At NFL pinnacle, he's still Pasco
By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer
NEW ORLEANS -- His eyes still have that glitter. His face still has that equatorial smile. His mood still is as infectious as it was when he was sacking quarterbacks for Zephyrhills High School.
Ryan Pickett, the St. Petersburg Times All Suncoast Player of the Year in 1997, is basking in great fortune but never abandoning his down-home roots.
"I can't forget where I'm from," said Pickett, a reserve defensive tackle for the St. Louis Rams. "I'm Pasco County. I'm the same guy who played for the Bulldogs, the same guy."
Today, that same guy who tormented River Ridge, Gulf, Hudson and Pasco high schools, will finish what has been a challenging rookie season in the NFL with an appearance in the game's greatest event, the Super Bowl.
But when you listen to him talk, and you watch how he goes about the business of granting interviews and juggling the responsibilities of being a professional athlete, Pickett, who still goes by the nickname Grease given to him as a teenager, seems to have changed very little.
"Man, this is the Super Bowl," he said. "I'm in the Super Bowl and it's been like a dream come true. I would never have thought that I would be here, but here I am. It's been unreal."
What also has been unreal is Pickett's journey to the big game. A heralded offensive and defensive lineman, he was the youngest of four Picketts to play for Zephyrhills coach Tom Fisher. And following in the footsteps of older brothers Booker, Reuben and cousin Damien, Ryan Pickett became one of the county's most impressive high school players.
An intense recruiting war followed and Pickett, surprisingly, chose Ohio State University over a number of top rated teams in the South, including state powers like Florida and Florida State.
In Columbus, Pickett was made a starter immediately and after three standout seasons he felt ready to move on the NFL and declared for the draft.
The Rams selected him with their third pick of the first round (29th overall) and what had been a football career made easy by raw talent suddenly changed perspective.
"You know, when he first got here I thought he had no chance to play," said Rams defensive line coach Bill Kollar. "He was out of shape, showed no quickness, no effort, I mean it was as bad as you could imagine. It was like taking a guy off the street.
"He was in pitiful condition. He couldn't do anything. He couldn't run, he was always tired. I guess he didn't realize what kind of work we put in here in the pros, even in mini camp (in April 2001) and it sort of shocked him."
Kollar said Pickett, now 22, likely had some sobering moments during his mini camp baptism and he reacted positively.
"By the time we got into regular camp (late July), he was in decent enough shape to where he was able to compete," Kollar said. "And now, all of a sudden, you started to see that quickness he has. He kept going and saw the other guys working and hustling, now he works as well as anyone on our field."
Kollar said the Rams had to start from scratch and teach Pickett a number of techniques and impress upon him that relying on raw talent wasn't enough.
"He's come a long, long way since we first drafted him and saw him in the first mini camp and he still has a long, long way to go," Kollar said. "But he has made huge strides."
Pickett's good natured personality and respectful approach to his elders have gained him brownie points among the veteran players on the defensive line.
Former Bucs defensive end Chidi Ahanotu, now a Ram who just completed his ninth season in the league, said that as Pickett was indeed struggling to become a pro at the start of the season, most of players in the Rams locker room were in his corner.
"Grease is a good kid and the kind of kid you want to see succeed," Ahanotu said. "He's not pretentious, doesn't have any ego and you would never think he's a first-round pick.
"He was really struggling, as all rookies do, I was there too, he was in certain situations where we would get on him on certain things. There were times when he was really messing up, close to imploding, I had to cover my eyes. But now, he's made so many strides we call him "Professor.' That's how far he's come. You ask him a question, he knows it."
"It was a challenge for me," said Pickett, who was inactive for five of the Rams first nine games but has since played in nine straight. "I had never been in that kind of situation before. I had always been a starter, always did things on instinct, now I had to become a pro, had to learn to be on the bench."
But while today's game marks the end of the season, for Pickett it also marks the beginning of the most important year in his pro career.
It is a commonly held belief that most professionals can make their biggest strides or biggest slips between their first and second seasons.
"I told him about that," Ahanotu said. "I was sitting on the sidelines with him during practice and I said, "Grease, this is the time when you have a chance to slip and lose the things that you gained this season. It's been a long year for you and you may want to go out and hang out in the offseason and let it all go. That'll be a mistake. You're going to have to watch out for that.' I hope he was soaking it in."
Kollar feels the same way.
"I think he realizes what it takes and what his work ethic has to be," Kollar said. "The key will be his working out in the offseason and how he comes back to our place in March for the offseason conditioning program. I think he can end up having a real good year for us next year."
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