Knights of the Gridiron: Part 1

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We think of knights as warriors and rulers, but we don’t often think of the knight as an athlete. Yet knights had their own type of sport called a tournament — not the stylized jousting matches we see in the movies, but a rough-and-tumble game that was essentially football on horseback with each player carrying a sword. The games were played over acres of land covered with trees, rivers and hills, which meant the temptation to cheat must have been almost unbearable. Going out-of-bounds or bringing extra players onto the field (or maybe even sneaking a real weapon into the game instead of an approved “rebated” safety weapon) would have been easily accomplished. We may think of jousting as an honorable and noble sport, but chivalry was often eclipsed by the lure of financial reward and personal renown. Chronicles of medieval tournaments are rife with descriptions of unsavory, brutal, scandalous behavior in the pursuit of “the prize.”

Modern athletes struggle with the same issues, and perhaps no sport is quite as subject to the lure of unprincipled behavior as professional football. While there usually seems to be a fundamental divide between the “athletic integrity” and “victory is its own reward” philosophical camps, former NFL star Joe Ehrmann is teaching players, coaches and administrators alike that you don’t have to give up one to get the other. Ehrmann’s approach to athletic excellence incorporates trust, humility, compassion and a keen awareness of the responsibilities that accompany success — athletic ideals that can be traced back to the Code of Chivalry. Had Ehrmann lived a few centuries ago, he surely would have been seen as a beacon of honor and chivalry in sports; athletes today are lucky to have such a dynamic example of the knightly virtues to follow.

Chivalry, Athletics and False Masculinity

Joe_EhrmannYoung 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 (pictured at right), 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 children.

“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.”

The Solution

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 other-centered, other-focused.”

© 2007 Jeffrey Marx and Parade Magazine

About the author: Pulitzer Prize-winner Jeffrey Marx is the author of [slider title=”Season of Life: A Football Star, A Boy, A Journey to Manhood,”][/slider] a book about Joe Ehrmann, published by Simon & Schuster in 2004.

Joe Ehrmann is the founder of Building Men & Women for Others. He is an inspirational and dynamic speaker and seminar leader, who works with organizations and associations to promote growth, teamwork, effectiveness and individual responsibility. As an educator, motivator, professional speaker and coach for over 25 years, Joe is a champion of causes, change and compassion. Whether through keynotes, workshops or seminars, Joe conveys his unique heartfelt messages with a passionate delivery that inspires introspection and action.

Also in Knights of the Gridiron

  1. Knights of the Gridiron: Part 1
  2. Knights of the Gridiron: Part 2

View the entire series

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