PITTSBURGH -- The parade of calories making its way to the corner table of Spirits & Tales restaurant on the top floor of Pittsburgh's Oaklander Hotel on a Monday evening in mid-August is staggering.
There are steaks accompanied by small mountains of french fries, burgers stacked high with a bevy of accoutrements, and plates of chicken and fish. A small army of well-dressed wait staff marches through the glass-walled dining room with both arms filled by whipped ricotta on crispy baguettes, oysters drizzled with garlic lemon gremolata, an obligatory salad or two and a round of french onion soups so laden with cheese that their consistency lingers on the edge of liquid and solid. This is "hog dinner," a feast for the University of Pittsburgh's starting offensive line provided by their veteran and savvy quarterback, Kenny Pickett.
The tab for most customers would easily run into the hundreds of dollars. Pickett will be paying with a tweet.
The tradition of hosting hog dinners started for Pickett back in Ocean Township, New Jersey. Before each of his high school games, with the help of his parents, Pickett comfortably fed the schoolmates who protected him on his path to becoming a nationally recruited prospect.
He hoped to continue the same bonding experience when he stepped into a full-time starting role at Pitt in 2018. He learned quickly, though, that the boys in eastern New Jersey were not eating at a collegiate level. His new lumbering, Midwestern teammates were capable of putting away overwhelming amounts of food.
"We would go out before the first game of the season," Pickett recalls of his early days at Pitt. "I would cover that bill, but obviously the scholarship checks don't run deep like that. So I could only do it once before the season started."
Pickett will begin his fourth season as the Panthers' starting quarterback a week from Saturday. And thanks to a new state law in Pennsylvania and a change to NCAA rules that allow players to profit from their name, image and likeness (NIL), he has finally found a way to keep up with his offensive line's appetite.
The landmark shift in rules arrived on July 1, giving college players an opportunity for the first time to make money from their fame in a variety of ways. One of Pickett's first orders of business in July was to arrange a deal to promote the two-year-old restaurant on the edge of Pitt's campus on his social media accounts. In exchange, Spirits & Tales provides a free weekly meal for him and six of his offensive linemen throughout the football season. The restaurant gets to build its reputation as part of the campus community, and Pickett gets a happy and slightly thicker offensive line in front of him on Saturdays.
"Oh, I'm going two entrees every go 'round, man," says redshirt senior tackle Carter Warren. "I tell you that, yes sir."
Warren was happy when he first learned this summer that the NCAA was revising its long-held amateurism rules. But he was even happier when Pickett sent a group text to his linemen letting them know about the new weekly dinner plans. As an unglamorous offensive lineman, Warren had no expectations of cashing in himself. Marketing dollars were expected to flow to star players in high-profile positions.
Many coaches and college sports administrators were concerned that an imbalance in NIL opportunities could lead to jealousy and locker room rifts. But the first two months of a new era of college sports have provided multiple examples of stars like Pickett and the companies who are now able to sponsor college athletes making a conscious effort to spread the wealth.
According to Opendorse, a company that helps athletes build their brand and connect with potential sponsors, the NIL marketplace is on track to generate up to $1.5 billion in earnings for college athletes this year. The largest deal on Opendorse in the month of July was for $210,000, but most were for a few hundred dollars or less. INFLCR, a similar company, tracked more than 1,000 deals made by athletes in July and found the average value was roughly $923. Both companies say football players were by far the most active endorsers during the first month of the new rules.
Leaders at multiple companies helping college athletes arrange endorsement deals told ESPN they were struck by how many athletes have tried to do something charitable with their newfound endorsing power. Companies, too, are trying to reach beyond the superstar players by offering deals to any college athlete or specifically to walk-ons who are paying their own tuition.
"I wish I had this my whole career. I think there are other things we could build and get a lot more people involved on the team," Pickett said. "I wanted to get the offensive line involved as much as possible ... having the opportunity to take care of them and getting to spend more time with them on Monday nights, it means a lot."
This Saturday, Pickett will be paid an appearance fee to attend a golf tournament hosted by sports equipment company HelmetFit. He agreed to the deal only because the company is paying four players from the Panthers' defensive roster to show up as well.
Pickett signed with agent Tim Younger of QB Limited in early July, and together they crafted a strategy allowing the team captain to include his teammates and the local community in his newfound opportunities while also keeping his focus on the field.
"We were trying to get everything done before camp started," Younger said. "As he's moving forward his time commitment [for sponsorship obligations] is limited to less than an hour a week. This won't in any way impede on his preparation for the season or his class schedule."
After taking care of his teammates, Pickett sought opportunities to help others in his adopted Pittsburgh home. He said that when he was young he met one of his best friends at a Boys & Girls Club in New Jersey, so he reached out to the local chapter of the organization to see what he could do.
With the help of a local T-shirt company and PGT Trucking, Pickett created "Pickett's Partners" T-shirts to sell. He plans to donate all proceeds to the Boys & Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania. Jessi Marsh, a spokeswoman for the clubs, said the money will be used to help fund programs that introduce kids to sports and educational programming for robotics and artificial intelligence.
"I think that college athletes have a really interesting opportunity in front of them," Marsh said. "It's wonderful to see them be able to do some things that only pro athletes have been able to do. Just like pro athletes, you're going to see some of them take advantage of the opportunity to shine a light on important work that's being done in the community."
Pickett delivered the first batch of his T-shirts to one of the local clubhouses in person in August. He spent an hour playing catch and chatting with a group of dozens of kids.
"He didn't just hand them a T-shirt and go onto the next kid," Marsh said. "He got down on their level and he asked them their name and I saw him shaking hands and giving pats on their shoulders. It was really heartwarming."
Pickett drove to the clubhouse and to his weekly dinners in a new, shiny, silver pickup truck. He isn't averse to helping himself with the new NIL rules, either. The truck is his payment for sponsoring the Bowser Automotive car dealership in the area. He's also paid to promote a relocation company called Next Move on social media and to make weekly podcast and radio appearances.
His lineup of endorsements hasn't caused any issues with the other players around him thus far.
"He just shows us he's here for us," Warren said. "He's always thinking of us. I couldn't have a better quarterback."
Outside of a few social media posts and his weekly radio and podcast gigs, Pickett says he plans to turn his focus fully to football as the season begins. The broad shift in amateurism rules has been used in a variety of ways. Pickett says he saw it as a chance to be a leader, and to carry on a tradition of keeping the guys in front of him happy.