Saturday, November 5, 2005

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

By the time Ryan Pickett was in middle school, he was already bigger than the rest of the kids. Because of his considerable size – he weighed 300 pounds in high school – and his eerie resemblance to his father Rubin, everyone called him “Big Grease.”

Rubin was the original Big Grease, given to him by his brother-in-law apparently because he was a smooth operator. As Ryan grew older and larger, though, he eventually claimed the name of Big Grease.

“I’m pretty smooth, but I just look like my old man,” Pickett said. “If you ever see him, you’d be like wow. I’ll look just like him in about 27 years.”

Now, Ryan maintains that nickname and Rubin is just Grease, minus the Big. The evolution of Pickett’s nicknames might seem minute in the big picture, but in reality Pickett has had a couple of monikers that let you get a read on how he went from the youngest member of the Pickett clan to the stout, run stuffing defensive tackle of the St. Louis Rams.

Toughening Up

Growing up as the youngest in a family with two brothers and a sister can be tough on any child and Pickett was no exception. Almost every day, his brothers, Rubin Jr. and Booker would pound on him, telling him it would only make him tougher.

But it wasn’t the older men in his family that gave Pickett the most problems. His sister Suphia was the biggest culprit.

“She was the main one,” Pickett said. “She was the ringleader. My older brother made my middle brother and me fight all the time and wrestle. They would just beat me up. They tried to make me tough and that’s what they did.”

Little did Pickett’s siblings know that they were preparing him for a career in the NFL. When Pickett was young he quickly fell in love with football, unfortunately his size prevented him from participating as much as he would have liked. He played pee wee ball until he was about 8, but he grew too big to make weight to play with kids his age.

“It was real frustrating,” Pickett said. “I think after I stopped playing football I got even bigger. I was just like a little, round kid with nothing to do.”

His mother Mae refused to let Pickett play up in age, worried that he would get seriously hurt. In the meantime, Pickett became one of the biggest, most intimidating pitchers and catchers to grace Little League.

But that time away from football was essentially torture for Pickett. He watched his brother playing and excelling on the gridiron and he wanted that for himself. Booker was so good he earned a spot on the Miami Hurricanes, one of the premiere college programs in the nation.

Instead of football, the poundings from his siblings had to suffice as Pickett’s method of toughening up.

“My older brothers beat me up when my mom wasn’t around,” Pickett said. “When she was around they didn’t mess with me, but when she left my two brothers and my older sister. They didn’t take it easy on me at all.”

Pickett was finally able to get back on the football field when he entered middle school. There, he quickly learned the tricks of the trade and the Big Grease moniker became his trademark.

Soft as Cotton

As his football career at Zephyrhills (Fla.) High began, Pickett became one of the mainstays at defensive end. At 300 pounds, he was still bigger than the rest of the kids, but he had the athleticism to go with it.

Pickett had found his calling, following in the footsteps of his brother and single-handedly dominating games from his end position. Pickett was so dominant, in fact, that by the time he was a senior, opponents were game planning ways to keep the ball away from him.

That was no problem for Zephyrhills Coach Tom Fisher, though. He quickly found a solution to keep Big Grease involved in the defense.

The solution? Make Pickett, who was once the biggest 8-year old pitcher in Little League into the biggest middle linebacker anyone has ever seen. That’s right, Pickett moved off the defensive line and into the middle of the defense.

Sure he didn’t have the speed of a Ray Lewis or the instincts of Mike Singletary, but the move paid off handsomely.

Pickett posted a school-record 142 tackles with seven sacks as a senior. He was the only 300-pound middle linebacker in the country, a label he proudly maintains to this day; though there is no confirmation that another hasn’t come along.

“I think I was the only one,” Pickett said. “I’ve never seen it. I liked it. I knew I wasn’t going to play middle linebacker in college or anything like that, but it was fun.”

Although his teammates, friends and everyone else in Zephyrhills came to love the man known as the Big Grease, his father Rubin had a different nickname for his fun-loving, always-affable son.

No matter how well Pickett would play – he could have 15 tackles, four sacks and a fumble recovery – Rubin was always his biggest critic. Rubin thought his son wasn’t playing hard enough, so he would constantly chide Pickett.

“I’d hear my dad calling me from the bleachers and my friends would say ‘Hey Ryan, your dad is calling you,” Pickett said. “I would not want to look back because I knew what he was going to say.”

Instead of showering his son with praise or offering constructive criticism, Rubin would let his son know that he wasn’t too fond of the way he was carrying himself on the field.

“He’d call my name, ‘Ryan, Ryan’ and I’d look back and he’d say ‘Cotton, why you playing so soft?” Pickett said. “I had this big game and my dad would say that. Finally, I said ‘Dad what can I do? No matter how good I play, you say I am playing soft.’ He said ‘Son, it’s because you could play so much better, you are playing good now because you have more talent than the rest of these kids, what happens when you play someone with more talent?”

Pickett preferred the Big Grease nickname and he decided soon after that he didn’t want anything to do with being called Cotton. Between the physical poundings from his siblings and the verbal jabs from his father, Pickett began to realize his potential.

“My dad stopped calling me Cotton at the end of my senior year when I realized what he meant and I started competing,” Pickett said. “I started playing harder and I wasn’t just doing enough to get by, I became a leader.”

Not only did the name calling stop, but Pickett finally put an end to the physical beatings. At his graduation party, his brothers challenged him to a wrestling match. The normally overmatched Ryan put his brother on his back. Instantly, the baby boy of the Pickett family was larger than life.

Snowed In

Pickett’s astounding performance as a linebacker brought the college coaches to Zephyrhills in bunches. Every major program in the land wanted a piece of Big Grease.

But it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Pickett would stay in Florida. But one by one he eliminated each of the Florida schools.

Pickett didn’t like the way Florida State turned its biggest players into offensive lineman. Miami just didn’t do it for him and Rubin wanted him to go to Florida.

So when Pickett took his visit to Ohio State, he instantly fell in love with the campus and the coaching staff. Even the white, powdery stuff that he had never seen before had a certain appeal.

“I went to Columbus and it was my first time being in the snow and stuff like that, I was really excited,” Pickett said.

Pickett committed to coach John Cooper and the Buckeyes on the spot, but the staff promptly threw a wrench in his plans. With the staff and Pickett in a room, a call was placed to Pickett’s parents.

When Ryan told his parents that he was going to Ohio State, they immediately protested and told him to think it over. But Pickett was smitten and Rubin and Mae relented to his wishes.

Pickett loved the atmosphere in Columbus and how the entire city would shut down when the Buckeyes had a game. The Florida kid even enjoyed the snow, for a while.

“The first couple of days I did, but after that, I was like aw man, what did I get myself into?” Pickett said. “We would go to school and there would be days I’d wake up and it would be like negative 2 degrees, I would say Oh no, I can’t even go to class today, it’s too cold. I really didn’t know what I got myself into.”

Pickett had a solid three seasons in Columbus, starting every year and making 109 tackles with eight sacks.

Although he won’t fully attribute his decision to leave Ohio State early for the NFL Draft, he does say that the snow and cold helped him make the choice.

Wake Up Call

Some questioned Pickett’s decision to come out in the 2001 NFL Draft as he was projected to go anywhere from the second to the fourth round. It was difficult to figure out where Pickett would fit in considering some of the other defensive tackles (Richard Seymour, Marcus Stroud, Shaun Rogers to name a few) that were entered in that draft.

Pickett was slightly worried that his status was dipping, but he impressed the Rams enough to become the 29th choice, even going ahead of the more-touted Rogers.

The adjustment to the speed and strength of the NFL wasn’t an easy one for Pickett. He was used to starting every game and always being on the field, but his rookie year wasn’t what he was used to.

It didn’t take long for Pickett to realize he was in the big show when he met defensive line coach Bill Kollar. Never had Pickett met a coach with the vocal chords of Kollar, who was constantly in his ear. Even in his dreams, Pickett heard the screams.

“That was the wake up call of a lifetime when I came and saw Coach Kollar,” Pickett said. “I had never experienced anything like him. Throughout college I had never had a coach like him or in high school. It was a nightmare. I thought this guy has got to hate me. He has to. There is no way in the world he likes me. As you kept playing you realize he was on you for your own benefit. But at first, I thought he hates me.”

That first year was almost a lost season for Pickett. He was inactive for the first nine games before emerging on the active Sunday roster. He played as a reserve defensive tackle and on special teams. He had 24 tackles, but he expected much more of himself.

It didn’t take long after that for Pickett to begin to reach his potential. He had a breakout year in 2002, starting 14 games and finishing second on the team with 107 tackles.

Pickett’s ascension to the top tier of tackles was slowed considerably in 2003. He suffered a high ankle sprain that kept him out of action and hurt his performance when he did play. He made 74 tackles that season and finished with 81 last year.

Neither of the past two years have been up to Pickett’s standard for himself, but a lot of those struggled have been expected.

Breaking Out

As Pickett entered the final year of his contract this season, the expectations for him were at an all time high.

"When we drafted these guys No. 1, the first thing everybody said - and I believe it - was that for a tackle, it usually takes three years to really establish yourself," coach Mike Martz said.

After battling back problems throughout the preseason, Pickett started to establish himself as a real force in the middle of the defensive line. He consistently occupies multiple blockers and has gotten constant push up the middle.

Halfway through the season, Pickett is fifth on the team with 40 tackles and has added a sack and a half. Of course, the constraints of his position make it hard to evaluate just how well Pickett is playing without watching him on film.

“You play hard, you are in your gap, you are in your gap, you do everything right and everything it takes and there’s a cutback and you don’t get the tackle,” Pickett said. “You know you are doing your job, but sometimes it’s hard to get tackles on the defensive line.”

Still, it is pretty clear that Pickett is playing better than he has at any point since his breakout 2002 season. Pickett will be a free agent after this season, but never has his value to the Rams been any clearer than it is right now.

“Grease has been great all year long,” interim coach Joe Vitt said. “He’s one of the better noses in the national football league. Most of the day he is taking on two people, he is doing a great job of holding the play, he does a great job of pursuing the passer and he does a really good job on screens. He’s playing as good as any nose in the league right now.”