He Wasn’t Much Until He Was. . . : BICKETT IN BULK : Weights Helped Thin Glendale Receiver Grow Into NFL Draft Choice at USC : By JOE RESNICK
Duane Bickett didn’t have room in his extracurricular schedule at Glendale High for much besides playing three sports. But he always found time to play catch or shoot some baskets with his little brother in the backyard of their Glendale home.
The attention meant a lot to Fred Bickett, who always was given an 18-point head start in a 20-point game and still couldn’t win.
“Growing up with him was a lot of fun,” said Fred, who now wears his brother’s old No. 21 with the Glendale High basketball team. “We had a lot of good times.”
They had another one on April 30. It began in the dormitory at USC, where Duane was spending his final days as a Trojan before the school’s May 10 commencement exercises. They planned to be at the home of Duane’s agent, Leigh Steinberg, at 5 a.m. and wait for a phone call from one of the 26 teams at the National Football League draft in New York.
But they overslept and were awakened by Duane’s girl friend, Mary, who was honking her car horn outside in the street. They threw on some clothes and got to the agent’s house about five minutes before the Indianapolis Colts made the USC outside linebacker their first pick and the No. 5 selection in the country.
Fred, who was sitting across from him when the call came, remembered his brother throwing his arms in the air and smiling broadly. Then Duane called his parents in Australia, where they had moved shortly after last January’s Rose Bowl, and told them the news.
“Duane was surprised and happy,” said Fred, at 17 the youngest of four brothers. The others are Don, 24, a professional basketball player in Australia, and Brent, 20, who also attends USC.
“Everyone (in the media) was saying that he was going to go first round, but when I talked to him, he told me: ‘Fred, I don’t know if you can believe what the papers say.’ And I’m the type of guy who’ll say, ‘Well, if these guys say it, it’s gotta be true.’ So I had a feeling he was going to go first round, but not that high.”
John Brennan, football coach at Glendale High during Bickett’s sophomore and junior seasons, was surprised that his former player was selected so early--especially before Jack Del Rio, Bickett’s linebacking partner with the 1984 Pacific-10 champion Trojans. Del Rio, who was tabbed in the third round by New Orleans, was the 68th pick.
“I was very happy for Duane that he went that high,” Brennan said. “I’m kind of surprised that he did as well as he did. I really think that’s a tribute to Duane. When he was here, he was just a tall, rangy guy who didn’t have a lot of upper-body development. He was a three-sport guy and he never really had time to get in the weight room.”
Bickett, who was 6-3 and weighed 185 when he played football
for the Dynamiters, didn’t start a serious iron-pumping program until he entered college. Four years later, he is an imposing 6-5, 232 pounds and an NCAA Division I first-team All-American.
“Duane was special at our level, but I don’t think anyone could have projected the success that he’s had both at USC and now in the NFL draft,” said basketball coach Steve Keith, who witnessed all of Bickett’s football games at Glendale High. “He didn’t have to be All-American at USC. He wasn’t any sure thing coming out of here, but he worked at it and he was ambitious enough to want to get to that plateau.
“Obviously the weights have made him what he is today in some sense,” Keith added. “But the athletic ability is his key--not the fact that he’s lifted weights. A lot of guys have lifted weights that aren’t going to be the fifth pick. They can make his body in the USC weight room, but if you go into the weight room as a non-athlete, you’re still going to come out as a non-athlete. Duane was always an athlete in the natural sense.”
Bickett, who scored 673 points in 51 games over two seasons of varsity basketball, was a second-team All-Foothill League player as a junior. He ended his prep basketball career in 1981 with a 17.5 points-per-game average, helping lead the Nitros to the 2-A Foothill League championship and an undefeated season that was climaxed by a 59-58 victory over Blair High in the Southern Section title game at the Sports Arena. He was named Southern Section Player of the Year for his efforts.
“Duane was one of the great basketball players in the history of the school,” Keith said. “He had a competitive edge. You see it in all the guys who are successful. They’re just able to gather themselves up at the big moment and they play with very little fear factor. They’re not afraid to have the ball in their hands in the last minute. That’s a quality that’s hard to describe, but the great ones seem to have it.”
Although Keith believes Bickett would have been successful if he chose basketball as a career, he agreed with Bickett’s decision to play college football.
“Even though he was more of a renowned basketball player up until he went to USC, I think everyone realized he made the right choice in signing a football scholarship,” he said. “I think all coaches are a little greedy. If a player has been that outstanding for you, you would like to have seen him gone on and play basketball. He would have been successful as a basketball player, but realistically, he had greater limitations in basketball than he did in football.”
Speed was the only limitation Bickett had on the football field, but his instincts compensated for that inadequacy. He began his high school career as a tight end and was starting by the middle of his sophomore season. The following season he played both ways, as tight end and defensive end.
Bickett, who also played first base and pitched for the baseball team at Glendale, is the third player coached by Brennan to go into the National Football League. The others were Brett Miller, a starting offensive tackle with the Atlanta Falcons, and Mike Black, a sophomore quarterback on the 1981 championship team who is now punting for the Detroit Lions.
When Brennan left after Bickett’s junior season to pursue other interests, Bill Wild became head coach and guided the Dynamiters to an undefeated season and the 1980 Foothill League championship. That year, Bickett caught 47 passes for 581 yards and seven touchdowns.
“He got better as the season went on in his senior year, but I think he still could have improved,” Wild said. “His biggest problem in high school was that he didn’t realize how good he could become. We told him, ‘Duane, you’re as good as you want to be.’ ”
Wild, who now teaches at the nearby Alan Daily Continuation School, admitted that relations between himself, Bickett and defensive coordinator Tim Butler weren’t always copacetic during games and practices in Bickett’s senior year.
“We got on Duane sometimes, but he could take it,” said Wild, who last saw Bickett in December at a going-away party for Bickett’s parents. “A couple of times we jumped on him and told him to get his butt in gear.
“There were times when we went nose to nose--or nose to chin, I guess. In a playoff game against Quartz Hill that we won, coach Butler was screaming at Duane. Duane made a real critical mistake in a defensive call, and he came over and he got chewed out. It was like bam, bam, the two of us right into his face. Then he went out there and made some great plays.”
When Wild had him as a sophomore on the junior varsity squad, he explained to Bickett some innovative defensive formations designed to put pressure on the opponent’s running game. He discovered the youth had a natural flair for defense.
“When we brought the sophomore kids in, most of them would trip over their own feet, but Duane could do it perfectly after the first few tries,” Wild recalled.
Bickett was playing with calcium deposits in his right arm during the latter part of the 1980 championship season. He was still hurting in a playoff game against Lompoc, but caught 14 passes.
“He was a tough kid,” said Wild. “A couple of times we had to peel him off the ground. But he played the whole game and he scored two touchdowns and played on defense.”
Bickett, who did not play linebacker until he arrived at USC, was lightly recruited during his senior year. The Trojans first noticed him in a game film while scouting another player. After that, other schools became interested--but not many.
“I think he had only two other options, the University of Pacific and Cal State Fullerton, which aren’t exactly heavyweight football schools,” Keith remarked. “So USC was almost throwing him a bone at the end of recruitment.’ ‘
Said Wild: “I think he was still a little bit in awe when he found out that USC wanted to offer him a scholarship.”