WHITE SWAN, Wash. — In the halls of White Swan High School or on any football field the Cougars play, Tony Picard is — at 6-foot-4 and 400 pounds — hard to miss.
But, because at that prodigious size he’s playing running back — at least until last Saturday night, when a Class 2B state playoff loss ended the Cougars’ season — senior Tony Picard is hard to miss anywhere.
A Google search for “Tony Picard running back” at 8 a.m. Tuesday produced 633,000 results. Just over two hours later, after both “Good Morning America” and CNN “New Day” broadcast lengthy features on Picard, the same search produced 817,000 results.
Tony Picard didn’t ask or expect any of this. He’s just a 17-year-old — he turns 18 Thursday — who plays running back because his coach, Andy Bush, found him to be pretty nimble and athletic for that great size. Because of that decision, Picard has become an international phenomenon. An Internet craze. He has gone viral.
A YouTube video of his football highlights has been viewed nearly 2 million times. By today, in the aftermath of his national television appearances, that number could be 3 million. Or 4 million.
A feature on Picard on the Bleacher Report site is closing in on 50,000 reads. His story has been featured on Huffington Post, on Fox Sports, on the network websites for ABC and CBS, on USA Today’s website, the New York Post, even the London Daily Mail and The Brazil Sun.
Around Central Washington’s prep football circles, Picard is no secret. He’s been an integral part of the Cougars’ fortunes for three very successful seasons — 9-2 this year after 8-3 and 8-4 seasons, each time reaching the state playoffs.
While he hasn’t been the featured running back on any of those teams — the Cougars have had smaller, quicker runners who have earned all-state mention — Picard has been a reliable short-yardage back. Ya need 4 yards? Give it to the big guy, and he’ll get it for you. This year, he ran for 576 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging nearly 6 yards a carry.
For three years, that was Picard’s humble story. But this fall, a photograph taken of Picard in a game at Bridgeport — the huge running back about to trample a defensive back perhaps a third his body weight — began making the email and Twitter rounds.
Northwest Prep Report, a Portland-based online magazine, contacted Picard via Facebook and put together a feature story and created the YouTube highlight video, and Picard’s renown grew.
It made its way to former Washington Husky and NFL quarterback Brock Huard, whose father, Mike Huard, had begun his state coaches’ Hall of Fame coaching career at White Swan. Last Friday, Huard tweeted the photo to his 16,000 followers, which include numerous media mavens, and the Tony Picard legend took off.
On Saturday night, shortly after the Cougars’ 22-14 season-ending playoff loss to Colfax, Picard’s phone buzzed. Upset over the loss, he didn’t even want to answer it, but he did so reluctantly. On the other end, he says, “was some writer out of ESPN or somewhere.” Picard answered the caller’s questions and figured that was it.
“And then,” he says, “the next day my phone just started blowing up.”
So did Bush’s. He began getting phone calls from area codes he didn’t even recognize, TV producers, online magazines, print reporters, even college football recruiting services wanting to glean what information they could about this 400-pound running back.
“Good Morning America” flew a production crew out on Monday to shoot the feature that ran Tuesday morning. CNN wanted to fly Picard and his parents to New York for an in-studio interview, but Picard’s mother didn’t want to fly so, instead, he and Bush were interviewed in a Seattle television studio for a CNN “New Day” feature that ran nearly 5 minutes.
When they stopped at a restaurant on the way back, the restaurant’s staff — right down to the cooks in the back — all came out to meet this football celebrity whose fame had grown to significantly larger than his personal size.
Some of the instant fame has been good. Picard hopes to play college football, and if nothing else, college recruiters are now very aware of him. He’s also a budding artist, and the player his teammates long ago dubbed “Big Tone” now has a website (www.bigtoneart.com) that admits candidly that while football has brought Picard into the public eye, “His art is something that was discovered during this story.”
Not all of the fame, though, has been pleasant. After the Bridgeport game photo of Picard was featured on ESPN Sportsnation’s Facebook page on Friday, within a day the entry had nearly 30,000 thumbs-up “Likes.”
It also had more than 3,500 replies, some of them crude and cruel, making fun of Picard’s weight or ridiculing his potential as a football player.
On Saturday, Picard himself posted this response:
“To the people trying to put me down it don’t bother me I could care less about all the negative comments I’m just doing what my coach asked me to do so that’s why I’m running the ball and playing nose guard … yeah I’m fat but o well I’m doing what I can … I’m doing what I love and that’s playing football.”
By midday Tuesday, his comment had received more than 2,000 “Likes” and nearly 150 replies, many of them best represented by the most succinct among them: “WELL SAID.”