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Eagles QB Kenny Pickett on his mindset, preparation, and the move to Philly: ‘Change is a great thing’

No longer with Pittsburgh, the new Eagles backup quarterback did fondly recall a Steelers game in which he handled a pressure-packed situation and engineered a game-winning drive.

Eagles quarterbacks Jalen Hurts, Will Grier and Kenny Pickett (right) run drills during Eagles practice on May 30.
Eagles quarterbacks Jalen Hurts, Will Grier and Kenny Pickett (right) run drills during Eagles practice on May 30.Read moreMonica Herndon / Staff Photographer

WEST LONG BRANCH, N.J. — Kenny Pickett is embracing his move from one end of Pennsylvania to the other.

Pickett, the Eagles’ backup quarterback acquired via trade from the Pittsburgh Steelers in March, spoke Monday night during the Champion Mindset Symposium at Shore Regional High School in Monmouth County. He fielded questions from the 270-person crowd about his mindset, work ethic, and, most prominently, change.

“Change is a great thing,” said Pickett, the 20th pick in the first round of the 2022 draft after five years at the University of Pittsburgh. “I’m going through it right now. I was in Pittsburgh for seven years and now I’m over in Philadelphia. … I think a lot of people probably have some negative views on change, but that’s really just your outlook on it. I think if you keep a positive mindset, it’ll all work out for the better.”

The symposium was co-presented by All In Athletes, a nonprofit foundation that empowers athletes’ mental fitness, and ESSA Sports Performance, a training center in Tinton Falls founded by former Rutgers defensive linemen Val Barnaby. Pickett grew up in Ocean Township and trained with Barnaby, whom he credits for seeing something in him when few others did.

“In fifth grade, sixth grade, I was telling everyone, ‘I’m gonna play Division I, I want to go to the NFL,’ and I got laughed at quite a bit,” Pickett said. “My freshman year of high school, I was about 5-foot-6, 130 pounds. I didn’t have too many believers.

“Having a coach like that early on in my life helped propel my career. I was in the gym with him every day. That’s where the habits of becoming an elite player and trying to become an elite player really started.”

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Attendees at the event included members of the football team at Ocean Township High School, from which Pickett graduated in 2017, and several younger athletes who swarmed Pickett for photos and autographs after the symposium wrapped up. Pickett encouraged all of them to employ a healthy mindset centered around hard work and focus.

“At a young age, it doesn’t come overnight — the consistency of what you do every day is what’s going to get you to the end,” Pickett said. “Everyone has those bad days, but I think those days when you can push yourself through training and push yourself through those hard times when you don’t want to do it, at the end of the day, that’s what gets you over the hill.”

Pickett was asked how he handles the pressure of being an NFL quarterback. He brought up a game from his rookie season, when the Steelers traveled to Baltimore in Week 17 to play the Ravens on Sunday Night Football. Pittsburgh, holding a 7-8 record, was hunting down a playoff spot in the AFC and needed a win against its fiercest rival to stay alive. Pickett says a quote shared from a team member before the game still sticks with him today.

“You never rise to the occasion, you fall back on your preparation,” Pickett recalled.

In the biggest game of Pickett’s career, the Steelers trailed 13-9 with 4 minutes, 16 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. Pickett orchestrated an 11-play, 80-yard drive that concluded with a go-ahead touchdown pass to running back Najee Harris with 56 seconds to play. Pittsburgh won, 16-13.

“If you’re in a big game … two-minute drills, I’ve been in plenty of them … I don’t think too much, and I think that’s because of all the preparation I had leading up to the week and before that,” Pickett said. “I’m never trying to psych myself up or get myself too worked up because I put so many hours in to get to that point, that I’m just out there playing. The preparation is so key to becoming successful at your game.”

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Pickett again mentioned the game against Baltimore when prompted to explain his original desire to reach the NFL. For Pickett, who has known that the gridiron was his calling since he started playing flag football at age 5, that game was a long time coming.

“I remember having a conversation with my dad in the car, saying, ‘I don’t want to be 30 years old looking back like, what if I did a little bit extra? What if I worked a little bit harder? Could I have been … playing against Baltimore [on] Sunday night, winning a game in a two-minute drill, playing for the Steelers? That’s stuff that people dream of — that’s what I dreamed about doing.”

Entering his third season in the NFL and first with the Eagles, Pickett holds a 14-10 record as a starter and has led six fourth-quarter comebacks. Nonetheless, doubts remain.

He has thrown just 13 touchdowns and as many interceptions in 25 career games. Reports that he refused to dress as the Steelers backup in Week 17 vs. the Seattle Seahawks, and that he reacted poorly to Pittsburgh’s acquisition of quarterback Russell Wilson this offseason, have sparked further questions. Pickett, who had pushed back on those reports in March, indicated he wasn’t worried about any of it.

“The world has enough doubters,” Pickett said. “There are plenty of people that are doubting. That’s probably the majority of people that are out there in the media, fan bases. But … coaches, family members, if you turn your mind around and try and prove them right and what they believe in you, you’ll be in a more positive mindset.”

When Year 1 in Philly starts this September, Pickett says he will be playing with a chip on his shoulder, as always. But he won’t be looking to prove anyone wrong.