OCEAN TOWNSHIP, NJ – He looked at the defense in front of him, before throwing a pass to an open receiver.
Receivers that Kenny Pickett, now Pitt’s senior quarterback in the red shirt, did not target returned to the squad demanding that he throw the ball to them – claiming they were open. The quarterback looked around the disgruntled receivers before lending them some wise wisdom.
“I have a soccer ball,” Pickett said, according to a coach who overheard the exchange. “I’ll throw it to whoever gives us the best chance to score.”
It wasn’t a conversation he had had this season. Pickett said this to his receivers when he was just 10 years old at Ocean Township High School’s summer youth football camp.
It was then that Donald Klein – Ocean’s head football coach and the one who overheard the conversation in the group – knew this “Jersey Shore Kid” was not. like all those he had seen in his camp.
“He was just a really good athlete,” Klein said. “When you see him, at first, you see he’s more advanced than other kids that age. He’s a gentler athlete. He can throw, he can run, he had good feet.
Ocean Township High School in Oakhurst, New Jersey, has an apt name, located a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean. The 11 square miles The city may not be the largest in the region, but the city is proud of its native son.
The city’s high school football field is a little different from where Pickett currently plays at Heinz Field. There are around 40 yards of bleacher seats behind the home team sideline and around 30 yards of seats behind the away team sideline. Including standing room, Pickett played his high school football in front of – at most – a few thousand people.
Before Pickett and the game against Virginia – who Pitt won, winning the Coastal Division of the ACC – some of the same people who saw him play in high school paid tribute to their former student and classmate.
Students and teachers at Ocean Township Elementary School wore shirts with a Pitt football helmet on the front and the iconic No.8 and Pickett’s “Pickett” on the back. Underneath the number, the shirts read “SPARTANLEGACY” – a tribute to his high school mascot, the Spartan. Klein said the shirts were a tribute to Pickett and everything he did for his hometown.
There will be a sea of blue and yellow across Big Red Country today! Support Oceans Own Kenny Pickett today across the district! @DPalaia @ A_DePasquale48 @FootballPitt @ kennypickett10 pic.twitter.com/Tmh4fDEhGw
– Kristen McHugh (@KMcHughGuidance) November 19, 2021
“For Ocean Township, they are lucky to see someone who went to the same schools as them, who had the same teachers as them and had the same coaches as them and who turned on college football and the world on fire, ”Klein said. “So that young people can see this, they can put themselves in their shoes… it is really a role model for everyone who is growing up. This is someone we have on a pedestal.
Ocean Township has no other connection to Pittsburgh – it’s almost a six hour car ride to catch a glimpse of their former quarterback dominating the ACC. But this small town on the Jersey coast with the nickname “Big Red Country” now proudly represents the Steel City. From blue and gold flags to Pickett jerseys in school, the Spartans make sure Pickett feels supported in his hometown.
Tony Racioppi, Pickett’s personal trainer with whom he trains during the offseason, grew up in Ocean Township. Racioppi said it was really special to see Pickett excel at the next level and inspire their hometown.
“It’s great to see,” Racioppi said. “[The younger generation in Ocean] wants to grow up and be him. If that doesn’t say a lot about the player he is, but also about the child he is, there has never been a person who crosses him without his thinking of him. “
Since leaving the Jersey Shore in 2017 to join the Panthers, Pickett has become one of the most decorated quarterbacks Pitt fans have ever seen wearing blue and gold. But it’s not just what he does on the soccer field that makes his city so proud of him. Klein said his character, humility and work ethic set him apart, embodying what it means to be an Ocean Township Spartan.
“To have someone like Kenny Pickett who truly epitomizes the All-American student athlete coming from your school and your program is a huge honor,” Klein said. “It has been exceptional for Ocean Township to be able to have someone behind and to put down roots… Kenny is the most humble person I have seen in this type of environment. He is kind to his time, he is caring and he truly appreciates everyone who supports him.
A finalist for the Johnny Unitas Bras d’Or Award and an option on the Ballot for the Heisman TrophyPickett won the individual accolades in stride. The fifth year has said repeatedly that this recognition is a tribute to his teammates as much as to himself. Racioppi said Pickett didn’t put on a facade of humility for the media, but he remained the same person he was before all the recognition came.
“He’s the perfect blend of confidence but at the same time humility,” Racioppi said. “He knows he’s really good… he expects to be the first choice [NFL] Draft but at the same time, he is still the humble and hardworking child that he always has been.
Along with humility, Pickett has the innate ability to be someone people turn to for advice. People either have the ability to lead a group of people or they don’t. Pitt’s head coach Pat Narduzzi has maintained throughout the year that what sets this team apart from the past is the fact that the players run the team.
By nature as a quarterback on his team, Pickett has been the player others look to, whether it’s how to deal with success or a frustrated loss. According to Klein, Pickett’s leadership qualities were not exclusive to his time at Pitt.
“Kenny has the unique ability to motivate those around him in the right way,” Klein said. “Whether or not it’s an arm around you or a kick in the butt, whatever it is, Kenny is genuine because it comes with who he is and leads groups of people.”
Howard Todd, Ocean Township’s athletic director, echoed Klein’s praise for Pickett.
“Kenny is just a special kid with an amazing work ethic that is hard to come by, ”Todd said in a prepared statement. “Most of the kids couldn’t do the prep and the hard work it took to be the quarterback he has become. Kenny is an exceptional leader who has deserved all the accolades that have come to him. “
Pickett’s name will live on in Pitt’s football history books forever, holding numerous offensive records and leading Pitt to his first 10 regular season wins in 40 years.
The future NFL draft pick may not have won a New Jersey State Championship with the Spartans, but Pickett’s ability to inspire hope in Ocean Township is what makes him a legend in Big Red Country.
“There is a theme here with him,” Racioppi said. “A is a great player and B is just a great boy. You just want to support him – it’s family, it’s friends and coaches. If there was a 7 year old. who approached him, he would spend time with them and sign autographs – he would make this kid feel special. He always kind of understood that… he didn’t have to change who he was.