100 in 100: Cherokee County’s Carl Pickens, Pro Bowl receiver

The former Murphy High School and Tennessee Volunteer standout went on to be the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1995

Murphy's Carl Pickens returned to Tennessee to play one season with the Titans after starring with the Volunteers and becoming a top receiver with the Bengals. (John Russell / AP Photo)

North State Journal’s 100 in 100 series will showcase the best athlete from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. From Alamance to Yancey, each county will feature one athlete who stands above the rest. Some will be obvious choices, others controversial, but all of our choices are worthy of being recognized for their accomplishments — from the diamond and gridiron to racing ovals and the squared circle. You can see all the profiles as they’re unveiled here.

Cherokee County

Carl Pickens

Few, if any, high schools in North Carolina have produced as much elite football talent per capita as Murphy, a 1A school in the Smoky Mountains that has won nine state championships in its storied history. Of all those players, none was better than Carl Pickens.

A solidly built 6-foot-2, 200-pound defensive back and receiver, Pickens led the Bulldogs to back-to-back undefeated seasons and 1A state championships in 1986-87. He intercepted 15 passes in his high school career while catching 71 passes for more than 3,000 yards and 24 touchdowns, and he earned Parade All-American recognition in his senior season.


Carl Pickens had 540 receptions for 7,129 yards and 63 touchdowns in his nine-season NFL career, eight of which were with the Cincinnati Bengals. (David J. Phillip / AP Photo)

Because he was also a star basketball player, averaging 27 points per game, Pickens was considered a top recruit in two sports. He clearly made the right decision by concentrating on football and continuing his career at Tennessee, where he caught 109 passes for 1,875 yards and 13 touchdowns in three seasons for the Volunteers before being taken in the second round of the 1992 draft by the Cincinnati Bengals.

Although the Bengals were one of the worst teams in the NFL, Pickens managed to stand out. He was the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in his first season and a Pro Bowl selection in both 1995 — when he led the NFL with 17 receiving touchdowns — and in ’96 — when he caught 100 passes. In 1999, after the Bengals went 4-12, Pickens was let go for expressing his displeasure with coach Bruce Coslett. In releasing him, the team cited a clause in his contract forbidding him from making disparaging public comments about the organization. It became known as “The Carl Pickens Clause.”

Pickens left Cincinnati with 63 touchdown catches, a franchise record until it was broken by Chad Ochocinco in 2010. He played his final season with the Tennessee Titans in 2000, catching 10 passes in nine games.