By Ken Reed
As a kid, I picked my sports idols based on how far and how dramatically they hit home runs (Reggie Jackson), how cool-sounding their names were (Roman Gabriel, Bob McAdoo), how sweet their uniforms looked (Roger Staubach), and how many championships they won (Bill Russell).
So, given the shallowness of my logic in choosing sports heroes as a kid, I can certainly understand why young people today idolize the likes of Jason Giambi, Barry Bonds, Ray Lewis and Kobe Bryant. However, from my current perspective (as a maturing adult or aging geezer, take your choice), I can’t stand anything about these me-first type of athletes.
Today, my sports heroes are athletes and coaches who exhibit (or exhibited) great character on and off the field (John Wooden, Jackie Robinson, Cal Ripken, Dean Smith, Billie Jean King, Byron Nelson, Tony Dungy, David Robinson, Phil Mickelson, Julie Foudy, Grant Hill, Annika Sorenstam).
But I now have a new sports idol, one that transcends even that illustrious group. In fact, calling him a “sports” idol is demeaning. This guy is a champion human being. As good as it gets. His name is Joe Ehrmann and he’s a former All-Pro lineman with the Baltimore Colts — but that’s the least of his accomplishments in life.
Ehrmann once was the stereotypical pro jock. He partied hard and defined himself by his athletic accomplishments, sexual conquests and the amount of money in his bank account. His turning point was the premature death of his younger brother. Ehrmann began a quest for the true meaning of life. He gradually transitioned from self-centered hedonist to other-centered humanitarian. Eventually, he would start a foundation called Building Men for Others and become the defensive coordinator for Gilman School in Baltimore.
I discovered his remarkable story by picking up a book called Season of Life by Jeffrey Marx. I’m very thankful I did. It’s simply one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read. I was only up to p.33 when I realized this wasn’t going to be your typical book about a macho football coach. Ehrmann was about to speak to a football clinic filled with about two hundred high school coaches when one coach asked him, “You gonna be talking about offense, or defense?” Ehrmann responded, “Philosophy. I’ll be talking about how to help boys become men within the context of sports.” The other coach, expecting a lecture on football X’s and O’s, looked at him inquisitively before slowly walking away.
Ehrmann got up to give his presentation and quickly got to his main point: the most critical issue facing our society is the distorted concept of what it means to be a man. “If we don’t fix our understanding, and get some proper definition of masculinity and manhood, I don’t think we can address other issues,” said Ehrmann.
He then began to rip what he calls the “false masculinity” pervading our culture; the three components of which he described as: athletic ability, sexual conquest and economic success. After discounting that model, he described his paradigm for being a man.
First and foremost, true masculinity is about developing and maintaining relationships, according to Ehrmann. Greatness is measured by the impact you make on other people’s lives. His contention is that the problem with males is that we compare and compete but we don’t really connect.
Here’s Coach Joe Ehrmann in a nutshell:
“[Masculinity] ought to be taught in terms of the capacity to love and to be loved. It’s gonna come down to this: What kind of father were you? What kind of husband were you? What kind of coach or teammate were you? What kind of son were you? What kind of brother were you? What kind of friend were you?
“Success comes in terms of relationships. And I think the second criterion – the only other criterion for masculinity – is that 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. Life’s about relationships and having a cause bigger than yourself. Simple as that.”
Wow! I would’ve loved to have been sitting in that football clinic, looking at the faces of all those macho coaches, when Ehrmann was laying that on ‘em!
How does that philosophy translate into a coaching style? Listen to Coach Ehrmann send his players on the field before a game:
“What is our job as coaches?” he asked.
“To love us,” the boys yelled back in unison.
“What is your job?” Ehrmann fired back.
“To love each other,” replied the team.
What would Vince Lombardi think? Didn’t Lombardi always believe you had to treat players like dogs to reach the pinnacle of success?
Speaking of success, this team can’t possibly win football games, right? Well, the Gilman School football program wins and wins big. They’re constantly in the top 10 in the Maryland state high school rankings, including two undefeated seasons in 1998 and 1999. At the time of the book’s printing, they’d won four of the last five league titles.
But at Gilman they’re teaching the Game of Life, not just football. Nobody gets cut. Everybody plays – and plays in the first half when the game’s still in doubt. Ehrmann and the rest of the Gilman staff focus more on building character and teaching sportsmanship than the proverbial X’s and O’s. They want to foster relationships, build a football family and maximize each player’s talent.
“God gives each person X amount of talents,” explained Ehrmann. “The question isn’t really how many talents you’ve been given. That’s the sovereignty of God. The real question is what you do with the ones you have. Some of us get paralyzed when we feel we don’t have ‘as much as’ or [aren’t] ‘as good as’ someone else. But the person we really want to honor is the one who maximizes whatever it is he has.”
Toward the end of one practice, Ehrman told the boys:
“You’re practicing like you really love each other. You’re pushing each other, helping each other get better … finally practicing like you really love each other. It makes all the difference in the world. And it makes me really proud of you.”
Imagine. A coaching philosophy based on love. Powerful stuff. The world of sports – and the world at large – certainly needs more of this.
Pick up the book.
— Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of FansPrint
- Ken Reed appears on KGNU Community Radio in Colorado (at 02:30) to discuss equality in sports and Title IX.
Ken Reed appears on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour (at 38:35) to discuss his book The Sports Reformers: Working to Make the World of Sports a Better Place, and to talk about some current sports issues.
- Ken Reed's Author Page on Amazon
- League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.