When Kenny Pickett’s phone rang at his Jersey Shore draft party, the delayed NFL Draft stream still showed that the New Orleans Saints were on the clock — the pick wasn’t in. And Pat Narduzzi thought Pickett was going to a Saint.
Narduzzi didn’t look back up at the TV as Pickett bent over on the phone, the pure emotion pouring off his hunched form leading to the crowded draft party erupting into cheers. Everyone in the room was ecstatic, hootin’ and hollerin’ without a care in the world as to where Pickett was headed, simply that he was officially an NFL draft pick.
And that’s when Narduzzi’s cell phone rang. He disentangled himself from the mob of supporters, pulled his phone out and saw Mike Tomlin’s name staring at him.
“Why is coach Tomlin calling me?” Narduzzi thought to himself, accepting the 38 second phone call.
“Hey, did you see who got him?” Tomlin asked, obviously referring to Pickett.
“Yeah, the Saints,” Narduzzi lamented, shaking his head, “You were one off!”
“No, we got him,” Tomlin responded, leaving Narduzzi speechless.
“Then we find out it was the Steelers and then all of a sudden he’s got a baseball hat on with the Steelers,” Narduzzi said at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex Friday. “That’s kind of how the whole thing went. So if you talk about just in a moment, that’s what it was like. It was wild.
The Pittsburgh Steelers selected Pickett with the 20th selection in the 2022 NFL Draft, securing their quarterback of the future, and while those in support of Pickett didn’t see the phone number when the Steelers called, he knew who it was almost instantly.
“I’m pretty familiar with the area code,” Pickett said. “I had a pretty good idea of who it was. To be honest, I was speechless. It’s a life-long, 23 years of hard work to get to this point. That all came with a phone call. It was probably one of the best feelings of my life. I’m so excited to get started and get to work with the guys who were next door to me my whole career with the Pittsburgh Panthers.”
It was a moment that Pickett has been envisioning since he was five years old, ever since he first picked up a football in the youth leagues, but the chance to experience the moment with his whole family — but especially his father —
“I’d watch with my family, and me and my dad would talk all the time if that was going to be me some day. So that hug to him when I got that call was — I just don’t have words for it. We just both said that we would do it, and I’m incredibly happy that it’s right next door to where I played college ball.”
While it was an emotional night for the Picketts, joined by all their friends and family, it may have been just as emotional for Narduzzi himself.
“It was probably as emotional as it was Kenny, to be honest with you,” Narduzzi said. “It’s kind of like winning a championship, at the end, you don’t remember what happened. I had some first round players but not as a head football coach.”
As Pitt’s first first round selection since Aaron Donald in 2013, the highest quarterback picked ever, even higher than Dan Marino in 1983, Narduzzi was very confident in the fact that Pickett was the best quarterback in the draft. But perhaps most importantly, Pickett’s fit in staying home in Pittsburgh was perfect. After all, if anyone knows Pittsburgh, it’s Kenny Pickett.
However, in the Steelers’ posturing around Malik Willis, Pickett’s Steelers selection came as somewhat of a surprise on draft night. The Steelers played their cards well, not giving much of an inkling around their selection, and Narduzzi said that neither Colbert nor Tomlin came to him about Pickett. The last Pickett conversations came way back at Pitt’s Pro Day in March.
“I saw coach Tomlin out on the deck two days ago, out on the patio in the back, and I just said, ‘Hey, good luck in the draft.’ I didn’t say, ‘Hey, what’s going to happen to Kenny, what do you think, what do you think he’ll go?’ I didn’t ask him any questions.”
In winding up with the Steelers, Pickett’s top landing spot according to many draft analysts including Mike Farrell, the familiarity is there. There isn’t exactly a need to show Pickett around Pittsburgh now — trips to Primanti’s, Mount Washington and other local landmarks would be a little bit late. And of course, now that he’s a Steeler, Pickett will be able to park in the Steelers’ lot at the shared Pitt-Steelers practice facility.
While Narduzzi doesn’t “hope” for anything from his players, simply wishing for the best outcome for all of the players that come through the system, it’s a situation that doesn’t hurt. In playing for Colbert and Tomlin with the Steelers, like during his time watching James Conner practice with the Steelers, Narduzzi will only need to look out his office windows to see Pickett practicing. And as he said, there’s nothing better than watching former Pitt players playing at the next level.
And while Pickett took a bit of time to fulfill his dream, becoming the NFL quarterback he had always dreamed about, Narduzzi knew it was in the cards all along. Even in watching Pickett lead the scout team, Narduzzi saw a quarterback who could step in when called upon — and it came about during Pickett’s freshman season.
“You just know,” Narduzzi said. “He’s got the IT. I’ll never forget sitting on the field, looking like this down at Max Browne when he’s got a dislocated shoulder up in Syracuse, New York. Looking down, I’m a strategist, I’m like, ‘Kenny Pickett’s gotta play.’ … I knew back when he was a freshman, I knew when I watched him on the scout field, we’ve known for a long time. Do you always have the parts around you, do you drop touchdowns, do you fall down?”
Pickett made the most of his freshman season, earning the starting spot as a sophomore, and he never looked back. He’s a competitor, worker and perfectionist. In fact, on Pickett’s plane ride back into Pittsburgh Friday, Narduzzi wouldn’t have been at all surprised if Pickett was taking notes and planning for his arrival.
The whirlwind that was Pickett’s super senior season, making the choice to return for one last season, ultimately made all the difference in the world. It elevated a Day 3 pick to the first quarterback selected in the 2022 NFL Draft. And it didn’t surprise Narduzzi at all.
“I would not have been surprised at all, but that’s hard to do what he did,” Narduzzi said. “I mean, that’s a trifecta, he did it all. He maximized everything, probably should’ve won the Heisman, but he did everything he could possibly do.”