Tackling news on son earns award for Szott Response to CP diagnosis wins Block Courage prize

March 18, 1997|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

For Dave Szott, the football player, life couldn't have been much better than it was on Thanksgiving Day in 1995.

The veteran Kansas City Chiefs offensive guard was playing on a team with an 11-1 record that went into Dallas to meet a Cowboys team that was 10-2.

"It was a big game on national TV, but that was the last place in the world I wanted to be," Szott said.

That's because for Szott, the husband and father, life couldn't have been much worse.

Szott, 29, had just found out his first son, Shane, who was born the previous February, had been diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a motor disorder that results from damage to the central nervous system. It usually happens from a lack of oxygen before or during the baby's birth.

His son's pediatrician had told Szott that his son would never run on a playground like other kids. He would never follow in Daddy's footsteps to the NFL.

"We went 13-3 and had great success on the field, but it was the toughest year the Szotts had ever been through," Szott said.

The grace under pressure that Szott has showed in the last 18 months while coping with his son's disorder earned him the Chiefs' Ed Block Courage Award in honor of the legendary late Colts trainer.

Szott, one of the 30 winners of the award, one from each NFL team, will be honored tonight at the 19th Ed Block Courage Award Foundation dinner at Martin's West.

For Szott and his wife, Andrea, both born-again Christians, dealing with the crisis brought them closer together.

They grew up in Clifton, N.J., and first met in fifth grade. But they weren't high school sweethearts. They went their separate ways, and she was a fashion designer in New York.

On the day before training camp in 1992, he ran into her biking across Clifton and they started a relationship that led to marriage in 1993.

Shane's disorder was a strain on their storybook marriage.

"If it weren't for our faith in the Lord, we never would have made it. Marriage for young couples is definitely something you have to work at. To have a challenge like this, it can drive you apart. But it brought us closer. I thank God my wife is a battler," he said.

The Block foundation's goal is to open a home for abused children in every NFL city. It already has them in six cities, including the Ravens Courage House at the St. Vincent's Center in Timonium. The recipients are going to visit the center today.

Szott, who will attend the dinner with his wife and his parents, Edward and Kay, said he was touched by being selected for the Block award.

"It's really an honor to be honored by your peers and the trainers who know you the best," he said.

Szott and his wife talk about their son's disorder in the hope that their story will help other parents in dealing with the problem. About 3,000 babies are born in the United States each year with the disorder. With therapy, those with CP can overcome some of its disabling effects.

But then the Szotts are no strangers to disabilities.

Szott's older brother, Kevin, is legally blind because of optic nerve deterioration that started in the fourth grade.

A strength coach at Penn State, Kevin Szott only has his thesis to complete to receive his master's degree in exercise physiology. He tapes reading assignments and takes exams orally.

A Division III All-America wrestler at St. Lawrence, Kevin won his fifth international medal when he took the silver in judo at the Paralympics in Atlanta in 1996.

Kevin has told Dave that he wants to stay in competition until Shane is old enough to make the Paralympics, so they can compete at the same time.

That's the kind of spirit the Szotts are trying to instill in Shane, who just turned 2.

"Life is just one big test," Dave Szott said. "We all go through trials, no matter how big or how small. How you react and deal with those things proves what kind of person you are. We want JTC to treat him just like any other little kid. We want to raise him the way my brother was raised and let him try everything under the sun.

"You go into the hospital and you think you have it so bad and see a kid with a condition that means the parents are going to lose him. We won't lose Shane. The average CP kid is above average in intelligence. He doesn't speak except for five or six words, but we're starting to work on sign language. He knows his mommy and daddy, and he's very receptive."

When Szott, a seventh-round draft pick out of Penn State in 1990, joined the Chiefs, he started Szott for Tots in Kansas City. It was originally designed to help vision-impaired children because of his brother's condition, but he's now expanded the program to those with cerebral palsy.

Fans pledge from $2 to $45 for each touchdown the Chiefs score in a 10-game span.

Szott said he and his wife never feel sorry for themselves.

"Jennifer Montana [ex-quarterback Joe Montana's wife] told us that God gives special children to special people," Szott said. "[Shane] has his own burden and we have our burden, but it's much lighter than his. He still has a lot of challenges he has to go through and overcome."

The Szotts will be there helping him every step of the way.

Pub Date: 3/18/97

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