On Saturdays He's No Cowboy Rugged Washington quarterback Cody Pickett, the son of a rodeo star, has a chance to lasso the Heisman. But first, bring on the Buckeyes

August 31, 2003

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."

By the time he was in grade school, Pickett was already combining
rodeo and football. At the rodeos he would turn the riders into
receivers, tossing his Nerf football to the cowboys as they
circled him while warming up their horses with a light canter.
When he wasn't roping or riding, Pickett was usually learning
about football from his father.

Cody was a fast learner in both sports, developing into a star
quarterback at Caldwell High and becoming skilled enough with a
lasso to advance to the national rodeo finals in team roping in
his sophomore and junior years. As a team roper Pickett would
help force the steer in the direction of his partner, who would
rope the horns; Pickett would then do the same with the feet.

Pickett is equally adept at roping the feet of teammates as they
walk by, and he's tempted by other targets. "We were on the golf
course one time and some geese were around," says Washington
senior fullback Adam Seery. "Cody was like, 'Dang, I wish I had
my rope.'" But Pickett doesn't show off his rodeo skills to
teammates very often. "Probably the best way to get him to bring
his ropes out is to tell him you're better at it than he is,"
says junior tackle Khalif Barnes.

That's because the ultracompetitive Pickett can't pass up a
contest of any sort. No challenge is too small, no challenger too
young. When he played a football video game against the
12-year-old daughter of quarterbacks coach John Pettas this
summer, he was generous enough to let her score on the first
play. "But then she started talking trash to me, so what could I
do?" Pickett says, smiling. "I had to show her who's boss."

Junior wideout Reggie Williams recently boasted that he could
beat Pickett, who was also an outstanding high school basketball
player, in one-on-one eight out of 10 games. When that
information was relayed to Pickett, he immediately sought out
Williams. He didn't care that his buddy was in the middle of a
live radio interview at the time. "You can beat me eight out of
10?" he said to Williams. "Are you kidding me?"

The Huskies are better off when Pickett gives and Williams
receives, and they're hoping their cowboy QB will begin
distributing touchdown passes this weekend in Columbus. If he
does, he will take a giant step toward that Heisman, and once he
gets close enough, Cody Pickett can rope just about anything.

Check out Phil Taylor's Hot Button column every Monday at si.com.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN FROSCHAUER/AP LOOKING GOOD Strong-armed and 6'4", Pickett, a senior, is a serious Heisman candidate and a likely NFL first-rounder. B/W PHOTO: MILAN CHUCKOVICH/IDAHO STATESMAN LIKE FATHER ... A rodeo Hall of Famer, Dee coached Cody in football and taught him how to ride a horse at a young age.

Growing up, Pickett COMBINED RODEO AND FOOTBALL. At rodeos he
would turn riders into receivers, tossing his Nerf football to
cowboys on their horses.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)