Sunday, March 6, 2011
He Turns Boys Into Men
By Jeffrey Marx
Young faces usually filled with warmth and wonder are now taut with anticipation and
purpose. Eyes are lasers. Hearts are pounding. This is nothing unusual for the final
minutes before a high school football game. But a coach and his players are about to
share an exchange that is downright foreign to the tough-guy culture of football.
The coach, Joe Ehrmann, is a former NFL star, now 55 and hobbled, with white hair and
gold-rimmed glasses. Still, he is a mountain of a man. Standing before the Greyhounds
of Gilman School in Baltimore, Ehrmann does not need a whistle.
“What is our job as coaches?” Ehrmann asks.
“To love us!” the Gilman boys yell back in unison.
“What is your job?” Ehrmann shouts back.
“To love each other!” the boys respond.
The words are spoken with the commitment of an oath, the enthusiasm of a pep rally.
This is football?
It is with Ehrmann. It is when the whole purpose of being here is to totally redefine what it means to be a man.
This is lofty work for a volunteer coach on a high school football field. It is work that makes Ehrmann the most important coach in America.
In his eighth season at Gilman, Ehrmann’s résumé is anything but ordinary for a
defensive coordinator. After 13 years in professional football, most of them as a
defensive lineman for the Baltimore Colts, he retired in 1985 and began tackling much
more significant challenges. As an inner-city minister and founder of a community
center known as The Door, Ehrmann worked the hard streets of East Baltimore. He also
co-founded a Ronald McDonald House for sick children and launched a racial reconciliation project called Mission Baltimore. Now he’s a pastor at the 4000-member
Grace Fellowship Church and president of a national organization that supports abused
“He’s a lot of things to a lot of people,” says Maryland Gov.. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. “He’s really an opinion leader. And what I love about Joe—it’s not just the messages. It’s the messenger. He’s a very unique man. Gentle. Principled. Committed. And effective.”
The Challenge for Men
Aside from the X’s and O’s of football, everything Ehrmann teaches at Gilman stems
from his belief that our society does a horrible job of teaching boys how to be men and that virtually every problem we face can somehow be traced back to this failure. That is why he developed a program called Building Men for Others, which has become the signature philosophy of Gilman football.
The first step is to tear down what Ehrmann says are the standard criteria—athletic
ability, sexual conquest and economic success—that are constantly held up in our
culture as measurements of manhood.
“Those are the three lies that make up what I call ‘false masculinity,’” Ehrmann says. “The problem is that it sets men up for tremendous failures in our lives. Because it gives us this concept that what we need to do as men is compare what we have and compete with others for what they have.“
As a young boy, I’m going to compare my athletic ability to yours and compete for
whatever attention that brings. When I get older, I’m going to compare my girlfriend to yours and compete for whatever status I can acquire by being with the prettiest or the coolest or the best girl I can get. Ultimately, as adults, we compare bank accounts and job titles, houses and cars, and we compete for the amount of security and power that those represent.“
We compare, we compete. That’s all we ever do. It leaves most men feeling isolated
and alone. And it destroys any concept of community.”
Ehrmann offers a simple but powerful solution. His own definition of what it means to be a man—he calls it “strategic masculinity”—is based on only two things: relationships and having a cause beyond yourself.
“Masculinity, first and foremost, ought to be defined in terms of relationships,” Ehrmann says. “It ought to be taught in terms of the capacity to love and to be loved.. It comes down to this: What kind of father are you? What kind of husband are you? What kind of coach or teammate are you? What kind of son are you? What kind of friend are you? Success comes in terms of relationships.
And then all of us ought to have some kind of cause, some kind of purpose in our lives that’s bigger than our own individual hopes, dreams, wants and desires. At the end of our life, we ought to be able to look back over it from our deathbed and know that somehow the world is a better place because we lived, we loved, we were othercentered, other-focused.”
The Way We Learn
How is all of this taught within the context of football?
From the first day of practice through the last day of the season, Ehrmann and his best friend, Head Coach Biff Poggi, bombard their players with stories and lessons about being a man built for others.
They stress that Gilman football is all about living in a community. It is about fostering relationships. It is about learning the importance of serving others. While coaches elsewhere scream endlessly about being tough, Ehrmann and Poggi teach concepts such as empathy, inclusion and integrity. They emphasize Ehrmann’s code of conduct for manhood: accepting responsibility, leading courageously, enacting justice on behalf of others.
“I was blown away at first,” says Sean Price, who joined the varsity as a freshman and is now a junior. “All the stuff about love and relationships—I didn’t really understand why it was part of football. After a while, though, getting to know some of the older guys on the team, it was the first time I’ve ever been around friends who really cared about me.”
Four hours before each game, the Gilman players file into a meeting room for bagels,
orange juice and Building Men for Others 101. Ehrmann and Poggi tell their players they expect greatness out of them. But the only way they will measure greatness is by the impact the boys make on other people’s lives.
Ultimately, the boys are told, they will make the greatest impact on the world—will bring the most love and grace and healing to people—by constantly basing their actions and thoughts on one simple question: What can I do for you?
That explains the rule that no Gilman football player should ever let another student— football player or not—sit by himself in the school lunchroom. “How do you think that boy feels if he’s eating all alone?” Ehrmann asks his players. “Go get him and bring him over to your table.”
There are other rules that many coaches would consider ludicrous. No boy is cut from
the Gilman team based on athletic ability. Every senior plays—and not only late in
lopsided games. Coaches must always teach by building up instead of tearing down. As
Ehrmann puts it in a staff notebook: “Let us be mindful never to shame a boy but to
correct him in an uplifting and loving way.
”Whenever Ehrmann speaks publicly about Building Men for Others—usually at a
coaching clinic, a men’s workshop or a forum for parents—someone inevitably asks
about winning and losing: “All this touchy-feely stuff sounds great, but kids still want to win, right?”
“Well, we’ve had pretty good success,” Ehrmann says. “But winning is only a byproduct
of everything else we do—and it’s certainly not the way we evaluate ourselves.”
Win for Life
Unless pressed for specifics, Ehrmann does not even mention that Gilman finished
three of the last six seasons undefeated and No. 1 in Baltimore. In 2002, the
Greyhounds ranked No. 1 in Maryland and climbed to No. 14 in the national rankings..
Much more important to Ehrmann is the way that his team ends each season when
nobody else is watching. Before the last game, each senior stands before his
teammates and coaches to read an essay titled “How I Want To Be Remembered When
Here is something linebacker David Caperna—reading from his own “obituary”—said
last year: “
David was a man who fought for justice and accepted the consequences of his actions.
He was not a man who would allow poverty, abuse, racism or any sort of oppression to
take place in his presence. David carried with him the knowledge and pride of being a
man built for others."
The most important coach in America sat back and smiled. Win or lose on the field of
play, Joe Ehrmann had already scored the kind of victory that would last a lifetime..
To Be A Better Man:
Recognize the “three lies of false masculinity.” Athletic ability, sexual conquest and economic success are not the best measurements of manhood.
Allow yourself to love and be loved. Build and value relationships.
Accept responsibility, lead courageously and enact justice on behalf of others. Practice the concepts of empathy, inclusion and integrity.
Learn the importance of serving others. Base your thoughts and actions on “What can I
do for you?”
Develop a cause beyond yourself. Try to leave the world a better place because you
Posted by Shane Dreiling at 9:19 AM