By Kyle LoJacono
A player who honed his skills at Bulldog Stadium at Zephyrhills High School will play beneath much brighter lights on Sunday, Feb. 6.
Ryan Pickett, a member of the Green Bay Packers, is headed to his second Super Bowl.
The defensive lineman was born in Zephyrhills and played with the Bulldogs from 1994-1997. Some of his fondest memories are of playing Friday nights against Pasco County rivals like Pasco High and Land O’ Lakes High.
“That’s where I learned the game,” Pickett said. “That’s where I’m from and it’ll always feel like home. I don’t live there anymore, but I take any chance I have to get back.”
Tom Fisher coached Pickett at Zephyrhills and remembers him as one of the biggest and strongest he has seen. Fisher is still a teacher at Zephyrhills and said Pickett was definitely one of the best he has ever coached.
Zephyrhills principal Steve Van Gorden said his performances are a topic of conversation around the school.
“I never meet Ryan, but it’s nice to see a local get to the Super Bowl” Van Gorden said. “It shows if you work hard, you can be successful no matter where you’re from. He’s a great role model for anyone that hard work pays off. It’s going to be great that he can represent not only the Packers, but Zephyrhills.”
As a senior at Zephyrhills, Pickett recorded 119 tackles and seven sacks. His accomplishments were honored in 2008 when his alma mater retired his number 79. Pickett still wears the number with the Packers.
Pickett was one of the top defensive recruits coming out of high school and signed a scholarship to play at Ohio State University. Unlike most freshman in college, Pickett played in every game his first season, including starting the final nine. He recorded 109 tackles, 20 for a loss, and eight sacks at Ohio State.
Pickett, 31, left after his junior season and was selected with the 29th pick of the first round in the NFL draft by the St. Louis Rams in 2001. He played five years with the Rams before signing with Green Bay as a free agent after the 2005 season. He was re-signed by the club before this season to a four-year, $28 million contract.
During his 10-year career, Pickett has recorded 454 tackles, nine sacks and 24 passes defensed in 148 games. This season, he played in 14 regular season games, 12 starts, and racked up 32 tackles and a sack.
Pickett reached the Super Bowl his rookie season in St. Louis, but was denied the Lombardi Trophy by the New England Patriots. A decade later, he gets his second shot this weekend in Dallas.
“I’ve never been back and I’ve been dying to get another chance,” Pickett said. “As a rookie I didn’t know what to expect. Getting there as a rookie, you kind of think you’re going to get back every year. After 10 years I’ve learned it’s not that easy. I’m making sure the younger guys know this might be their only chance and to give it everything they’ve got.”
Last year, Pickett was a key part of the Packers No. 1 ranked rush defense that allowed just 83.3 yards per contest, a franchise record. Pickett and Green Bay were the 5th ranked total defense in 2010, allowing 309.1 yards a game.
The Packers defeated the Chicago Bears 21-14 to advance to the Super Bowl, where they will take on the Pittsburg Steelers. Pickett and the defense allowed just 83 rushing yards in the contest and he believes containing the run is the key to getting his first championship.
“Those fast, skinny guys on offense may make the highlights, but everyone knows the game is really won and lost at the line of scrimmage with the big boys,” Pickett said with a laugh. “It’s us smacking each other around that are the real superstars.”
Pickett, 6-foot-2, is nicknamed “Big Grease” in part because he tips the scales at 340 pounds. He said the weight comes in handy in frigid Green Bay.
Pickett’s older brother Booker played at Zephyrhills and also in college at the University of Miami. Booker still lives in east Pasco and was an assistant on the Bulldogs football team last season.
Pickett and his wife Jennifer have three daughters, Esther, Abigail and Lydia, and one son, Ryan Jr. Pickett said his boy is only 3-years-old, but already thinks he will follow in his father’s footsteps.
“Football is in our blood,” Pickett said. “His daddy and uncle played high school and college ball, and I can already see him on the field in a couple years making plays.”
Kickoff for Super Bowl XLV is scheduled for a 6:30 p.m. It will be televised on Fox.
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