Every morning when Lou Benfatti walks through the doors of Hopatcong Middle School, he takes a moment to breathe and take in the responsibilities of his job. Benfatti, a former New York Jet, is now the principal of the Sussex County, N.J., school after a post-playing career that has involved coaching, teaching and advising young students.
Benfatti, a Morris County native, played defensive tackle at Penn State under Joe Paterno and was subsequently drafted by the Jets in 1994. After a promising rookie season under head coach Pete Carroll, he went down with a knee injury in 1995 and suffered a scary neck injury in the 1996 preseason, which ended his career.
As an educator now, Benfatti realizes how fortunate he was to have an education to fall back upon after his playing career ended.
"There's nothing better than to use my illustration of staying in school with these students," he said. "I got my education and fulfilled my dream that I had at a young age of being a professional athlete and then I couldn't play any longer. So I had to revert to my education and thankfully I was able to do that."
Dave Szott, the Jets' director of player development and the former guard, was the senior host when Benfatti visited Penn State during his senior year at Morris Knolls High School. Even though they never played together in college or the pros, Szott still knows Benfatti well and could tell what type of person he was during that visit. Both wrestled in high school, so Szott was able to get a read on Benfatti during a lighthearted match in the Nittany Lions' wrestling room.
"At a very young age," Szott said, "you could tell that he listened, was intent and was coachable, in the wrestling room, on the football field and in the world of academia now that he's a manager of a teaching staff and administration in his role as a principal."
At Penn State, Benfatti played in all 49 possible games, was named an All-American and a Lombardi Award finalist, and played in the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl. During his Jets career, he played in 18 games and made 21 tackles, with a career-high nine tackles coming at home against Oakland on Oct. 1, 1995.
Although his career was cut short, Benfatti remains grateful for his chance in the NFL.
"My opportunity to play was fabulous," Benfatti said. "I had some real competition in some guys I got to know and love real well — the Jeff Lagemans, the Paul Frases of the world, Kyle Clifton when he was there. You get to see these guys on TV as a young kid and you get to play with them and learn from them. That was special."
Gaining a perspective that few have and going through an experience with the Jets that he said "showed people's true colors," Benfatti now has plenty of life lessons to impart. His students' parents might remember him as a player, but his students only know about his Jets days secondhand if at all. Regardless, many of them look to him for assistance and help, and Benfatti has the personality and character to handle each situation.
"He's very patient, very understanding and does a great job of connecting," Szott said. "I have an old rule that I try to live by: 'Rules without relationship equals rebellion.' You have to relate to the kids and let them know that you care in looking out for their best interests before they'll willingly listen to any rules that you might have in place. I know with him, that's the way he approaches it."
Benfatti and his son made a recent trip to the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center in Florham Park, and he grew slightly Jets green with envy over the luxurious player accommodations. He's stayed in the area and followed the Jets since his playing days, and he's excited about the upcoming season.
"It's going to be interesting," Benfatti said. "As any new season is, it's a matter of getting the players to jell and be the best that they can be by the end of the last preseason game. It's awesome to watch Mark Sanchez come in and now he has some new added weapons with LaDainian Tomlinson and some of the guys up front. It's going to be great to see."