Kenny Pickett prepared for pressure of being the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback

PITTSBURGH -- It took Art Rooney II just 69 words to invoke the name that haunted the Pittsburgh Steelers for two decades.

In introducing first-round pick Kenny Pickett on Friday afternoon, Rooney brought up Dan Marino, a fellow Pitt great whom the Steelers had the opportunity to select with the No. 21 pick in the 1983 draft.

“We are excited, obviously, to be able to introduce Kenny to you all today,” Rooney said. “And usually, I get to say to the individual, ‘Welcome to Pittsburgh,’ and today I get to say, ‘Welcome to this side of the building.’ It's a great feeling to be able to do that.

“And it's also something for me to be able to say that we drafted somebody who broke all of Dan Marino's records in college, which is pretty special.”

Instead of going with the local quarterback four decades ago, Pittsburgh chose Gabe Rivera. The defensive tackle played six games his rookie season before a car accident left him paralyzed. Soon after, Terry Bradshaw felt a pop in his surgically repaired right -- throwing -- elbow against the New York Jets and never played again. Without a concrete succession plan, the Steelers were left wandering the quarterback desert, cycling through temporary answers, until they drafted Ben Roethlisberger in 2004.

Meanwhile, Marino went on to play 17 seasons for the Miami Dolphins, earning MVP honors in 1984 and rewriting record books en route to his Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement in 2005.

“I was walking out into the press room when [former Pittsburgh Press and later ESPN reporter] John Clayton was there, and he said, ‘I’ve got a great idea what you should do,’” Dan Rooney said in an interview with WTAE in 2014, recalling the 1983 draft. “Marino is still there. He said ‘You should take Marino and trade [Cliff] Stoudt for a second pick.’ I said, ‘That’s really a good idea.’ I went into the room and gave them the idea. [The scouts] said, ‘Who’d you talk to?’ I was so dumb, I said John Clayton. That was immediately the end of that.”

This time, though, the Steelers selected the quarterback next door, the one who shattered Marino’s college records.

“It’s special,” Pickett said of his connection to Marino. “I'm glad they didn't pass on me this year. It feels great to be here. I've talked to Dan a bunch. I'm going to continue to talk to him and use him as a resource.”

Thursday night was the perfect chapter in a Pittsburgh fantasy. But it’s far from guaranteed that Pickett will have a fairy-tale ending.

He proved himself with a terrific senior season, a fifth year granted because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but now he’ll have to do it all over again.

Pickett not only reenters the doors of the UPMC Sports Complex with elevated expectations as the draft’s only first-round quarterback this year, but he also arrives in the shadows of Roethlisberger, the Steelers’ future Hall of Fame quarterback who retired after last season, and to a lesser extent, Marino.

“There's comfort,” Pickett said of remaining in Pittsburgh, “but there's a job at hand, and I know what I have to do. I know how to go about my business, so I'm really excited to be here. That first game back in Heinz Field instead of being in blue and gold, it’ll be black and gold, I am really excited for that.”

While he has a relationship with Marino, Pickett said Friday he doesn’t really know Roethlisberger but has talked to current quarterbacks Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph, both his competitors and prospective mentors, as he prepares to compete for the starting job.

“I think the pressure is always going to be there, but it’ll all be good pressure because he’s a competitor,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. “He wants to compete.

“But when you look at playing in Heinz Field, how familiar he is, he’ll know where to park. ... He knows where he’s going. He’s not going, ‘Where am I going to live?’”

Through evaluating Pickett over the past five years, the Steelers believe the maturity he gained in his extra collegiate season makes him especially equipped to deal with the pressure that comes with the unique circumstances of being this Steelers quarterback.

“Kenny is just a mature, even-keeled guy,” general manager Kevin Colbert said. “A lot of times, like when we're studying the quarterbacks, we not only watch them on the field, but we watch them off the field, when they come off, how are they with their teammates, how do they interact with their coaches, how do they conduct media interviews.

“We talk to Kenny about how he's going to handle this in this market because he's going from a University of Pittsburgh great to a potential Steeler great. But it'll be different for him. He won't be a college player any longer, he'll be a professional, and there will be different expectations. But we feel that the maturity that he displayed on and off the field will help him in that endeavor.”

Pickett knows he has big shoes to fill, of quarterbacks who won Super Bowls for the Steelers and what-ifs who never got the chance. But all he can do is what he has done his whole career: Put his head down and go to work.

"I don't know if I'm Dan Marino," Pickett said at his pro day in March. "He's a hell of a guy to follow. He's a guy I was chasing the whole time I was here at Pitt. He's a great role model to have. ... It's unbelievable to be in the same sentence as him. I'll just try to work as hard as I can to have a successful career like he had."