ZEPHYRHILLS — The trio gathered in the end zone. The players bowed their heads, thanking God and asking for a little help in the preseason game against Land O’Lakes.
It was their first time praying together, but now they say the same prayer every Friday night. It has become part of a game-day ritual that, for Jaylen Pickett, includes a pair of orange-striped black socks, a swig of Pedialyte and at least 13 family members — his father, stepmother and 11 siblings — in the stands.
The Picketts have a long history at Zephyrhills. Jaylen is the son of Damien Pickett, a former receiver/defensive back for the Bulldogs and Tampa Bay Times’ North Suncoast player of the year in 1995. His family has sent men to the NFL and the Miami Hurricanes, and now they’re cheering for him.
Bulldogs coach Reggie Roberts said Pickett shows rare flexibility and can line up at running back, wide receiver or defensive back. The 6-foot, 185-pound athlete has 331 all-purpose yards through five games after a sophomore season with 543.
“I hate using the words ‘most improved’ because that implies he was bad. He’s good,” Roberts said. “And he’s getting better.”
Pickett has had much to prove since his freshman year. He wasn’t made a starter just because of his football bloodlines. His first game was also his tryout.
Coaches told him he would play varsity against Central in the 2011 preseason classic. How he performed would determine where he played — junior varsity or varsity — for the year.
Pickett asked seniors for advice. He prayed before the game and swallowed his nervousness. His family was in the stands, but he was ready. He had been playing in front of them his entire life.
He wasn’t perfect in that game or that season, but he was athletic and Roberts put him on varsity.
Standing on the sideline before practice Wednesday, Pickett said he hasn’t lived up to the example of his father and uncles. Not yet. As a junior, though, he still has time to reach that bar.
“Hopefully,” he added with a grin that showed off pink braces.
Roberts, while agreeing with his assessment, also acknowledged Pickett has greatly improved his speed and running back skills.
“He could get to great,” Roberts said as he watched Pickett jog to the end zone for a warmup.
A couple hours into practice Pickett was a quiet presence on the field. He didn’t call out plays or shout for teammates to join a huddle. He stood to the side then took his place without a word.
His silence masks the fact that players look to him as a role model. The players he prays with before each game, Quinton Foster and Jackie Tucker, said they see him as an example of success both academically and on the field. Tucker, an only child, said he has adopted Pickett as an older brother figure.
“I just appreciate what I can learn from him,” Tucker said. “In everything.”
Pickett’s stats don’t tell the whole story — how his teammates look to him for guidance, how deep the football talent runs in his family.
Perhaps more importantly, they don’t always show that Pickett is constantly improving.
“I think he’s being under-recruited now,” said Roberts, watching Pickett run. “But by the end of the season, that’ll change.”