The rain was pouring down outside the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center, so the Jets were holding practice on the turf inside their fieldhouse. As pads clashed and helmets crunched during running drills, suddenly the action stopped as rookie guard Charlie Tanner crashed to the ground — with a teammate or two accidentally falling on top of him.
It was clear Tanner was hurt, and no one moved to his aid faster than Dave Szott.
"I spend a tremendous amount of time with each rookie class," said Szott, the Jets' director of player development. "We spend literally every day from the time they show up in mid-May to the time they leave in July, about seven or eight weeks there, where every day we have some type of programing. So I know these guys really, really well."
Szott has the gameballs he received during his 14-year NFL career displayed in his office to remind the players he mentors that he, too, was in the same position as they. From getting rookies set up with their first apartments to advising older veterans when and how to retire, Szott has a major impact on the lives of each player who steps through the Jets' doors in Florham Park, N.J.
"Szott is a great guy," tight end Dustin Keller said. "He's kind of the jack of all trades around here. Anything you need, he's there to help you out. No matter what time it is, he's always there. It doesn't matter if you're Sanchez being the fifth pick or an undrafted guy. He treats everybody the same and he'll go above and beyond to do anything for these guys."
Tanner's pain is something Szott could understand, since he suffered injuries during his career as well, including during his time as a Jet from 2002-03. After spending 11 highly productive seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, Szott played one year with the Washington Redskins before joining the Jets. The Clifton, N.J., native and Penn State product was a two-time Ed Block Courage Award winner and started 160 of the 177 games he played in his career.
During his time in Kansas City, Szott made an indelible impression on current Jets fullback Tony Richardson.
"He was a tremendous leader for us in Kansas City both on the field and off the field," Richardson said. "Now being here and having the opportunity to work with him has been the icing on the cake for my career. He's an awesome guy."
In fact, Richardson and Szott once lived together during the offseason and Richardson credits Szott with being the catalyst for a serious and lasting recommitment to his faith. Szott has the versatility to work with all aspects of players lives. Current Jets trust him because he goes extra lengths to be there, including visiting injured players. Szott dropped in on DE Ropati Pitoitua after the Jets' second preseason game against the Carolina Panthers to get a gauge of where Pitoitua, who suffered a season-ending Achilles' injury, was emotionally, physically and mentally.
"I help guys sift through their thoughts, their feelings, where they're at in their career," Szott said. "What you can be and what can you give to us on the field and in the locker room. The leadership is definitely instrumental in success because you have to bring these young players along and conveying those things to the older guys. Sometimes you just think of football, football, football. How can you add in other areas?"
In a sense, Szott creates a personal continuing education program, encouraging players to mature and grow in a variety of ways. Through taking the players to the NFL's Rookie Symposium to going fishing to simply spending time with them, Szott gets a pulse on every player at the facility and has a chance to connect with them.
One player he's become extremely close with is DT Kris Jenkins, who did a lot of soul-searching this offseason. Szott said that Jenkins has plenty of football left in his career and Jenkins spoke highly of the man to whom he can turn for advice.
"Szott is like the 13th apostle," Jenkins said. "He got dropped into this locker room by the Lord himself just for the sake of helping guys out with anything they need. I'm talking about as far as emotional stuff, family things. Szott is here to make sure players develop."
Each player on the New York Jets is different, which is why Szott needs to get to know them all personally to figure out the best course of action for each. It takes a lot of time and effort, and it seems as though Szott is all at once focused on his responsibilities but calm and generous with his time. It's rare to see him without a smile on his face, even as he's juggling various duties.
"In my role," Szott said, "not every player development director has the support and resources that the Jets have allowed and given me. From Mr. Johnson to Mr. Tannenbaum to Rex Ryan, they allow me to really maximize this role with what the league intended it to be. With that regard, a lot of the success I do have in this position is due to the support they give me."