Mike Tannenbaum with Dave Szott
The National Football League's player development plan for rookies has come a long way. When Jets player development director Dave Szott was just a rookie with the Chiefs in 1990, he had no idea what to expect.
"It was like a deer in the headlights. I remember showing up at Arrowhead Stadium for my first minicamp and walking around the locker room looking around," he said. "The first guy who said hi to me was Mike Webster."
Even though the greeting from the future of the Hall of Famer was comforting, Szott, a seventh-round guard from Penn State, was not prepared for the NFL. If you said player development 20 years ago, most people probably thought you were referring to a strength and conditioning program.
"This became a league-mandated position in '92, but there was no financial education, no background on community service or PR classes for guys," Szott said. "It was kind of a don't-put-your-foot-in-your-mouth mentality."
But the landscape for rookies has changed. While many veterans are enjoying their vacations far away from Weeb Ewbank Hall, this year's rookie class is here with Szott, who had been the team chaplain for two years and in April was announced by head coach Eric Mangini as the team's director of player development.
Szott pretty much owns every minute of their day, structuring a calendar to prepare each young Jet for the world of football and, ultimately, the world.
Valuable League Initiatives
Financial education is mandated by the league. Last week, Fairleigh Dickinson University personnel visited the rookie class and taught lessons on investing basics and accounting. Szott also brought in team controller Mike Minarczyk for an eye-popping presentation.
"They were astounded when they found out they were going to be losing 50 cents to the dollar when they put in their agents' fees and everything else," Szott said of the '08 class. "So I started there and had them show me a budget. I took them over on a bus to New Jersey and looked at apartment complexes, so they know what their housing costs will be if they make the team."
Under another league mandate, the Jets rookies visited the Pro Football Hall of Fame a couple of weeks ago. Szott, who played 14 years, his final two with the Jets, had one of the franchise's greatest players assist him in Canton, Ohio.
"We had Joe Klecko on the trip, talking about the past and about the legacy," he said. "Joe made $21,000 his rookie year, led the league in sacks and had to get a job the Monday after the Sunday game against Philadelphia."
Players like Klecko paved the way for new talents like Erik Ainge (today's rookie minimum salary is $295,000). The Jets' fifth-round pick from Tennessee wasn't exactly thrilled when he initially heard the rookies wouldn't have a day off and instead would have to fly to Canton. But the afternoon ended up being a terrific experience for the young signalcaller.
"You get there, walk around, and you see the guys you watched growing up and all the guys my dad talked about when he was growing up, and you see all the busts and the faces and all that," Ainge said.
"It makes you realize how important and unimportant we are because the game is going to go on without Erik Ainge or Dustin Keller or Vernon Gholston or Chad Pennington — the game is still going to go on regardless of whether we're here or not. That makes you want to work that much harder and do that much extra because you want to be in there someday."
Introduction to the Community
Back home in New York, the fresh-faced Jets have made a number of charity appearances. On Wednesday afternoon, Ainge and Keller, the first-round selection from Purdue, visited patients at St. Mary's Hospital for Children in Bayside, Queens. The entire class has participated in a couple of lupus walks and they were all captains at the Empire Challenge at Hofstra on Tuesday evening.
"I like events like the lupus walk and the high school football game where you get a chance to interact with people and let them know you do care," said Gholston, the sixth overall selection in the draft.
Szott's slate does include carrots. Despite the Commerce Bank Golf Championship taking place at nearby Eisenhower Park, he was able to get his group down the street Wednesday for golf lessons followed by a quick nine holes. For those who are fortunate enough to make the Jets' roster, many will be asked to participate in outings.
And for those who never make it to the NFL, the ability to play golf and network is never a bad skill to have.
"I have 19 rookies here and this is the first time I've let them off campus pretty much," Szott said. "We've kept them pretty busy since they showed up in May. They're all excited and we've had all levels — from guys who've never held a golfclub to Ainge, who's been playing since he was 8 and he's a very accomplished player."
Football Always in Focus
Golf might have been a nice day trip but football remains the focus. In addition to the character-building activities, Szott makes sure these freshmen are familiar with the Jets' video/computer applications.
"Essentially my goal is to have them up to speed with the knowledge of their position and the system they're playing in, so ultimately they can walk into camp and try to be as competitive as possible against the veteran who's at their position right now," Szott said. "If we get them at a place where they can compete at that level, then it's pushing everyone else."
The lives of first-year players are not glamorous in June. They live in dormitories at Hofstra and have to meet daily curfew checks at 10:30 p.m. The constant interaction has forced the group to be close. But sometimes boys will be boys.
"Considering we are around each other 24/7, we really haven't had any issues. Obviously there's a little jawing here or there, but we're competitive and most of that came from when we played softball together," Ainge said. "We are all so competitive that we were out there yelling at each other and sliding cleats up into second base.
"We have a lot of fun together, though. I don't think you could pair it up any better because we're all getting along."
Szott has enjoyed getting to know this group.
"These guys have done a great job and it's really a testament to our player personnel group and our scouts and everyone who has done the research on these guys," he said. "These are very high-character people. I haven't had an issue with a single one of the them."