clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The selection of Kenny Pickett was one of the most memorable draft moments in Steelers history

The Steelers selected a quarterback in the first round for the first time since 2004, which made last Thursday night a memorable and exciting one for Steelers fans everywhere.

NFL: NFL Draft Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

“Huh?”

That may have been the reaction of so many Steelers fans and media members on April 29th, 1980, when the team selected Mark Malone, quarterback, Arizona State, in the first round (28th, overall) of the 1980 NFL Draft.

With the Steelers just coming off their fourth Super Bowl title in six years, and with Terry Bradshaw not turning 32 until the start of the 1980 regular season, was that really the right move? Were people calling for Pittsburgh to draft Bradshaw’s successor and groom him to ultimately take the Blond Bomber’s place?

Or maybe nobody even cared or really noticed. Perhaps folks were so drunk off of Super Bowl success and parades, that there was a belief the championship run would go on forever.

But I can’t imagine anyone being overly excited about the team drafting a quarterback in the first round. How much could he help right away? How could he possibly change the franchise’s fortunes or be its new savior?

The right move may have been to find an offensive weapon or lineman for Bradshaw. If not that, then what about some help for an aging defense that, little did anyone know at the time, was about to become too old to continue the dominance it often displayed in the previous decade?

I wasn’t old enough to care or even know about the draft back then, but I was certainly old enough to see and hear the concerns about the Steelers coming up with a succession plan for Ben Roethlisberger over the last half-decade or so of his glorious career. But what was the point of doing that while the big guy was still around? As long as you had him, you might as well have continued to try and fortify the roster around him in order to give the team the best chance to make another championship run until you didn’t have him.

That’s why this offseason, the first one without Roethlisberger as the face of the Steelers franchise since the winter and spring of 2004, was so exciting and fascinating. That was why there was all the talk about going and getting an Aaron Rodgers or a Russell Wilson. That was why it felt like such a huge deal when the Steelers agreed to a two-year contract with Mitch Trubisky, the presumed best available veteran quarterback, at the onset of free agency in March. And that was why the lead-up to the 2022 NFL Draft was dominated by quarterback talk and speculation.

And that’s why last Thursday night, as I watched the draft unfold at Industry, a bar in Lawrenceville, a popular neighborhood in Pittsburgh, was so exciting as the Steelers’ pick in the first round (20th, overall) drew closer and closer. Since I was in a bar, naturally, the television was on mute, and when Franco Harris finally came to the podium with the Steelers selection in his hand, I tried to read his lips as he announced the pick.

But I was mostly just waiting for ABC to post the selection on the screen.

Every quarterback prospect was still available to the Steelers, something that still seems unreal to me. I mean, your first offseason since the winter and spring of 2004 without Ben Roethlisberger as the face of your franchise, and you have a full buffet of quarterbacks sitting right in front of you as you prepare to make your first-round selection—and that selection is all the way down at number 20!

As Franco moved his lips, I was sure he was saying “Malik Willis,” but when the selection appeared on the screen and read, “Kenny Pickett,” I couldn’t believe it.

Why? Much like Roethlisberger 18 years earlier, Pickett was the quarterback that had been linked to the Steelers since the previous fall. Back then, Philip Rivers, quarterback, N.C. State, emerged late as the Willis of his day—the presumed favorite of the Steelers and head coach Bill Cowher, like Rivers, a Wolfpack alum—as the draft drew closer. Unlike 18 years earlier, however, when Rivers was snatched away by the Giants seven spots before Pittsburgh could have a chance at him, Willis was still there at 20.

Yet, the Steelers still picked the guy everyone said they were going to take before the pre-draft process ramped up a few months earlier.

Everyone clapped, including me, someone who had fallen for the physical attributes and upside of Willis. I may have recently started to like Willis, but I always liked Pickett.

Above everything else, I liked the idea of the Steelers going for it and trying to find the next guy to lead their franchise. My quarterback philosophy is simple when it comes to the NFL Draft: When you have the guy, you help the guy. When you don’t have the guy, you try and get the guy.

The Steelers got the guy, or at least the guy who will try to be the guy.

Anyway, back to the bar scene. Some guys lost bets. Some guys won bets. Some guys lost money on which quarterback the Steelers would take. Some won money for them simply taking a quarterback, period.

Fate is a funny thing.

If this actually works out, and Pickett really is the next guy to quarterback the Steelers to a lot of great moments, I’ll never forget where I was when everything—luck, pre-draft opinions, pre-draft needs of other teams and maybe even a little gamesmanship and charm by head coach Mike Tomlin—came together to make it all possible.

The NFL Draft might not always be “Must See TV,” but it sure is when the Steelers are looking for their next franchise quarterback.