Scott Farrell comments:
Okay, so love, compassion and chivalry can transform an athlete into a “nice guy,” but we all know where nice guys finish, right? Despite the ultra-agressive rhetoric often used to sell the image of the athlete-warrior, Joe Ehrmann shows us that the vaunted quality of “toughness” may actually be an impediment to success — both in sports and in life. He also reminds us that reputation (an important part of the knightly code) extends far beyond the playing field.
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.”
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 I Die.”
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.
© 2007 Jeffrey Marx and Parade Magazine
About the author: Pulitzer Prize-winner Jeffrey Marx is the author of Season of Life: A Football Star, A Boy, A Journey to Manhood, 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.
Knights of the Gridiron