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Driven to be the best
Kenny Pickett's competitive, hard-working approach led to a dream come true for the Steelers rookie
By Teresa Varley May 23, 2022

When the emotions hit, they hit hard for Steelers first-round draft pick Kenny Pickett.

They were emotions that were bottled up inside him. Emotions he doesn't show often privately, let alone publicly.

But when that phone call came, when Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was on the other end informing the former University of Pittsburgh quarterback that he was the newest Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, it was like a floodgate was released and the emotions came out.

"The emotion was definitely not normal for me," admitted Pickett. "I had a feeling it would be emotional. When I got the call and I heard Coach Tomlin's voice, I kind of lost it. Everyone was so emotional. Everything I worked toward my entire life came in that one phone call.

"It was incredibly special. It was unbelievably special to have that that moment with my family, my fiancé, all my best friends and coaches were there. It was awesome."

Being with friends and family was without a doubt the most important thing for Pickett on draft night. He could have spent the NFL Draft in Las Vegas along with some of the other top prospects in the Draft, enjoying the glitz and glamour and worldwide media attention that came along with it.

But that isn't what he wanted.

Pickett knew if he went to Vegas, he would only be able to have his immediate family with him in the green room.

He wanted more. He wanted those who made an impact on him, those who invested time in him, those who were close to him, to all be there, so he stayed close to home and hosted a party in Ocean Township, New Jersey, surrounded by everyone who touched his life in some way or another on the biggest night of his life.

"Everyone who helped me get here, they were in the building," said Pickett. "I thought it was really important. Everyone saw how many people I had. There was a whole other side of the restaurant that had more friends and family and coaches. I just wanted to make sure I showed my gratitude, my appreciation for everyone that helped me get to that point. It was a group effort over 15 years of me playing football. It was cool to have everyone there. And very important to me."

The ones right at Pickett's side were those who played the biggest role in his life, his father Ken, his mother Kasey and his fiancé, Amy Paternoster.

And when you talk about the group effort, the group starts with one person. His father, who Pickett shared an emotional hug with after he got off the phone with the Steelers.

"The hug was something I envisioned for a long time after getting that call. Just hugging my dad," said Pickett. "I would not be here without him. The life lessons he taught me growing up and learning how to be a pro early. He taught me about working hard, knowing what to sacrifice to reach the ultimate goal I wanted. He sacrificed so much time to drive me around when I was a kid. All these quarterback showcases and camps and practices and stuff. I wouldn't be here without him for sure."

For Pickett's dad, it was all a labor of love. Five-hour roundtrip drives from the Jersey Shore to the SVS Sports Camp in Lancaster, Pa. twice a weekend for Pickett to train with top-notch quarterback coach Jim Cantafio. Rides to practice. Trips to other camps and quarterback showcases. They were things that his son wanted to do, and he wasn't about to hold him back, even if it meant losing some sleep and lots of miles on the car.

"He's my best friend," said his dad. "To see everything that he has talked about with me come true is surreal. These are moments I will cherish and never forget.

"It was a surreal moment for me when he got the call. I knew when it would happen there would be emotion. I know all the work, time and effort he put into it. I coached him since he was five years old. From five until about 13 years old he was playing Pop Warner. I was able to see him grow, develop.

"He is such a competitor, and this was his dream. He worked so hard. All his effort was in that one phone call. It was amazing. It all paid off."

The word 'driven' is often used in sports, and honestly sometimes overused.

When talking about Pickett, it can't be stressed enough.

He is self-motivated, with the desire to go to all of the camps and quarterback showcases, something he wanted, not something he was ever pushed to do from his family or coaches.

"It was around sixth, seventh grade he really wanted to go and do more of it," said his father. "It was every weekend. I told him it was too much. I had to find him somewhere close. I found him somewhere closer, but we would still go back to those camps because from a fundamental standpoint Jim Cantafio was probably the best with footwork, training. Kenny was obsessed with being the best. There was always a lot of competition, so he wanted to throw with the best.

"It wasn't that I wanted to do it, it was more him. He had that passion and drive that he knew what he wanted to do at such a young age. While other kids were out playing, or playing video games, he was always committed and wanted to work on his craft and get better at it.

"He's all in. When he's all in, he just has a passion for it. He was on auto pilot since seventh grade. He has been that committed to it. It paid off for him and I am extremely happy.

"It was going to those camps I noticed he could become something special because of how he competed. He always wanted to be the best. That is what drove him. He hates to lose at anything. He is intense, focused and willing to do whatever it takes. He has such a strong work ethic that it will take him far."

There were sacrifices along the way, though. There were normal 'kid' things that Pickett gave up at times, whether it was a day at the beach, or riding bikes, or even getting to see a Philadelphia Phillies game.

"There were always things on the weekends that kids were doing," said Pickett. "People go to the beach in the summer, and I am driving to camps, to the showcases and driving to go train. Birthday parties I would miss. There were just certain things. I knew I couldn't do all the normal kid things if I wanted to go where I'm headed. That helped me grow up and become a man and know what I want to do and go after it.

"I felt like I was on a different path than a lot of other kids growing up my hometown. I voiced to my dad my goals, my dreams and he was always okay, if that's what you want to do, you're going to have to make sacrifices. There are some things that you can't do, things other kids are doing and there's some things that you're going to have to do other kids won't. At a young age, he kind of taught me that and I took it to heart and just dedicated myself to this game, this sport and it helped me get to where I am now."

There were times, though, that he wanted to just go to the beach instead of camp, go to a baseball game instead of practice. But he made a commitment, and his dad was always there to remind him the few times he wanted to waver.

"My dad always kept me on track," said Pickett. "When I was really young that happened, but as I started to get older I was the one really directing it, saying I want to do this, I want to do that. He was helping me out, getting me there, paying for the camps and stuff, supporting me, helping with the things to reach my dream.

"He instilled the values in me at a young age. Towards the end of middle school, high school, I was the one that was seeking out all those other things and he helped guide me to that point. I became obsessed with really trying to be the absolute best I could be."

If we're playing the word game, while driven is one way to describe Pickett, the next word is obsessed. It's a word that can be a positive or a negative, but in his case, it's been nothing but a positive.

"That's the number one reason I think I'm here in terms of how bad I want to be the best," said Pickett. "That work ethic my dad helped instill at a young age. I caught fire with it early. Everyone in my hometown knows the different things that I was doing, things other kids weren't doing. Making sacrifices, knowing what I want to do in life and going after it with everything that I have. I think that helped me mature faster and make right decisions and do what's best.

"It's cool to finally say that I accomplished and reached the first goal. The first dream was getting drafted in the NFL and now other goals and dreams are being put in place."

While Pickett did everything he could growing up to get to the place he is now, nothing can truly prepare you for going through the rigors leading up to the NFL Draft.

Pickett went through what all college players do, with the microscope focused on every aspect of his game. Every detail was analyzed, from his throwing arm to his hand size, detail after detail was discussed.

It could be enough to make a player a bit crazy, but he got some valuable words of advice, words he will cherish forever.

Pickett had met late Steelers quarterback Dwayne Haskins, who died in an accident in April, when they were both going to the SVS Sports Camp. They talked, got to know each other a little bit, and then reconnected when Haskins signed with the Steelers in 2021.

Haskins and Pickett were both throwing on a regular basis inside the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex earlier this offseason, just getting in work to be prepared for what was to come for both of them.

Haskins pulled Pickett aside one day to talk to him ahead of Pitt's Pro Day in March, just to see how he was handling things as the draft approached.

"It was really special," recalled Pickett. "Before the pro day we were both working in the indoor. I was going through my pro day scripts. He was throwing with one of the guys. We both got done and we kind of just sat down and talked for about 20 minutes. I was talking to him about my concerns and the draft and things I was worried about. He reassured me that I'll be right where I'm supposed to be, and you can't really control too much.

"That whole process, he was where I wanted to be in terms of the next level…first-round draft pick, doing a lot of great things. It was really cool to have that moment. It's definitely a great memory to have, my last memory that I had with him."

Haskins, who went to Pitt's Pro Day to check on how Pickett did, gave him advice that helped him get through a time this isn't always what it's made out to be. From the NFL Scouting Combine to Pro Days to just working out on their own, the side of draft prep the players see is much different that the highlights that are shown on television or shared on social media.

"It's definitely not what it's made out to be by people in the media and people from the outside looking in," said Pickett. "It's stressful and you don't have any control at all. All you could control is how well you performed at the Combine, the Pro Day, your interviews. My sole focus was doing the absolute best I could at all aspects of it.

"But on draft night, when you sit on the couch, you just hold your phone and there's nothing you can do. You're not going out there playing a game to go get drafted in the first round or anything. You're just sitting there, and you have to put trust in everything you've done up to that point. And then let the chips fall where they may."

And the chips, they fell just right for Pickett. As he watched team after team make their picks, with no quarterbacks selected yet, he kept holding his breath, just waiting. And then the call came.

"The Steelers were a team we saw would be an absolutely perfect fit," said Pickett. "When they started getting closer and closer, I just kept thinking that's where I was headed. My mom called it before the draft. She said she thought that's where I was going. I guess she had a better feel than any of us. Once we got closer to that point, we were really hoping it would be the Steelers."

And now, it's all real. Pickett will be competing with Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph for the starting quarterback position, bringing his work ethic and competitive approach and confidence that began when he was going to camps as a kid to the table.

"I feel like I am relentless, fearless when I play," said Pickett. "When I get out there on the field, I just feel like I'm the best player. I'm confident because of how hard I've worked to get to the point and how prepared I am. I'll do anything, absolutely anything to win. I think that's the number one key for the quarterback position. I think all the great ones have that or had that. I'm excited to join this team. Everyone just wants to win and I'm excited to be a part of that."

Pickett had his share of winning while in college, especially his senior season, which was one of his strongest, leading Pitt to an 11-2 record and the school's first ACC Championship.

Pickett finished his career as Pitt's all-time leading passer with 12,303 yards, one of the many school records he holds. He was also a finalist for the Heisman Trophy last year. He was a fifth-year senior in 2021, deciding to come back for one more year, something that obviously paid off for him.

"Kenny developed, obviously had a great senior year, and it was a good move for him to stay in school," said General Manager Kevin Colbert. "It just talks and preaches about what you can do when you stay and continue to develop and turn into a first-round pick. Kenny is special."

Pickett agrees that the extra season helped him and wouldn't change anything.

"I just think the experience of playing games and having starts under my belt, I think that really helps, seeing a lot of different defenses, playing a lot of different levels of competition," said Pickett. "I think it's just only going to help me at the next level."

And getting to that next level, it all began back when he was a kid, going to camps, showing maturity beyond his years.

"I think I started playing football when I was five years old. That was my first flag," said Pickett. "My first tackle football year was seven years old. My mom still has stuff from when I was young. I had to write what I want to be when I get older. I always wrote I want to be an NFL football player. She saved that stuff. This has been a dream for a long, long time.

"The first goal was to play at the Division I level. After that was to chase the NFL dream. It was really special when it all came together."

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