Ken Pickett couldn’t help but wonder whether this was best for his son. As a father, he wanted to do what was best for his son while still allowing him the freedom to pursue his heart’s desires, but as the minutes inside the car turned to hours, Ken wondered what kid would want to drive two and a half hours every weekend to football practice. What kid would want to give up spending time with his friends on a nice weekend to go train?
Kenny Pickett did.
In making the two and a half hour drive every weekend to Susquehanna Valley Sports just outside of Lancaster, Pennsylvania from Oakhurst, New Jersey, Kenny confirmed his desire to become a quarterback, and Ken — and his wife Kasey, of course — was just happy to be there with him every step of the way.
“For me, that was something Kenny wanted to do,” Ken said. “I tell everyone, if Kenny just wanted to not play football or if he wanted to do something else, that would’ve been fine with me. But he had the desire, I would say from sixth to seventh grade on, he had in his mind that that’s what he wanted to do.”
Ken, a former Division II All-American at Shippensburg University in the early 1990s, is well-acquainted with the grind that comes in becoming a collegiate athlete. If Kenny wanted to become a college football player, he could’ve done much worse in finding a coach. So, coach Ken he became.
Like his father, Kenny naturally gravitated toward sports as a child. He played AAU basketball, he was a pitcher in little league, and, of course, he was a quarterback in peewee football. From the time he was five years old, you couldn’t find Kenny without a bat or a ball in his hands. All Kenny has ever wanted to do was be an athlete.
Kenny played AAU basketball, Ken choosing to give that one up, but he became the early football and baseball coach. The dull thump of a baseball striking a mitt and a football spinning through the air were common sounds in the Pickett backyard as Ken guided Kenny through the early days of his journey. Of course, he enjoyed the bond fostered through the shared love of sports, but eventually, it became clear that for Kenny to make the leap toward legitimate college football player, he needed to find a quarterbacks coach.
Coach and student no more, have managed to remain extremely close throughout the process.
Though the coach and student relationship ended, Ken and Kenny grew as father and son. They talk most days, with Kenny sharing what he’s seen in his play and Ken returning his own observations. Perhaps the best part of finding a coach to guide Kenny came with Ken being able to take a step back, take a deep breath and just enjoy the shared love of football with his son.
“I knew it had to happen,” Ken said. “For me, it was at some point, you start not getting across and you start going, ‘he’s not hearing the message.’ So, I knew at some point, he was going to have to hear it from someone else. The key is you found the right person, so once you find the right person, I think it’s pretty easy.”
That early coach was SVS quarterback guru Jim Cantafio. A former Pennsylvania high school coach and director of camps and quarterback instruction for SVS, Cantafio was the first coach to guide Kenny toward the college ranks. Ken and Kenny would drive two hours to showcases, and it was there that Ken first started hearing from others — and seeing for himself — that Kenny had it.
“But his whole thing was,” Ken said, “and Jim would tell me all the time, arm talent was there, head was there, it was more about, would Kenny grow?”
Heart over Height
Quarterback was the dream, but Kenny wasn’t ready to give up baseball or basketball yet either. So, he didn’t. He did a little bit of everything, serving as the resident three-sport athlete in the Pickett’s family of athletes. Kasey herself being a former Division II soccer player.
Basketball was ultimately the first to go, with Kenny focusing on football and baseball in high school. A lot of pitchers go on to become quarterbacks and vice versa, but when pitching began to interfere with Kenny’s football training, it was the next to go. He couldn’t completely get rid of baseball though, so he made the move to left fielder permanently.
However, as hard as Kenny worked, he couldn’t shake that nagging suspicion that he might never truly grow into a quarterback. Standing well below six-feet before his junior season at Ocean Township, his height was beginning to worry him. The worry permeated so deep that even Ken and Kasey were beginning to wonder.
Fears of stagnant growth, stuck forever at 5-foot-10, were there for Kenny. He wanted to be great, but the odds of being great at that size was against him — quarterbacks below six-foot are the exception in most cases. And try as he might, there was nothing he could do about it. It’s not like he could spend hours on a field throwing thousands of footballs in order to grow a couple of inches. If he wasn’t going to grow, that was it. He was stuck. So, he did just that, he kept working on his craft. And finally, he grew.
“That was the biggest thing that Kasey and I were waiting for,” Ken said. “You know, he was a late bloomer, He didn’t really grow until I’ll say his junior year where he kind of really — between sophomore and junior year, I think grew six or seven inches. In every year before that, I think he was growing two inches, two inches, two inches.”
It was only a matter of time for Kenny, with Kasey’s father standing at 6-foot-4, his great-uncle at 6-foot-3 and Ken standing at 6-foot-1. At some point, Kenny was due for a growth spurt, it just took a bit longer than expected.
Entering his junior season standing at 6-foot-2, the proverbial monkey was off Kenny’s shoulders. In 2015, he led Ocean Township to a 10-2 record, throwing for 1,796 yards and 19 touchdowns to just four interceptions. His dual-threat ability was on full display as he rushed for an additional 336 yards and five more scores.
With a strong junior season, college teams were beginning to take notice. None more so than Temple, but teams like Connecticut, Buffalo, Toledo, Texas State and Monmouth were early offers for Kenny. Kenny committed to Temple, but when Power Five teams came calling, it piqued his interest. And he couldn’t lead Temple on.
“I didn’t think it was right to be communicating with other coaches and visiting schools while being committed to Temple, and I need time to see all of my options,” Kenny told NJ.com way back in 2016.
With North Carolina, Boston College, Purdue, Pitt, Iowa, Ole Miss, Missouri, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M jumping into Kenny’s recruiting process, Ken noted how Kenny’s second decision boiled down to Pitt, UNC, Iowa and Boston College in the end. With Pitt, it boiled down to former Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s offense, the Pitt facilities and the university itself.
“[Kenny] really liked the university, fell in love when he was on his visit there,” Ken said. “He loved the facilities, he loved being next to the Steelers and just seeing how they handle their business every day to emulate and really look at those guys to see what do you need to do to become a pro at the next level.”
While the trip for Ken and Kasey would have been about an hour and a half into Philadelphia, the trip from Oakhurst to Pittsburgh is a bit longer at six hours. That wasn’t a concern for the Picketts, however. Ken and Kasey just wanted their son to find his place; they’d take care of the rest.
“To me, I wouldn’t care where he went, and I told him that,” Ken said. “He was getting looks from Missouri, Ole Miss, he had conversations with Vanderbilt before, and I told him, ‘don’t worry about us, we’ll figure out how to get there.’ You figure out the best school for you, and we’ll make do with it.”
A lot of factors collided in Kenny coming to Pitt, but if not for Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi, there wouldn’t have been a chance. Narduzzi was with Ken and Kenny every step of the way. Ken said Narduzzi was the biggest influencer along the way, involved with Kenny’s recruitment in a way that most head coaches shy away from. From day one, it was a special relationship.
The Mark Whipple Factor
“I think Kenny had a lot of trust in him,” Ken said. “I know his sophomore year, he went through some growing pains, and coach Narduzzi called him, coach Narduzzi called me and told us that he was going to bring in an offensive coordinator that could develop him. We couldn’t be more thrilled having coach [Mark Whipple] there.”
After making his Pitt debut in 2017, playing in four games as a true freshman, including 250 total yards of offense and two touchdowns in an upset of No. 2 Miami, Kenny took over as the starting quarterback full time in 2018. However, despite a trip to the ACC Championship game in 2018, Kenny didn’t take the next step that many thought he’d take. He completed 58% of his passes for just under 2,000 yards and 12 touchdowns to six interceptions.
Originally planning to come in under Canada (who is now the Steelers offensive coordinator), Kenny spent his freshman and sophomore seasons under Pitt offensive coordinator Shawn Watson before he was let go after Kenny’s sophomore season. In 2019, Pitt hired former UMass head coach and NFL assistant Mark Whipple.
And as it happened, Ken was already acquainted with Whipple from his own football experience in the past. The world of football is a small one.
“And the funny thing is, I played against coach Whipple in the Division II playoffs when he was the head coach at New Haven,” Ken said. “He kind of knew me from back then as well, so it was actually a funny story when Kenny met him the first time, he was like, ‘yeah, your dad doesn’t realize this, but I know your father, too.'”
Whipple led the University of New Haven in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and in 1991, Whipple’s New Haven squad met up with a Shippensburg team featuring star linebacker Ken Pickett. As a finalist for the Division II equivalent for the Heisman Trophy, the Harlon Hill Award, Ken racked up 182 tackles, 13 tackles and 2.5 sacks as a senior for the Raiders. One of those games was a 31-30 win over Whipple’s New Haven team.
Whipple certainly knew Ken, he was the wrecking ball in the middle of a Shippensburg defense that defeated his side 30 years ago. And now he’s coaching that wrecking ball’s son toward one of the best individual seasons in Pitt history. It’s just taken a bit of time for Kenny and Whipple to click. But Kenny always finds a way.
Instead of moping about being an undersized quarterback, Kenny spent his time researching guys like Russell Wilson and Drew Brees. Two guys below six-feet that have excelled at the NFL level. If they could do it, Kenny could too. He just needed to study the way they did it and implement it into his own game.
“He always compares himself to Russell Wilson because Russell Wilson is a small guy, right? So, from height-wise, like a Drew Brees, he always tries to emulate those guys as professionals,” Ken said. “Just kind of watch them, see how they do, see how they dealt with it, and like I said, I think he went into Pitt, he was almost 6-foot-2. And now he just measured in at his junior Pro Day at 6-foot-3 and 3/8ths. So, even at Pitt, he’s grown two inches.”
When his height was just something Kenny had to deal with, it didn’t quell the fire he felt burning inside of himself. He’s a competitor, and he just wants to compete. And he’s always wanted to compete against the best. Kenny would tell his dad that he wanted to be the best, and he wanted to do it by competing with the best.
“He was on Team USA, he got MVP there, he played going into his senior of high school, so we would travel to Texas, we would travel to Ohio,” Ken said. “If you would look at the Elite 11, we would travel to three places there and he was top three in all three places, in Orlando, Washington, D.C. and New Jersey.”
Ken has seen it before, many, many times before. Not unlike his love of sports, he gravitates toward the best. He wants to talk to them, be next to them, throw with them and find out just what makes them so good. And once he knows, he’s not satisfied. It’s his turn.
At the high school level, Kenny competed against the best. He competed at Elite 11 prospect camps, Rivals Camp Series and QB Challenge, the Next Level Great Invitational and numerous workouts for college coaches. He threw for 300 yards and three touchdowns in an MVP performance at the International Bowl as the U18 quarterback for Team USA.
While Ken and Kasey were with Kenny every step of the way, he was the one checking in and handling himself at camps and on visits, and Ken feels like it helped Kenny grow up a bit earlier than expected — which only helped Kenny prepare for college.
“I think that helped him mature at a young age, where I don’t need to walk him up or check him in, or I don’t need to do anything as he took that upon himself to kind of make him grow up just a little bit quicker,” Ken said. “We knew when he went to Pitt at an early age, he enrolled early, that he’d be fine. We had no worries just because he was so self-independent when he went on these other trips around the country.”
A wizened old man at Pitt — at the ripe age of 23 — with lofty expectations on his shoulders, Kenny isn’t the boy who came into the program five years ago with unimagined potential as a three-star recruit. This is it for him, and the stakes to be great are higher than perhaps anyone could’ve expected. Given another chance to come back to Pitt for a fifth season because of the new rules implemented by the coronavirus pandemic, he faced a decision on whether to test the NFL waters or come back for one last ride before it all began.
While being back at Pitt now is an easy decision, actually coming to the decision before the season was just tough because of the potential of where he might find himself in the choppy, unforgiving waters of the NFL Draft speculation. In talks with NFL legend Peyton Manning and others in the industry, Kenny’s draft prognosis wasn’t where he would’ve liked it.
In weighing his options, realizing that he could go back to Pitt, he could prove that he’s better than what outside noise might suggest and believing in himself to do it made his decision to come back easy.
Kenny loves his teammates, his coaches and the University of Pittsburgh. It doesn’t take watchful observation to determine that; Ken has seen it grow for the last five years now. Even if it takes Kenny handing the ball of 40 times a game, Ken says, Kenny will do it if that means bringing home a win for Pitt.
“If you hear him talk, he’s always talking about bringing a championship back to Pittsburgh,” Ken said. “That’s kind of what his motivation is — he doesn’t care how it gets done, but his goal is to win an ACC championship and it’s been that since he’s been there.”
With the chance to chase an ACC championship, with his coaches like Narduzzi, Whipple, tight ends coach Tim Salem, wide receivers coach Brennan Marion and all of the teammates he’s fought with over the years, not coming back was never really an option for Kenny. Ken can see the chemistry, and he knows it’s only going to get better for the Panthers. In talking to Whipple this season, Ken has never been more sure.
“I talked to coach Whipple, and he’s like, it’s amazing,” Ken said. “As soon as he told me, he goes, ‘you worry about a kid coming back that could’ve potentially went to the NFL and he goes, I never had a worry. He’s in here every day watching film.’ He’s doing everything that he’s done before, he’s just trying to get better every day.”
In seeing Kenny succeed this season, Ken and Kasey are truly just happy for Pitt as a whole. Of course, they’re happy for Kenny, but the Picketts love Pitt. It’s become a home away from home for the family, and Ken is happy to see the years of hard work across the board finally pay off for the Pitt family.
“They’ve put so much work into it, and I know from the outside looking in, people don’t see all the hard work and all the hours and all the things they do outside of football to prepare for the season,” Ken said. “And to see them have the success as a team, the receiving corps — Taysir [Mack], Jordan [Addison], Jaylon — I could go on and on. All those guys have become so close, and as a family, we’re just so happy.”
Even once Kenny is finally done at Pitt, done playing at least, Ken is excited for what’s to come in Pittsburgh, lauding Narduzzi and the coaching staff in fostering a culture of care and compassion among the team. The Picketts are Panthers are through and through.
And with Kenny’s final season nearing the midway point, Ken and Kasey are just happy to soak it all in. With the COVID-19 restrictions last season, enjoying Kenny’s ride was tough. With the chance to cheer him on again this season, they’re happy to be in his corner cheering him on. They haven’t missed a game after all, even when he wasn’t playing, and they don’t plan on starting now.
Ken will always be in Kenny’s corner, from the days of drawing up plays on whiteboards to cheering in the stands while his son throws touchdowns, but he had just one message for his son before the season.
“I said don’t go halfway,” Ken said. “If you go, you gotta go all in. I wasn’t worried about it, but it was just a message that I wanted to say. Don’t waste it. If you’re going back, go all in and do whatever you can to elevate your team, to elevate your career and I think he’s done that.”
With Pitt at 4-1, controlling its own destiny in the ACC, and Kenny playing better football than any quarterback in the country, Kenny has gone all in.