By Walter J. O’Neill, Jr.
Ocean Township – Mayor Christopher P. Siciliano knew on April 28 that he was going to have to do something special for Kenny Pickett. “That was the night Kenny was drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers,” Siciliano said. It didn’t take him long to come up with a plan. “I watched Kenny play on those courts when I was young and knew we had to name them after him.”
Pickett graduated from Ocean Township High School in 2017. He started four years for the Spartans and in his freshman year led them to the semi-finals of NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III. During his high school career, he threw for 4,670 yards and 43 touchdowns. He also rushed for 873 yards and had 17 rushing touchdowns.
“When Kenny was playing Pop Warner football, I remember the kids on his team were all yelling at him to throw the ball at them,” Siciliano said. “Kenny said to them, ‘I’ve got a ball and I’ll throw it to whoever gives us the best chance to score’.” He added that being so young and having so much maturity, we knew he would excel.
Spartans and all youth programs wear red and white uniforms, but July 1st, everyone was in black and gold. Hundreds of people showed up at the municipal sports complex near Wayside Road as the township officially named the football grounds after Pickett. The children and adults all wore Steelers jerseys with the number 8 and Pickett’s name on the back.
During his high school years, Pickett attended every quarterback camp he could find. Except it wasn’t the average camps, he was going to the elite camps with the best quarterbacks in the country. From freshman to senior, he matured quickly on and off the pitch.
The University of Pittsburgh is where Pickett decided to play college football. During his freshman season in college, he spent most of the time as a substitute. He started his first college game when the Panthers faced the Miami Hurricanes, the nation’s number two team. It was the last regular season game for Pitt. He completed 18 of 29 passes for 193 yards and rushed for 60 and two touchdowns.
In 2018, he started all 14 games for Pitt, completing 180 of 310 passes for 1,969 yards, 12 touchdowns and six interceptions. In his first year as a starter, he led the Panthers to their first-ever Coastal Division AAA championship. They played in the Sun Bowl that year and lost 14-13 to Stanford.
During the COVID-19 shortened 2020 season, Pickett played in nine games and threw for 2,408 yards, had 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions. The Panthers were eligible to play in a bowling game, but the team voted out.
The NCAA allowed 2020 seniors to play in the 2021 season. Pickett played his final year of college prom and had a banner season. He threw for 4,319 yards in a single season, breaking the record previously held by Dan Marino. He had 42 touchdowns, setting a school record. He was named a first-team All-American and was one of four Heisman Trophy finalists. Pitt won the ACC championships with an 11-2 record, the best in school history since 1976.
He finished his college career with an incredible 12,303 passing yards, 81 touchdowns, 32 interceptions, completing 1,045 of 1,674 passes. He also had 801 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns.
Ben Roethlisberger, aka “Big Ben,” was the Steelers’ quarterback from 2004 to 2021. The Steelers and University of Pitt play at the same football stadium, and football fans in town know all about Pickett. So when Big Ben announced he was retiring, many hoped the Steelers would take Pickett.
One of Pickett’s biggest supporters is Spartans head coach Don Klein. Klein said everyone knows about Pickett’s football accomplishments, but what they don’t know is what a great person he is. “It’s more than just recognizing Kenny’s accomplishments. It’s important to our community because of the person Kenny is,” Klein said. The coach spoke about the football culture in Ocean, where former coach George Conte gave the program an identity. “I’ve been coaching here for a while and I’m in my 16e year. The time between me and Coach Conte, the program has had five different coaches in less than 10 years. This is a city and a program that expects victories.
In 2015, Klein was named the New York Giants Coach of the Week after the Spartans defeated Red Bank Catholic 42-35. “I’ve had great seasons, won 10 games, state titles, but now I’m known as Kenny Pickett’s coach, and that’s all I need,” Klein said.
Siciliano, Monmouth County Commissioner, Superintendent Thomas Arnone, Congressman Marilyn Piperno, State Senator Vin Gopal all presented Pickett with proclamations.
Also in attendance was Phil Villapiano, who played professional football for the Oakland Raiders, another Ocean Township High School alumnus. “I left this town for a year when it was black and silver, now I’m coming back and all I see is black and gold,” Villapiano said. “Today is my first opportunity to meet Kenny, and all I can say is your life is about to change drastically. All you will think about is throwing the ball, learning attacking plays, defensive patterns of your opponents and trying not to get hit, if you can do that you will have a long career like Big Ben.
Before the NFL Draft in April, Villapiano spoke with Franco Harris, one of the most famous Steelers. “I said to him, we have this Jersey boy, Kenny Pickett, make sure you look at him. He told me not to worry because they were fully aware of Pickett,” Villapiano said.
One of the Steelers’ most famous plays took place on December 23, 1972, known as the “Immaculate Reception.” The Steelers were losing to the Raiders with 30 seconds left when Terry Bradshaw threw a pass that was knocked off the hands of the intended receiver, but just before it hit the ground, Harris reached out and picked it up to to win. landing.
“Kenny, this month of December will be the 50e anniversary of the immaculate reception, and I will be in Pittsburgh watching black and silver beat black and gold,” Villapiano said.
After all the speeches, Pickett and Siciliano walked over to a covered sign and removed the red blanket revealing Kenny Pickett Field’s name and quote. “One day, I want to say that I succeeded.” Afterwards, Siciliano told Kenny that they also had new signs all over the township that said, “House of NFL Quarterback Kenny Pickett.”
After the celebrations, Pickett signed footballs, jerseys and took pictures with anyone who asked. He is a humble and very talented young man.