OCEAN TOWNSHIP – Ken Pickett Sr. remembers walking out onto the fields along West Park Avenue when his son was a 5-year-old starting out in flag football, helping coach him right up until high school.
Kenny Pickett, now the Steelers quarterback of the future, returned to the field where he spent countless hours to have it named in his honor, producing a moment that underscored how important the lessons athletics teach within a community are.
“It’s pretty surreal,” Ken Pickett Sr. said. “This is where I spent most of my time with him when he was growing up, on these practice fields.”
A former Ocean Township High School standout who went on to a record-setting career at Pitt, Pickett was selected by the Steelers in the first round of the NFL Draft, the 20th pick overall, on April 28.
“I remember being on this particular field when I was 9 or 10 years old,” he said. “Bill Cowley and my dad were my coaches, and I’m best friends with a lot of the guys I played with back then, and they’re here today.
“For me, this is special because I grew up there, and all these kids are doing the same thing I did. And hopefully I give them motivation to keep chasing their dreams.”
It was a perfect start to the Fourth of July weekend at the Jersey Shore. Once all the speakers had exhausted their stories and the last proclamation had been read, Pickett dutifully sat in the heat and humidity and signed every autograph and posed for every picture.
“It’s more than just recognizing Kenny’s accomplishments,” Ocean Township head coach Don Klein said. “It is important for our community because of the person that Kenny is.
“I remember being at a Pop Warner camp when he was about 10 or 11. We had passing drills in the afternoon he was in like fifth grade and camp went up to 8th grade. And the older kids were all asking him to throw the ball to him. And he said, ‘I only have one football and I am going to throw it to the person who gives us the best chance to score.’ When you have that awareness at that young an age, you have a chance to be pretty special.”
Pickett’s part of an elite group of former Shore Conference standouts taken in the first round of the NFL Draft, including: Red Bank Catholic’s Quenton Nelson (sixth overall in 2018 by Indianapolis); Middletown South’s Knowshon Moreno (12th in 2009 by Denver), Middletown South’s Jason Peter (14th in 1998 by Carolina), Brick’s Art Thoms (22nd in 1969 by Oakland), Matawan’s Jim Jeffcoat (23rd in 1983 by Dallas), and Red Bank Catholic’s Donald Brown (27th in 2009 by Indianapolis).
At Ocean, Pickett threw for 4,670 yards, ninth best in Shore Conference history. It was a prelude to his career at Pitt, where Pickett broke Dan Marino’s program record for career TD passes (81). But it was his eye-popping senior campaign, when he broke Marino’s record for TD passes in a season, throwing 42, to go with 4,319 passing yards and an ACC championship, that made him a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.
Surveying the scene was Ocean’s last NFL star, Phil Villapiano, the All-Pro linebacker with the Oakland Raiders who spent 13 seasons in pro football. Villapiano will see Pickett play in person on Dec. 24 in Pittsburgh when the Raiders are in town to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the “Immaculate Reception.”
“I can’t get over how the colors have changed,” Villapiano laughed. “Back in the day it was all silver and black. Now it’s black and gold. But it’s great we have another kid from the Shore ready to have a great career.”
Pickett spent the past month getting to know his new teammates and the Steelers’ playbook, as he prepares to compete with veterans Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph when training camp opens.
“The goal is to get on the field. You can’t do anything without getting on the field,” Pickett said. “I’m just trying to work as hard as I can to put myself in the best position.”
While Pickett will spend the next month at the Jersey Shore, training and catching up with family and friends, this was a day to both reflect on the past and have an impact on the future locally.
“Seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces is really special, and I’m just incredibly grateful to have the field named after me,” Pickett said.
“So many people helped me get to where I am today and a lot of them were here, a lot of them were at my draft party. I hold those people close to me. They are very special and they all know who they are. I definitely wouldn’t be here without their love and support.”