He can saddle a horse as easily as you start your car, he has roped steers on the professional rodeo circuit, and his name sounds like a character out of a Kevin Costner Western, but Washington senior quarterback Cody Pickett looks nothing like a cowboy. Pickett emerged from the Huskies' locker room after a recent practice sporting a New York Yankees cap perched at a fashionable angle, a patch of beard on his chin and a silver necklace thick enough to double as a bike lock. He looked more like a rapper than a roper. � It was not the appearance one would expect of someone with Pickett's background, which is exactly the way he wants it. He has no interest in feeding city slickers' stereotypes. "He's a cowboy, but he doesn't advertise it," says senior linebacker Greg Carothers. "You couldn't tell it from the clothes he wears or most of the music he listens to, but put a rope in his hands and he's a cowboy."
Like those of any colorful western hero, Pickett's exploits are well-known to the folks back home, in his case tiny Caldwell, Idaho. Pickett grew up the son of a rodeo star on Chicken Dinner Road and excelled in football and rodeo before arriving in 1999 at Washington, where he has won over the Huskies faithful with his toughness. Washington fans are still talking about the game against Arizona during Pickett's sophomore year in which he not only played with a separated right (throwing) shoulder but also threw for a school-record 455 yards and scored the winning touchdown by diving between two tacklers into the end zone. "I once had a quarterback who sat out five weeks with the same injury," says Huskies coach Keith Gilbertson, the team's offensive coordinator for three years before taking over for the fired Rick Neuheisel this summer.
There is a touch of urban to Pickett's cowboy. He likes referring to Caldwell as C-town and points out that it's just a few miles outside the more cosmopolitan Boise. Although he listens to the music of country star George Strait before games, you'll also find Nelly and Jay-Z in his CD collection. Pickett reserves the right to be a little bit country, a little bit hip-hop and a little bit of whatever else he desires. "People hear about the rodeo and all, and I think some of them expect me to walk around all the time with a cowboy hat, a big belt buckle and a piece of hay sticking out the corner of my mouth," he says. "I'm a football player, too, and I don't walk down the street wearing a helmet and shoulder pads."
When Pickett does slip into his football gear, he slings the ball as well as he tosses a lasso. He owns most of Washington's passing records, including career yards (6,873) and touchdowns in a season (28 last year), and at 6'4" and 220 pounds he has the size and arm strength to play in the NFL. "If he doesn't have a future at the next level," says USC coach Pete Carroll, former coach of the New York Jets and the New England Patriots, "I don't know who does." Says one NFL scout, "He's a first-round pick for sure."
But first Pickett is intent on helping the Huskies rebound from a disappointing 7-6 finish last season, a task that begins rather dauntingly on Saturday when Washington opens against defending national champion Ohio State in Columbus. Pickett is regarded as one of the early favorites for the Heisman Trophy and the Ohio State game could serve as a sort of New Hampshire primary.
Pickett had Heisman-caliber numbers in 2002, when he threw for 4,458 yards, 516 more than USC quarterback Carson Palmer, who won the award. But Palmer passed for 425 yards and four touchdowns in a win over Notre Dame, which helped sway the voters in his favor. A big game against the Buckeyes in front of a national audience could make Pickett this year's early front-runner.
The game will also provide an early indication of how well the Huskies have rebounded from the firing of Neuheisel, Washington's popular but trouble-plagued coach. Neuheisel was dismissed on June 12 after it was discovered that he had participated in high-stakes college basketball tournament pools over the last two years, a violation of NCAA rules. While he was fighting to get his job back in June and July—Neuheisel's final appeal was denied by the school on July 28—the program was in a state of limbo. "The uncertainty was tough," says Gilbertson, who was interim coach before getting the job on July 29. "Once everything became permanent, we had about three months of work to do in two weeks, including recruiting and filling out the coaching staff."
The Huskies don't seem at all distracted by the coaching transition. In fact, although they are quick to express their affection for Neuheisel, there was a general feeling during preseason practices that the team was developing more of an edge under the old-school Gilbertson than it had when the more laid-back Neuheisel was in charge. The music that used to blare while the players stretched at the beginning of practice under Neuheisel is gone, replaced by the sounds of a team immediately getting down to business. "Are you working, men?" Gilbertson barked at the start of a recent afternoon session. "I'll tell you one thing: Ohio State is working!"
Pickett needs no such exhortations. He learned the value of work early, traveling the rodeo circuit with his father, Dee, a former world champion who was inducted into the professional rodeo Hall of Fame in August. In the summers and on vacations from school, Cody rode the buses from town to town with his dad and the other cowboys. "Sometimes I would go to sleep in Utah and wake up in Wyoming," he says. "It was fun for a kid, but it was a hard life for them. In rodeo they say, 'If you ain't winning, you ain't eating,' so guys practiced their skills all the time. I really got to see that there are no shortcuts."
Like his son, Dee was as adept with a football as he was with a rope. Dee started at quarterback for two seasons at Boise State in 1976 and '77 but gave up the sport before his senior season, partly because of knee problems and partly in order to concentrate on rodeo. Cody has made the opposite choice, putting aside his budding rodeo career—he earned $30,000 while in high school—to pursue football. He keeps his hats, boots and saddles in storage at his father's house in Idaho (Pickett's parents are divorced), and he has given away or sold all but one of the five horses he owned before he enrolled at Washington. "The last time I was on a horse was the day I reported to camp as a freshman," he says. "But I'll probably go back to it when my football days are over."