you prepare, said Palko.
"The way I've always worked is you can't worry about the end result," he said. "It's all about the process. When Monday night gets here, I'll worry about Monday night. But every day you have to put so much effort into the day and the task at hand -- It's exhausting just going through the day and making sure that you're on top of everything."
Someone suggested that what he'll be doing Monday night will be essentially no different from when he was starring for his dad at West Allegheny High School.
"I think I'd rather be studying algebra than facing Bill Belichick," Palko said. "He's a little bit tougher than algebra."