It was April 26, 1983. The place was the New York Sheraton Hotel. It was destined to be one of the most remarkable NFL drafts in history. Everyone sensed it. Star quarterbacks abounded. At the top of the board were Pitt’s Dan Marino and Stanford’s John Elway. Elway expectedly went first, but Marino’s selection became an ensuing drama as the first round plodded along.
Marino had been a phenom at the University of Pittsburgh and even further back in the same Oakland section of Pittsburgh when he attended Central Catholic High School. In 1981, he threw 37 touchdown passes, led Pitt to an 11-1 record, and finished fourth in Heisman voting, as his team finished ranked fourth. In 1982, as a senior, he threw 20 fewer touchdowns, plus more interceptions, and Pitt went 9-3 after starting the season ranked No. 1. The team went to Happy Valley with a 9-1 record for the final classic against Penn State, having lost only to Notre Dame. They lost to Penn State 19-10 and then to SMU in the Cotton Bowl. They ended up No. 10.
But Marino’s projection in the 1983 draft was hurt less by a subpar senior season than rumors that fun-loving Dan used drugs. I heard the rumors when I arrived at Pitt four years later.
Interviewed for the outstanding ESPN documentary 30 for 30: Elway to Marino, Jimbo Covert, Marino’s roommate, talked about the rumors: “You’re Dan’s roommate,” he was asked by an NFL team’s scouts. “We want to know if you do drugs, too.” Covert was shocked and told them, “Absolutely not! … He’s my roommate, that’s absolutely not the case.”
In fact, Marino had voluntarily submitted to drug testing all year. He was squeaky-clean.
In his native Pittsburgh, Steelers’ owner Art Rooney Sr., i.e., “the Chief,” loved Marino, a fellow Catholic, and badly wanted to make him a Pittsburgh Steeler, especially as Terry Bradshaw’s career was winding down. The Chief hired two Pittsburgh policemen to investigate. They found no drug use.
Marino told 30 for 30, “There was no reason for it, and I proved that.”
The rumors were the work of reckless gossips — morons — and they really hurt Dan Marino. The world was about to see.
The first round of the draft had 28 picks. The first went to the Baltimore Colts, which was owned by a madman named Robert Irsay, who in March 1984 would shamelessly betray the city of Baltimore by cruelly moving its beloved franchise in the dark of night. The Colts picked John Elway — a saga unto itself. Would Dan Marino be picked next? Marino, after all, had been selected No. 1 overall in the USFL draft by the new Los Angeles franchise.
Marino was not selected next, or next and next.
Drafted at No. 6 by the Chicago Bears was Covert, a future Hall of Famer. At No. 7 finally came the next quarterback, but it wasn’t Marino. It was archrival Penn State’s Todd Blackledge, who went to the Kansas City Chiefs, and who was very surprised to get chosen ahead of Marino. He was one of nine Penn State players drafted from Joe Paterno’s defending NCAA champs. Blackledge would not have a good NFL career.
Then came more: the Houston Oilers, New York Giants, Green Bay Packers. Another Marino teammate, Tim Lewis, went at No. 11. Like Penn State, nine Pitt players were selected. Was Marino next? Nope.
At No. 14 was Jim Kelly (from near my hometown of Butler, Pennsylvania) to the Buffalo Bills. Another QB ahead of Marino, and ultimately a great one. Then came the New England Patriots, who chose QB Tony Eason of Illinois.
Then Atlanta, St. Louis, Chicago, Minnesota, and San Diego, while Marino sat. And then, there they were at No. 21: Marino’s hometown Pittsburgh Steelers. How could it possibly have happened that Marino’s draft stock could have fallen so much that the Steelers had a crack at him? What an amazing opportunity! And, shockingly, they passed on him.
That was the ghastly decision of Steelers’ coach Chuck Noll, who wanted to start rebuilding his team the way he had started in 1969 by picking Mean Joe Greene — with defense first. He opted for a defensive lineman named Gabe Rivera of Texas Tech, nicknamed “Señor Sack.” What happened to Rivera a few months later was awful. He crashed his car at a high rate of speed while legally drunk on Pittsburgh’s Babcock Boulevard. He staggered around the smashed vehicle once, as if taking a bad hit on the football field, fell, and never walked again — paralyzed for life. Six career games, two sacks. A very tragic story.
Then more teams: the Cowboys, Jets. Ah, the Jets. They wanted a quarterback. They would surely nab this Pittsburgh kid, as they had jumped at Pittsburgh kid Joe Namath in 1965, their conquering hero. Instead, they picked QB Ken O’Brien. Jets fans gasped in audible horror. What in the world was going on?
For the record, O’Brien turned out to be a good quarterback, but he wasn’t Dan Marino. No one was. And Marino waited, in agony. Pitt Panthers announcer Bill Hillgrove was there with Marino and his mom and dad in their tiny little house in the Italian section of Oakland. “When Ken O’Brien was selected,” observed Hillgrove, “Danny became visibly ill and went up to his room.”
“It started to upset me a bit,” admitted a calm Marino years later to 30 for 30.
Marino’s agent, Marvin Demoff, observed, “These people don’t think; they’re not smart.”
No, they didn’t. A herd mentality had taken hold.
Next, Cincinnati and the Raiders both passed. The Raiders picked a lineman named Don Mosebar.
But finally came a coach who wasn’t part of the herd. He was the Miami Dolphins’ legendary Don Shula. At No. 27, three hours after the draft started, Shula grabbed Dan Marino. Marino’s image fit with the Miami Vice-cool image of the mid-1980s. It was a perfect match.
There were five quarterbacks taken before Dan Marino, who ultimately retired as the all-time NFL leader in passing yards and TDs. The Hall of Famer played 17 seasons. What he did his second year was extraordinary. He threw for a staggering 48 touchdowns and over 5,000 yards. He took the Dolphins straight to the Super Bowl, losing there to another Pittsburgh native-son quarterback, Joe Montana of the San Francisco 49ers.
Who did Marino beat in the AFC Championship that year? Sweet justice: Chuck Noll and the Steelers. He torched them. I’ll never forget that game. Marino scored 45 points. I had never seen the Steelers’ defense shredded like that.
What did Terry Bradshaw do in that game? Nothing. He was gone. His career had ended that season because of an elbow injury. Had Marino gone to the Steelers, he would have replaced Bradshaw. Together they would have won Super Bowls, especially with Marino paired with the Blitzburgh defenses of the early 1990s. Chuck Noll never saw another championship game.
Art Rooney Jr. would later say of Noll’s decision and his father’s disappointment: “My dad fell in love with Danny…. He thought he was the greatest. Central Catholic, Pitt.” The junior Rooney envisions being greeted one day at the Pearly Gates by his father, whose first words to him will be, “You should have taken Marino.”
All that drama brings us to this year’s draft. It was April 28, 2022, in hyped-up Las Vegas.
Just like with Dan Marino in the 1983 draft, the teams in 2022 curiously kept passing on Pickett, for no good reason other than most already had QBs.
Expected to be the first or second quarterback was Pitt’s Kenny Pickett, who, like Marino, was a Heisman candidate, finishing third. His stats were phenomenal. In fact, he smashed all of Marino’s records. In his final season, returning the team to prominence not seen since Marino, Pickett threw a staggering 42 touchdowns and only seven interceptions, for 4,319 yards and a 67 percent completion percentage.
And yet, just like with Dan Marino in the 1983 draft, the teams in 2022 curiously kept passing on Pickett, for no good reason other than most already had QBs. Oh, there was a ridiculous theory in some quarters that Pickett’s hands were too small, but there were no rumors of drugs or bad behavior. To the contrary, Pickett seems a solid young man — good family, nice fiancée. In fact, the fiancée, an attractive girl who played soccer at Princeton, deserves a Heisman for the best last name: Paternoster (Latin for “Our Father”).
Once again in 2022, teams kept passing on the Pitt quarterback. It was downright dumb. On and on it went, somehow eventually edging to the Steelers, who waited at 20. The team needed a QB to replace Big Ben Roethlisberger, though they did sign a free agent name, Mitch Trubisky, for whom many in these parts have high hopes.
Still, the likelihood that Pickett would be available had once seemed extremely remote. And yet, here was the burning question as No. 20 steadily approached with Pickett somehow still on the board: Would the Steelers, with this wholly unexpected gem of an opportunity, pass on this talented quarterback from their own backyard, whose Pitt team played and practiced on the same field as the Steelers? Instead of Pickett, would they choose a lineman, a receiver, or QB Malik Willis of Liberty University?
Most significantly, if they rejected Kenny Pickett, would this be Dan Marino all over again? That thought haunted everyone.
Like Marino, Pickett waited and waited. You could see the palpable agony on his face. What in the world was going on?
When the 20th pick came, the Steelers didn’t whiff. They picked Kenny Pickett. Providentially making the announcement was the legendary Franco Harris, doing so on the historic 50th anniversary of his glorious Immaculate Reception, the NFL’s most iconic play. For the Steelers’ faithful, it was the first sign of perhaps a prayer answered, if not a miracle.
A visibly excited Franco held the card in his hand at the podium. When he read the name of Pickett, the Pitt faithful went nuts, moved to tears that this could transpire. This time, the Steelers did the right thing.
The jubilant tearful reaction by Pickett, his fiancée, and family is a wonderful must-see. They all broke down:
The phone call from Coach Mike Tomlin is likewise terrific to watch:
The call that made @kennypickett10 a Pittsburgh Steeler pic.twitter.com/vfFEgf8qF7
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) April 29, 2022
Whether or not this is your team, you have to be moved. There was no other scene like it during the 2022 draft. ESPN analyst Louis Riddick (a classmate of mine at Pitt) could be heard giggling with joy on the set.
Pickett ultimately was the only QB chosen in the first round, or even first two rounds. This was so unlike 1983, with a record six QBs taken in the first round, three of them Hall of Famers.
In an otherwise very boring draft, nothing like 1983, the Pickett–Steelers drama was far and away the best story. It was the feel-good moment.
Will it work out for the Pittsburgh Steelers? Will this make reparation for and redeem their Unpardonable Sin against Dan Marino? Could the pick become a bust? Does this have a storybook ending?
Only time will tell. Only the football gods know. But for now, this was a really nice sports moment.