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Starkey: Bittersweet time for Pitt’s Pinkston

Pete Carroll got right to the point.

College football’s hottest coach didn’t need to make elaborate pitches to entice people to play for Southern Cal. He just picked up the phone. And one day five years ago, he called Baldwin High’s star defensive lineman Jason Pinkston and spoke the magical words:

“I want you to be a Trojan.”

Pinkston had offers from Florida, LSU, Pitt and dozens of others. But USC was royalty, and Carroll was the king. Pinkston would have signed in blood even before Carroll’s son, Brennan, paid a visit.

“I was set,” Pinkston recalled. “I said, ‘I’m going to USC.’ ”

He wasn’t the only Pennsylvania prep star leaning west. Carroll was pursuing West Allegheny’s Dorin Dickerson, Franklin’s Nate Byham and Bishop McDevitt’s LeSean McCoy — all of whom would wind up at Pitt, for various reasons.

“Dorin was like, ‘Man, I got an offer from USC, too, let’s go there,’ ” Pinkston said. “Shady, Byham, we were all talking like, ‘We only live once, we might as well go out there and enjoy it.’ ”

One catch: A certain person in Pinkston’s life was way more influential than any football coach, and she wasn’t interested in seeing her son move 2,500 miles away.

Martha Pinkston made that clear one night when Jason said he’d decided on a school and asked, “What do you want me to do?”

“I want you to be close to home,” she said.

Jason never said another word about USC. He was Pitt-bound, without complaint. That’s how much he respected his mother, who made a deep impression on coach Dave Wannstedt during Pitt’s home visit.

“She never asked about football,” Wannstedt recalled. “She only wanted to know about the degree.”

Five years later, Jason is about to earn that degree, in administration of justice. He is about to play his final home game as Pitt’s star left tackle, too, Friday against West Virginia in the 103rd Backyard Brawl.

And he desperately wishes his mother were here to share the experience.

Martha Pinkston died of breast cancer May 11, 2008, just a few months after she was diagnosed. She was 50.

As in every game, Jason will wear a pink plastic band on each wrist, inscribed with the date of his mother’s death. He’d just finished a lifting session that day when a strange feeling overcame him.

“Something said, ‘Check your phone,’ ” he recalled. “I had six missed calls. It was 11:04 a.m., and I said, ‘Man, I know what this call is.’ My dad (James) told me, ‘It happened.’ I was crushed.”

Jason has dedicated tomorrow’s game to his mother and to his long-time roommate and close friend, Greg Romeus, a defensive end whose senior season has been wrecked by injuries and who lost his mother, Fanie, to cancer in September.

“This means everything,” Jason said. “I keep telling guys, ‘Don’t play for yourself, play for the people around you.’ ”

Martha Pinkston would have endorsed that message. Those who knew her best say that through a life of hardship, she was generous and fun-loving. She became a single parent after a divorce while Jason was in high school, then went back to school herself to become a certified nursing assistant.

The youngest of three boys, Jason had a transient childhood. He lived in so many towns around Pittsburgh that he has trouble recounting them. In her final days, Martha would remind Jason that he could be the first in the family to finish college. He is so intent on doing so that he will not bolt school after the season — as many NFL prospects do — but rather take his final two classes in the spring.

A soft-spoken sort, Jason credits a strong support system for his ability to persevere. It includes Pitt’s coaching staff, his grandparents — Marjorie and Harold Gordon, the latter of whom often took young Jason on weekend deer-hunting trips — and the family of close friend Kaitlin Marecic, whose cousin is Stanford football star Owen Marecic.

Kaitlin, a student at Carlow University, dated Pinkston for several years. They remain close. She remembers how Martha could light up a room.

“Just sitting there, we would laugh and laugh,” Marecic said. “She was full of life.”

The little things are what Jason misses most. He knows Romeus is enduring a similarly painful time.

“There’s nothing anyone can tell you to make you feel better, ’cause it’s your mom,” Jason said. “Sometimes, after a long practice you come home and have no one to talk to.

“And that’s who you want to talk to.”


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