Mt. Lebanon coach Bob Palko returns to PIAA football finals with heavy heart

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Sunday, December 5, 2021 | 9:44 PM


The mood at Mansion Park Stadium was jubilant as Mt. Lebanon’s football team won a state semifinal for the first time in school history, yet amid the celebration coach Bob Palko held back tears.

“It’s humbling. Very humbling,” he said. “I’d rather be there (in Hershey) with my buddy, but we’ll have to do it without him.”

In the moments after defeating District 6 champion State College, Palko’s thoughts turned to the family of close friend Mark Davis, a former assistant coach who was hospitalized in a worrisome condition after collapsing a few days earlier. Davis was a top assistant on Palko’s staff at West Allegheny when the Indians reached the state finals three times.

“He’s like a brother, really,” Palko said Saturday in Altoona. “We’re just praying and hoping that he wakes up and can continue to be a part of everybody’s lives here on Earth.”

Palko said Davis collapsed last week playing basketball, and on Saturday remained unconscious. As Palko prepares to make his fourth trip to the state finals, he’ll do so with a heavy heart.

Mt. Lebanon faces three-time defending state champion St. Joseph’s Prep in the PIAA Class 6A final at 6 p.m. Saturday at Hersheypark Stadium.

“It’s almost like I need football to honor him,” Palko said, “because that’s what he would do. You learned football from him, but you learned more about life and how to treat people, and how to do it in the right way.”

Palko coached 24 seasons at West A and won the PIAA Class 3A title in 2001. Davis was on his staff from the very beginning in 1995 and later served as offensive coordinator, but didn’t follow him to Mt. Lebanon. Still, some of Mt. Lebanon’s players knew of him, said Palko, who asked his new team to compete Saturday in Davis’ honor.

“Coach Palko told us he was hurting a little bit because that’s a close friend,” Mt. Lebanon quarterback Joey Daniels said. “The only thing he’s asked for us so far this year is to win it for him. I feel like we responded.”

Mt. Lebanon scored touchdowns on its first seven possessions Saturday and defeated State College, 49-28.

“There’s nothing you want to do more than to help Coach Palko when he’s hurting,” said Daniels, who threw for six touchdowns. “We were able to rally around that a little bit and go get this thing done.”

Palko came to Mt. Lebanon only three years ago, but his players said he helped turn them into a family. A situation like this shows that closeness, Daniels said.

“There’s a brotherhood of the players, but it’s not just the players,” Daniels said. “It’s the whole organization. Us as a team, as Mt. Lebanon Blue Devils, we’re one big family. When one person is hurting, we need to be there for them. We need to love them.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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