BOISE — Hands to his side, Cody Pickett is manning the sideline in the same way he’d order a turkey on rye from a local deli. He is staring forward, scanning every option and calmly barking out his demands.
Eagle senior Tanner Swenson catches a pass on the arc. His defender takes an hour to get over. A few inches away, standing perfectly still, the Mustangs boys basketball coach lifts his voice an octave.
“Score! Score!” Pickett hollers.
A screen comes from the right. Swenson takes a step that way then cuts hard to his left. He takes one dribble and scoops in an uncontested layup.
“There you go,” Pickett says, striding forward.
Things are normal once again for Pickett, the former four-sport star at Caldwell High who became one of the greatest quarterbacks in the University of Washington’s long history.
But normal is relative.
Pickett felt normal back in July, back when he got word his uncle, Jay, suffered a heart attack, sat over on his horse and died.
He felt normal when his coronary calcium scan came back with a score of 1,669 — not ideal when mild evidence of artery disease begins with a score of 11.
He felt normal when he went in for a coronary angiogram (X-ray imaging to see your heart’s blood vessels). He felt normal when doctors told him his arteries were so blocked they wouldn’t be able to place a stent; when they said open-heart surgery was the only option; when his wife, Carleigh, burst into tears and they had to ponder all the questions that come after: ”What if something goes wrong?”
All that for a guy who felt normal.
“I felt the same I’ve felt for the last 20 years,” Pickett said. “Exactly the same.”
What followed has been well documented. Carleigh penned an emotional 521-word Facebook post on New Year’s Eve that began with “Our heads are still spinning,” and ended with “please keep Cody and our family in your prayers.”
Among the thousands who reacted to the post was Channing Wyles, a former Huskies punter who explained he had worked with Dr. Bill Lombardi at the University of Washington Medical Center, one of the best in the world at placing coronary stents. Pickett flew to Seattle a week and a half later, climbed into a hospital bed in the late afternoon of Jan. 10 and lay awake as Dr. Lombardi successfully inserted the stent.
“It’s crazy how it worked out,” Pickett said. “If my uncle hadn’t passed away, who knows? Something could have gone wrong at one of these tournaments or wherever.”
That night, still in the hospital bed, Pickett set his phone on his lap and watched his Eagle squad thump Boise High by 27 points. He asked Dr. Lombardi if he’d be able to coach the Mustangs’ next game, only five days out.
“Yes,” Lombardi responded, “as long as you win.”
He did. With Pickett on the sidelines, Eagle beat Centennial by 30 points. The Mustangs went on to win their regular-season district title and qualify for state before a disappointing exit — which isn’t so disappointing in context.
If the initial diagnosis was correct, if it was going to be impossible to place a stent, Pickett’s absence would have been weeks at the best, months at the worst. His recovery would have included more than just blood thinners, statins and a few extra vegetables. He might have watched Eagle’s state tournament games from the stands — and that’s if everything went perfectly.
“Oh my gosh,” Carleigh Pickett said. “An open-heart surgery would have been a couple of days in the ICU, probably a couple more days at the hospital, the recovery. There’s no comparison.”
“I know that Cody ... he felt like it was strange because he felt almost like it was like this big deal,” Carleigh continues, “and then it’s like, ‘Well wait, you’re fine. Look at you. You’re back to coaching. Everything is OK.’ But I guess it’s the emotional part of it that he went through.”
There is a sentiment Pickett often shares with his team: “There are ups and there are downs. You can’t control a lot of things in life, but you can always control how you look at things.” Pickett is a glass-half-full personality, so much so that his dad jokes he’s going to end up running for mayor or something because his words have the ability to simultaneously galvanize and calm.
But in the same way he is the eternal optimist, Pickett is the perennial competitor.
He has been known to swat his 6-year-old son’s shot if he gets too cocky. One time when he was at Washington, he was playing video games with the teenage daughter of his quarterback’s coach. Pickett let her score first …
“But then she started talking trash to me, so what could I do?” Pickett told Sports Illustrated. “I had to show her who’s boss.”
He couldn’t do the same thing back in January. He could not just work harder, could not just attack an opponent, could not just watch more film and lower his calcium numbers. There’s no running up the score on clogged arteries.
For once, Pickett’s fight, his outcome, was in the hands of others.
“Not knowing the blueprint of what exactly to do,” he said, “yeah that’s tough.”
“He’s a fixer too,” Carleigh added. “Like if there’s a problem, he wants to fix it. He wants to take care of it, get it done, hit it head-on. … It was fighting something he didn’t have control over, and I think it was frustrating for him.”
Frustration turned to gratitude. And now six months removed from his procedure, Pickett seems ready to stop talking about the tense few weeks. He’s focused on his Eagle hoops squad, a team full of upper classmen with a loaded summer schedule on the docket.
But there are some times when Pickett can’t forget what it felt like when the future was so hazy.
“When tragedy strikes,” Pickett said, “... it opens your eyes to enjoying whatever the process is.
“You never know when it’s going to be over.”