Thursday, April 3, 2008

Building Better Men

Tonight I had the distinct honor of listening to and then meeting a man of tremendous principle.
Joe Ehrmann was a professional football player for 13 years, mostly with the Baltimore Colts. After he lost his younger brother, to whom he had been more of a father than brother, to cancer at the tender age of 19, Joe reevualated his life and began a new journey. He is responsible for a number of community and society building initiatives that have had a positive impact on countless lives. Among them are The Door, a community center in inner Baltimore dedicated to addressing poverty and racism, and Building Men for Others, a program aimed at creating a better civilization by teaching boys how to be better men. Oddly enough, coming from a former NFL star, this is done by trying to exorcise all the myths and stereotypes that are typically held up as manly - physical prowess, sexual conquest, and material wealth, and instead raising successful relationships up to the level of being one's greatest accomplishment. He also coaches a high school football team in the Baltimore area, teaching the young men that success is measured more in the strength of their relationships than in the win-loss column. In addition he stresses serving the community, and placing the improvement of the human state above the improvement of one's own lot in life. It is his belief that you must have a cause bigger than yourself. Ehrmann so strongly believes in his mission that, when his kids were young, he moved his family to an inner city neighborhood just blocks from The Door, so his kids would grow up experiencing an empathy for those living in poverty that can only come from being close to it.
A little over a year ago I was burned severely in an on-the-job accident. I suffered 2nd degree burns over almost my entire face. The 1st Saturday after I came home, almost all of the tournament baseball team I had been working with showed up at my house and spent over an hour just hanging out, cracking jokes, ragging on each other, and showing their concern. This touched me deeper than you can imagine. I was NOT a pretty sight and I know it made some of them terribly uncomfortable. Yet this group of about a dozen 13-14 year old boys with much better things to do on a Saturday afternoon just hung out with the old fart who coaches them. They also brought me a book which they all signed. It was "Season Of Life", the story of Joe Ehrmann.
The book was written by Jeffrey Marx, and works in the story of his own relationship to his father, but the real story here is Ehrmann. The writer follows Ehrmann and his Gilman High team through a season. The players are taught that masculinity is being able to look each other in the eye and say I love you, without being afraid. It's really hard to imagine a squad of high school boys who hear this at the end of their pre-game pep talk -
"What is our job as your coaches?"
Boys - "To love us!"
"What is YOUR job"
Boys - "To love each other!"
I wish I had what it would take to force a bunch of young men to say that every day.
Ehrmann spoke tonight of the definition of masculinity, what it means to be a man, then about the definition of feminine and what it means to be a woman. Naturally many people immediately thought - "here comes the double standard, the old difference". But he quelled that thought quickly by saying the definitions are the same. That being a man and being a woman are both about being human, and having meaningful relationships without seeing them as shameful or a sign of weakness. That we lift all of humanity when we find a cause bigger than ourselves and place our contribution to the advancement of that cause ahead of our own physical comfort. He talked about the lies that all young people are subjected to at a very young age. The lies stressing first physical strength, then sexual conquest, and lastly material possessions as the keys to a man's success, and those stressing first appearance, then the aquicision of a man, and lastly deferment to men as keys to a woman's success. And he called all them "flat out lies"
I stated earlier that I wish I could make myself put these issues out on the table with my team. That would take as much courage as it would for the 13 year old to tell his teammate he loves him. It's a goal I will now strive toward. At least I can give myself some credit for steps in the right direction even before reading "Season Of Life".
I have always, well, for over 15 years anyway, ended my practices with a "thought for the day." I always try to choose a quote or saying that can be tied to something on the field, but also has a deeper meaning off the field. When I am coaching guys a little older, as I am this year and have been for the last 3 or 4 years, I try to make it a little deeper. After listening to Joe Ehrmann tonight, I will not be as shy as I have in the past about really getting philosophical with them. These boys are old enough to get it, and they need to be getting it. As Ehrmann points out, they have been bombarded with the message that they have to be bigger, stronger, and better in competition or they are failures. I have always tried to teach that the competition is more about improving themselves than defeating the opponent, and the wins will take care of themselves if they make sure no one gives more effort than they do. Through sheer repetition, though, I wonder if my "thoughts of the day" have become stale, and if I'm sending the message I want to. Sometimes I "mail it in" at the end of practice, simply quoting a line and throwing in a simple sentence or two of explanation and ignoring any looks of confusion I see. I have resolved to re-address my choices for daily messages, and to be better at stimulating serious thought. Joe Ehrmann has inspired me to be better at building men.
After his speech, I approached Joe and told him how much I had enjoyed the book and how important I thought his message was. I showed him the copy that my team had brought to me with all their boyish signatures on the inner sleeve and mentioned the visit they had paid while I was weak and down. He said something that meant a lot to me. He said that no gang of teenage boys would make that visit if I had not had some influence in their lives, and signed my book - "To Coach B, To a Builder Of Men For Others".
It will get a little more prominence on the bookshelf now :)

No comments: