Upon joining his first football team in fourth grade, Darien Pickett settled into a position on the offensive line, and more than seven years later, the West Potomac junior still enjoys mixing it up in the trenches as an All-Patriot District guard for the Wolverines.
But in rugby, a sport he took up during his freshman year, Pickett has found an outlet for his talents that might otherwise be hidden on the gridiron. At 5-foot-10, 220 pounds, Pickett, now 17, has garnered attention on the rugby pitch, showcasing a potent mix of power and athleticism.
“It’s like a big man’s best dream,” said Pickett, who plays club rugby with the Fort Hunt Warriors. “I get the ball and I have a chance trudge my way down the field and make something happen. . . . Once I get it, I become Devin Hester and I’m trying to score as much as I can.”
This week, Pickett’s quick rise in the sport continued when he was selected to play with USA Rugby’s High School All-American junior varsity team, essentially the nation’s top U-17 squad. He’ll accompany the 25-man team to England for two weeks, beginning in late March.
Warriors Coach Dale Roach has watched Pickett blossom since suggesting he join the team for its inaugural season in 2011. As the freshman football coach at the Alexandria public school, Roach is constantly recruiting rugby players, believing players who double up are helped in both sports, but he took a special interest in Pickett right away.
“I looked at that [high motor on the football field] and his power and his speed,” Roach said. “I was like ‘We’ve got to get this kid on the rugby field.’”
As a first-timer, Pickett made his rugby debut working with Fort Hunt’s “B side,” but within the first week, Roach elevated him to the “A side,” akin to the jump from junior varsity to varsity. The Fort Hunt Warriors play traditional 15-player rugby union, while a condensed version, rugby sevens, will join the Olympics in 2016.
Pickett, a flanker, ended up making the Virginia all-star team as a freshman, and last spring, Fort Hunt won the state title, beating a squad from Hampton in the final with Pickett earning most valuable player honors. The Warriors, who play a schedule that begins in February and stretches into June, boast a 23-5 record in two seasons.
Pickett became a prospect in the national rugby pool through his participation on the all-star circuit. After playing with a regional all-star team in a tournament in Pittsburgh over the summer, he was invited to tryout for the national squad in Tempe, Ariz., late last month.
In all, 140 of the country’s top high school players showed up vying for 50 total spots on the U-17 and U-19 teams. Going against stronger and faster competition than he had ever faced, Pickett believes he set himself apart with his versatility, playing several positions during the five-day camp.
“I figured I had nothing to lose,” Pickett said. “I wanted to have no regrets, so I said, ‘Let's go out and make a win out of this and hopefully get picked.’”
Pickett does his best to balance football and rugby. In addition to his work on the offensive line for the Wolverines in the fall, Pickett was also an all-district middle linebacker, piling up 60 total tackles with four sacks and an interception return for a touchdown.
Roach’s association with the West Potomac football program makes the workload easier to handle with both sports meeting about three days per week outside of football season.
Two days after returning from the national rugby tryout camp, Pickett flew to San Antonio for the U.S. Army National Combine where he worked out at linebacker, accompanied by West Potomac teammates Demornay Pierson-El and James Harkless.
Pickett said he’d like to keep playing both sports in college, even if a choice seems inevitable. He’s received interest about playing college football from several Bowl Championship Subdivision schools, such as Cincinnati, East Carolina and Massachusetts.
He’s also looked into a few schools with top rugby club programs, including Mary Washington and Furman. Though men’s rugby is not sanctioned by the NCAA, the sport has continued to gain traction on the national landscape at that level. The Collegiate Rugby Championship, a rugby sevens competition, has been televised nationally since 2010.
“I kind of have a heap of stuff to do, but I’m pretty heavily committed to both,” Pickett said. “Some days, I’ll go lift for football before rugby practice, and then I go home happy because that’s what I want to do.”
Archives: Rugby finds an unlikely home at Gonzaga