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Will Ocean Township’s Kenny Pickett Make History as the NFL’s Next Star Quarterback?

On April 28, 2022, Kenny Pickett of Ocean Township made history when he became the highest-drafted quarterback in the National Football League Draft ever to come out of Monmouth County.

Taken with the 20th pick in the first round by the Pittsburgh Steelers, Pickett, 6-3, 220, is the highest-drafted player from Monmouth County to enter the NFL since guard Quenton Nelson of Red Bank was chosen with the sixth pick in the 2018 draft by the Indianapolis Colts.  Pickett’s historic selection occurs in a year when Sam Mills of Long Branch will become the first player from Monmouth County to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, on August 6, 2022.  Pickett is the highest-drafted quarterback from New Jersey since the New York Giants selected Dave Brown of Summit with the number one overall pick in 1992.

Kenneth Shane Pickett was born June 6, 1998 in Oakhurst, N.J., and was raised in Ocean Township, where he starred at quarterback for Ocean Township High School, passing for 4,670 yards and 43 touchdowns.  Despite those gaudy numbers, he was not considered a highly rated prospect coming out of high school, and was not recruited heavily by major college football programs, but ultimately accepted a scholarship from the University of Pittsburgh. 

On November 24, 2017, Kenny Pickett stunned the nation when, as a true freshman making his first start, he led Pitt to a 24-14 upset win on the road at the University of Miami, which at the time was undefeated and ranked second in the nation.  Pickett had a hand in all three of Pitt’s touchdowns, running for scores of six and 22 yards, and throwing a shovel pass for a touchdown. Pickett completed 18 of 29 passing attempts for 193 yards and the one score, while rushing for 60 yards.

Despite this early success, Pickett’s college career did not immediately take off, but he took advantage of the NCAA’s ruling that extended eligibility for student-athletes following the cancellations of 2020 due to the pandemic.  Pickett came back to Pitt for fifth year in 2021, when he had a breakthrough season that saw him rated by many as the best college football quarterback in the country.

For his college career, Kenny Pickett appeared in 52 games, completing 1,045 passes in 1,674 attempts for a 62.4 completion percentage, and 12,303 yards (7.3 average yards per completion), and 81 touchdowns against 32 interceptions. 

Pickett’s 42 touchdown passes in his final season at Pitt were more than in his previous four seasons combined.  In the 52 games Pickett played in college, Pitt went 32-20, including 11-2 in his 13 appearances in the 2021 season, which the Panthers capped off with an ACC Championship.  Emerging as one of the top players in the country at any position, Pickett finished third in the voting for the 2022 Heisman Memorial Trophy, awarded to the nation’s top collegiate player, finishing behind Alabama quarterback Bryce Young and Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson.

The Greatest Pro Football Stars from Monmouth County

The greatest football player in the history of Monmouth County was Sam Mills, who will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on August 6, 2022.  At 5-9, 225 pounds, Mills faced off against running backs, receivers, and even quarterbacks who were taller and heavier, every time he stepped on the field, to say nothing about the many blockers who came at him at full speed, often outweighing Sam by more than a hundred pounds.  He was a walk-on at Montclair State, went undrafted after graduation, but persevered to become one of the all-time great linebackers in the history of football. 

Samuel Davis Mills Jr. was born June 3, 1959, in Neptune City. He grew up in Long Branch and attended Long Branch High School, where he starred in football, wrestling, track & field, and basketball.  After his career Mills became an NFL coach for the Panthers, but was diagnosed with cancer in 2003 and passed away on April 18, 2005.

Among the many honors bestowed on the man who refused to believe that physical stature was an obstacle are:

  • Pro Football Hall of Fame
  • New Orleans Saints’ Ring of Honor
  • Carolina Panthers Hall of Honor (the first former Panthers player to be so honored)
  • College Football Hall of Fame (Mills was the first Montclair St. player to be enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame)
  • Montclair State University Hall of Fame
  • His high school football jersey is proudly displayed in the Long Branch High School gymnasium
  • The Sam Mills Spirit Award is presented annually to the high school football player in Monmouth County who best exemplifies Sam Mill’s dedication, perseverance, integrity and commitment to his community.

Kenny Jackson was a wide receiver out of Penn State who was born in Neptune City (raised in South River) and was chosen fourth overall in the 1984 NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles, the highest that anyone from Monmouth County has ever been drafted by an NFL team.  Jackson played six seasons for Philly in two tours sandwiched around a single season with the Houston Texans.  In 1986, Jackson had his best year as a pro, appearing in all 16 regular-season games, starting 14, and catching 30 passes for 506 yards, and six touchdowns for an Eagles team that finished 5-10-1.

In 2018, guard Quenton Nelson from Red Bank Catholic H.S. became the second-highest-drafted player to come out of Monmouth County. Nelson, 6-5, 330, was chosen sixth overall by the New York Jets, and was traded on draft day to the Indianapolis Colts in a swap of draft picks that enabled the Jets to move up in the draft and select Sam Darnold (QB, Southern Cal) with the third overall selection.

Jets fans are still wishing they could have a do-over on the 2018 draft.  Because going into the 2022 draft, the Carolina Panthers, who now own the rights to Sam Darnold, were said by prognosticators to be looking to draft a new quarterback.  Meanwhile, the Colts start one of the premiere offensive linemen in the NFL in Quenton Nelson.  Nelson not only made the All-Rookie Team in 2018, he was chosen First Team All-Pro in his first three seasons, and was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2020, a year he finished on the Injured Reserve list. 

Quenton Nelson is not just the best guard in the NFL, he has been rated as the top overall interior lineman, including guards, centers, and tackles, in the entire league.  Anchoring the Colts line, Nelson has helped Indianapolis to a winning record of 37-28 in his first four seasons, while the team that could have kept him – the Jets – have racked up a record of 17 wins against 48 losses during that time.

In 1983, the Dallas Cowboys drafted defensive lineman Jim Jeffcoat, born in Long Branch and raised in Clifton, with the 23rd pick in the first round of the NFL Draft.  Jeffcoat went on to enjoy 12 NFL seasons, nine with the Cowboys, where he started for eight years before becoming a key bench contributor to the Cowboys’ Super Bowl winning teams in 1992 and 1993.  He finished his career in Buffalo, and retired after 227 games, recording 102.5 sacks and 724 tackles.

Monmouth University in the National Football League

Seven football players who attended Monmouth University have played in the NFL.  Wide receiver Miles Austin, from Summit/Garfield H.S., went undrafted but signed with the Dallas Cowboys and went on to have a very successful career, with 361 catches for 5,273 yards and 37 touchdowns, and was named to the Pro Bowl in 2009 and 2010.  Chris Hogan, from Wyckoff/Ramapo H.S., was, like Miles Austin, a wide receiver who went undrafted after starring at Monmouth U., but persevered in chasing his dream and went on to spend nine seasons for five NFL teams, including being a key player for the New England Patriots from 2016-18, when they went to the Super Bowl three straight years, winning twice.  Logan announced his retirement from professional football in 2021.

Two Monmouth U. footballers have been selected in the NFL Draft. Tight End John Nalbone, who was born in Trenton and starred at Lawrence High School in Lawrenceville, was selected by the Miami Dolphins in the fifth round (161st overall) of the 2009 NFL Draft. He was on the Dolphins roster for two games before being waived.  He spent the next three years trying to catch on with other teams but retired in 2012. 

Neal Sterling, yet another wide receiver like Miles Austin and Chris Hogan, was born in Belmar, attended Manasquan High School and was drafted out of MU by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the seventh round (220th overall) of the 2015 NFL Draft. He spent two years in Jacksonville and two with the Jets before being cut by the Kansas City Chiefs in 2019.  Sterling appeared in 35 NFL games, with two receptions for 24 yards and 0 touchdowns.

New Jersey Footballers in the NFL

The first American football game was played in New Jersey. Image credit: NCAA.

The sport of American Football, with its roots in rugby and soccer going back many years, is generally considered to have come into existence on November 6, 1869, when Rutgers University faced Princeton University (then known as the College of New Jersey) in New Brunswick, with Rutgers prevailing, 8-0.  While the sport being played on that field would not be recognizable as football to today’s fans – it featured a round ball that was not permitted to be thrown or carried, only kicked, like soccer – the game evolved quickly over time and from that moment New Jersey has been a hotbed of football talent and enthusiasm.

The Garden State has contributed numerous superstars to the National Football League, including Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris, from Fort Dix and Rancocas Valley High School in Mount Holly. Harris was a four-time Super Bowl champion and nine-time Pro Bowl selection.  Defensive End Elvin Bethea, from Trenton and Trenton Central High, spent his entire brilliant 16-year career with the Houston Oilers, where he recorded 105 sacks. Bethea was named to the Pro Bowl eight times, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2003.  Quarterback Joe Theismann, New Brunswick/South River H.S., led the Washington Redskins to a victory in Super Bowl XVII and was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) in 1983.  

In addition to Dave Brown (Westfield/Westfield H.S.), wide receiver Irving Fryar of Mount Holly/ Rancocas Valley Regional H.S. was also once the NFL’s first overall selection, in the 1984 draft.  Fryar went on to have a stellar career, named to the Pro Bowl five times.  Art Still, a defensive end born in Camden/Camden H.S., was the second overall pick in 1978 by the Kansas City Chiefs, where he would go on to be named to four Pro Bowls in 12 years as a starter.

Pro Quarterbacks from The Garden State

Kenny Pickett joins a long list of great quarterbacks from New Jersey, including Joe Flacco, who was born in Audubon, N.J., and played football, baseball, and basketball at Audubon High School.  Flacco was drafted with the 18th pick in the first round of the 2008 NFL Draft out of Delaware by the Baltimore Ravens, and was named Rookie of the Year.  In 2013, Flacco led the Ravens to the Super Bowl championship, and was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.  Flacco left the Ravens in 2018 and has since played for the Denver Broncos, Philadelphia Eagles, and is currently on his second tour with the New York Jets.

Neil O’Donnell, from Madison/Madison H.S. played from 1991-2003 for four NFL teams.  For his career, he completed 1,865 passes on 3,229 attempts (57.8 percent), for 21,690 yards and 120 touchdowns; he was named to the Pro Bowl in 1992. 

Perhaps the most famous quarterback from New Jersey is Jim McMahon from Jersey City (he attended Roy H.S. in Roy, Utah), who led the “Super Bowl Shuffle” Chicago Bears to victory in the 1985 title game. The flashy McMahon was a celebrity, famous for his trademark sunglasses, which he needed due to a sensitivity to light, and his headbands, which he marked up to promote charities and other causes. 

Other notable quarterbacks from the Garden State include Glen Foley (Cherry Hill/Cherry Hill East H.S.), Chris Simms (Franklin Lakes/Ramapo H.S.), and Ray Lucas.  Lucas has the unique distinction of being the only quarterback to have been born in New Jersey (Harrison), played high school football in New Jersey, at Harrison H.S., college football in New Jersey, at Rutgers, and Lucas even played quarterback professionally, in New Jersey, for the New York Jets.  Sam Mills can make the same claim at linebacker. That’s about as Garden State as you can get!

Will Ocean Township’s Kenny Pickett be the NFL’s Next Superstar Quarterback?

It is not at all certain that Kenny Pickett (remember Kenny Pickett? This is a story about Kenny Pickett.) will become an accomplished professional football player. For every Joe Burrow or Patrick Mahomes, quarterbacks chosen high in the draft who have led their teams to the Super Bowl, there is a Johnny Manziell or Josh Rosen, highly touted quarterbacks chosen high in the first round who were out of the league within just a few years.

But regardless of what happens next, Kenny Pickett today became a part of Monmouth County sports history.

Sources:

All statistics, NFL honors, and other details are all courtesy of Pro Football Reference, https://www.pro-football-reference.com/.

All trading card images courtesy Ebay.com.

L.A. Times Archives. (1986). McMahon’s Headbands: He’s a Rebel With a Cause. Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles, Calif., January 27, 1986. Available: https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1986-01-27-sp-678-story.html

Politi, Steve. (2016). Who are the 50 greatest NFL players from New Jersey? NJ.com, February 1, 2016. Available: https://www.nj.com/giants/2016/02/who_are_the_50_greatest_nfl_players_from_new_jerse.html

Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2022. (2022). Pro Football Hall of Fame. Available: https://www.profootballhof.com/news/2022/2/pro-football-hall-of-fame-to-enshrine-eight-in-class-of-2022/

Rotstein, Steve. (2022). Meet the Panthers: Q&A with Kenny Pickett. The Pitt News, January 9, 2017. Available: https://pittnews.com/article/115269/sports/qa-with-kenny-pickett/ 

Stacker.com. (2022). Highest NFL draft picks from New Jersey.  April 21, 2022. Available:  https://stacker.com/new-jersey/highest-nfl-draft-picks-new-jersey

Vasquez, Andy. (2022). Pickett took advice from a Hall of Famer. Asbury Park Press, Asbury Park, N.J., March 4, 2022, P. B1.

Vega, Nicolas. (2021). 2021 NFL Draft: How much Trevor Lawrence and other top picks are likely to earn on their rookie contracts. April 29, 2021. Available: https://www.cnbc.com/2021/04/29/how-much-2021-nfl-draft-picks-likely-to-earn.html

Wittry, Andy. (2022). Kenny Pickett’s college football stats, highlights and records. National Collegiate Athletic Administration, April 16, 2022. Available: https://www.ncaa.com/news/football/article/2022-04-16/kenny-pickett-college-football-stats-highlights-records Graham, Tony. (1980). Branchers’ Mills learns apologizing easier than sitting. Asbury Park Press, Asbury Park, N.J., March 9, 1980, P. D6.

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