Ehrmann calls for new measures of manhood

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Mike London
Joe Ehrmann, a product of the 1960s, preached peaceful revolution as the keynote speaker at Catawba’s Lilly Colloquium on Tuesday morning.
In the 1970s, when he was in his 20s, Ehrmann joined Fred Cook, Mike Barnes and John Dutton to form a bruising Baltimore Colts defensive line known as the “Sack Pack.” He helped the Colts rise from the ashes of a 2-12 1974 season to win championships in 1976 and 1977.
An All-American at Syracuse, a first-round draft pick and a man who survived 13 years in the violent trenches of pro football, Ehrmann is now an ordained minister with a message. He spoke at Omwake-Dearborn Chapel, not about the Xs and Os of football, but about the ABCs of life.
Ehrmann’s audience included Catawba’s highest-profile coaches ó football’s Chip Hester, basketball’s Jim Baker and Angie Morton and baseball’s Jim Gantt ó their assistants and many athletes.
Salisbury High football coach Joe Pinyan and boys basketball coach Jason Causby, two men with the perfect platforms to reach young people trying to make the right choices, were there too.
Ehrmann’s doctrine is so radical that five years ago Parade Magazine proclaimed him “The Most Important Coach in America.” He’s also the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book called “Season of Life.”
“Season of Life” recounts Ehrmann’s experiences as a volunteer football coach with the Gilman Greyhounds, a high school team in Baltimore.
The Greyhounds are taught to get after it, to batter opponents ó and to love.
The love stuff is where Ehrmann’s philosophy parts ways with Vince Lombardi.
The Greyhounds aren’t just a team in the conventional sense, they’re a community. The No. 1 job of the Greyhounds’ coaches is to love the players. The priority assignment for the players is to love each other.
Revolutionary? Definitely.
Ehrmann was a huge success by the standard measures of society for the first 29 years of his life.
A fast, 6-foot-4, 260-pound mountain at his physical peak, he was a high school hero growing up in Buffalo. With the Colts he achieved fame, fortune and All-Pro status as a ferocious tackle.
He had a brother 10 years younger who idolized him, and Ehrmann guided his sibling to follow in his footsteps.
Ehrmann was a star in the NFL when his 18-year-old brother was diagnosed with cancer the summer before he was going to begin his own college football career.
Ehrmann spent five months on hospital cots as his brother’s life seeped away. After one last visit to the Colts’ home at Memorial Stadium, he brought him home to die in friendly surroundings.
Ehrmann cites the day he buried his brother on a frigid winter day in Buffalo as the turning point in his life.
“The Colts were there and I had a cousin playing with the Buffalo Bills so the Bills were there too,” Ehrmann said. “After the last amen, people started walking away, and I stood there and wanted to scream, ‘Is this all there is?’ ”
Ehrmann took stock of his own life and realized it had been based on three lies that are perpetuated on American playgrounds as far back as age 8. The lies are that athletic prowess, sexual conquests and monetary success are the measures of manhood. Those lies are constantly reinforced by images from movies, music and magazines.
That Ehrmann’s life prior to the death of his brother was based on beliefs he now saw as false left him hollow. He’d wanted to comfort his brother, but all he knew were tried-and-true locker room sayings such as “hang in there” and “suck it up.” They hadn’t helped.
The second half of Ehrmann’s life began when football ended. Since then, he’s spoken out vigorously on “the crisis of masculinity.”
Ehrmann’s take is that so many lives have been based on the wrong values that injustice, racism and poverty run rampant. He pointed out what while only 4 percent of the world population lives in this country, the U.S. is home to 25 percent of the incarcerated population.
So what’s not a myth? What qualities define a real man if it’s not bank accounts, big houses and athletic trophies?
Hobbled by an artificial hip and countless foot and leg injuries, the white-haired Ehrmann still has a commanding voice that booms, and he didn’t mince words.
The things that matter, he said, are relationships ó giving love and receiving it. Being the best husband, the best brother, the best friend, the best anything.
The other thing that matters is having a purpose.
The basic question: “What have I done today for someone else?”
Answering that question, leads to accepting responsibility, leading with integrity and acting courageously when confronted with injustice.
Ehrmann called on young athletes to become “agents of hope and change” and to make the world a better place.
For years, Ehrmann taught Gilmer Greyhounds his new lessons, and the Hounds aren’t touchy-feely wimps. They’ve been champions on the field.
Younger Catawba coaches probably had never heard of Ehrmann prior to Tuesday’s 30-minute pep talk, but Hester has always believed Catawba’s football program has a higher purpose than beating Lenoir-Rhyne and Carson-Newman on the scoreboard. He’s said often his priority isn’t making the playoffs or turning out NFL draft picks ó it’s molding athletes into young men who are good fathers, good husbands and good citizens.
When Pinyan read “Season of Life,” he couldn’t put it down. The book’s lessons have played a role as he’s turned a struggling program into a stable community that turns out accountable people while it wins football games.
Ehrmann is marching to a different drummer, but some local coaches heard the same beat years ago.