OCEAN TOWNSHIP, N.J. — Imitation is said to be the greatest form of flattery. As Ocean Township unveiled its new youth football practice field dedicated in Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett’s honor, the former Ocean Township Spartan couldn’t help but smile. Young children tossed around a football while wearing two gloves with his name and No. 8 on the back — a look Pickett has gained national attention for.
Ocean Township High School football coach Donald Klein said he’s had to deal with kids wearing all types of gloves on their throwing hand at his summer camps — even a ski glove. While it doesn’t hurt that Pickett was one of the nation’s top quarterbacks, Klein said having that type of effect on a community goes beyond the football field.
“That type of effect on people doesn’t come just because you’re a first-round pick, you’re an All-American or you’re all those things,” Klein said. “You have to be somebody that people relate to. You have to be somebody that people are passionate about. Because of Kenny Pickett and because of his family, because of the way he was brought up and the person he is our community, Pittsburgh and anyone who gets a chance to know him intimately feels that strongly about him.”
People flocked to the Ocean Township Municipal complex on a blistering summer day just to get a glimpse of their former quarterback. It felt like the Beatles were in town. Pickett said all of the love and attention he received from the town was a humbling experience and he’s glad he can return the favor through signing autographs and having a catch with the kids in attendance.
“I’m kind of just reminded to always give back and put smiles on kids faces, that’s really special,” Pickett said. “Every kid out here was smiling and having a great time. That’s what it’s all about. I’m really happy we had this day and I’m incredibly grateful to have the field named after me where I played Pop Warner and I hope kids enjoy it for years to come.”
Pickett’s father, also named Ken, said it was pretty surreal to see so many people wearing his family’s name on the back of their shirt in his hometown.
“It’s definitely surreal,” Pickett’s father said. “He always had chances to go and play at other places but he wanted to stay and play with his friends that he grew up with. I think this really hits home for him now that the field is dedicated after him. All of his friends are here today, it’s special.”
Susan Ellsweig, a graduate of Pitt’s class of 1968 and Ocean Township native, was one of the many in attendance to honor Pickett. Ellsweig has season tickets to Pitt football games and didn’t miss a home game last season. She said seeing a former Spartan lead her Pitt Panthers in its most successful season in four decades made last season even more special.
“It was really special especially since, not only did he play for Pitt, but he played for Ocean Township High School where my children both graduated from many years ago,” Ellsweig said. “It was just wonderful to have the Township’s support and it was a great experience to have him honored.”
Being just a few miles from the sandy beaches of the Jersey Shore, the town’s name is fitting. Many in the crowd had their beach attire on, presumably ready to hit the shore after the ceremony had come to a close.
Pickett grew up like any other kid growing up at the Jersey Shore in the summer. He went to the beach during the day and played sports at night. It seems the recent success hasn’t changed Pickett one bit. Pickett said he plans on continuing to train while also enjoying everything the Jersey Shore has to offer.
“Train, relax and get to the beach a little bit,” Pickett said when asked if he had any plans while he was back home. “I’ll see friends that I probably won’t see for a long time once I go back. Really just enjoying being back home.”
That’s what makes Pickett’s story so inspirational to so many in Ocean Township. He was just like the rest of the town’s youth when he was younger — a kid with a dream of playing in the NFL. Ocean Township Mayor Christopher Siciliano called Pickett a perfect role model for the youth in attendance and a prime example of success following “hard work and dedication.”
Pickett’s aunt, Kelly Terry, said it was really satisfying to see all of the hard work that went on behind the scenes pay off for her nephew.
“It’s awesome,” Terry said. “Watching him grow up and hearing all of the social media haters and him still staying true to his dream and grinding every day from the time he was five [years old] playing flag until now, seeing that call come in and all of the emotion from the family is just amazing. Nobody deserves it more and now he’s fighting for his No. 1 spot… it couldn’t go any better.”
Not many people outside of Pickett’s family have had a closer look at his training than Tony Racioppi. Racioppi lives in Monmouth County himself now and even played a season of football at Ocean Township High School before going on to break NCAA Division-III records at Rowan University in the early 2000s.
He’s known the Pickett family for nearly his entire life and grew a special bond with Kenny when he started training him in high school. Racioppi said seeing Pickett inspire an entire town through his hard work and accomplishments made for a special day.
“It’s pretty awesome,” Racioppi said. “He deserves everything he gets. He works for everything he gets. It’s pretty neat to see.”
Ocean Township is traditionally prime territory for the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Jets, and Giants. But when asked if Pickett could convert the town into a Steelers town, Racioppi said the Steelers already have the town’s full support.
“We’re all Steelers fans now,” Racioppi said. “That’s the kind of kid he is. This entire town will be Steeler fans now because of him.”
Pickett already turned Big Red Country into a Pitt Panthers sanctuary. But come Sunday afternoons this fall, it’s a safe bet that most of this town will also be sporting their black and gold Kenny Pickett jerseys.
Dalton Coppola is a freelance writer and a member of the staff at The Pitt News