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Coach for Life

Joe Ehrmann takes his message beyond the locker room and into the community.

It doesn’t take Joe Ehrmann long to explode dumb-jock stereotypes. Earlier this year, the former Colts great—who’s been called “the most important coach in America”—gave a TED Talk at Morgan State University that brought the audience to its feet, and some listeners to tears, in a little more than 10 minutes. Of all the thinkers and creative types who spoke that day, he was the only one to get a sustained standing ovation. His coaching workshops at the Patterson Park Youth Sports and Education Center are even more startling. Dressed casually in a blue polo shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes, the 64-year-old Ehrmann exudes a gentle power. His seen-it-all expression and upbeat demeanor suggest sadness and hope, which is disarming in a man so large. He works Eastern and Native-American philosophies, mythology, social activism, Christianity, and African-American history into his talk and often sounds more like a self-help guru, or life coach, than a defensive coach.

Someone once asked, prior to a presentation, if he would be discussing offense or defense, and he responded: “Neither. I’ll be talking philosophy.” And that’s pretty much what he does. Ehrmann’s workshops are required for coaches using the park’s new, multipurpose field and sponsored by Living Classrooms Foundation, which hopes to make his teaching program a citywide model.

Ehrmann tells the dozen coaches assembled at the youth center that sports are a vehicle for social change, which elicits a few puzzled looks. He stresses the importance of making sports co-curricular, rather than extra-curricular, so they become an extension of the school day, and he talks about players’ social and intellectual development and the importance of empathy and kindness.

He then pivots into more emotional, and potentially uncomfortable, territory. He insists that hugs are more effective than the histrionics in heavy rotation on SportsCenter and suggests his listeners ask themselves, “How does it feel to be coached by me?” He pauses a moment before saying there are two kinds of coaches: transactional and transformational. The transactional coach uses his players to meet his own needs. The transformational coach, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, helps people recognize things in themselves they otherwise wouldn’t see.

At this point, you can practically see the lightbulbs going off over the heads of his listeners, as they nod in agreement and scribble notes to themselves. Everyone, it seems, has had these types of coaches, and the memories are so clear that Ehrmann doesn’t have to ask which they’d rather be.

Ehrmann, knowing he’s connected with these men, ups the ante even further by saying they must also confront social justice issues, issues that affect the lives of not only their players, but also the community at large. He touches on economic disparity, racism, sexism, gender violence, homophobia, and how social messaging and warped perceptions of masculinity and femininity adversely affect boys and girls.

He covers a remarkable amount of territory over the course of an hour, but never loses sight of his main point: “The playing field is a field of transformation.”

Ehrmann grew up in Buffalo and came to Baltimore in 1973. “They’re both blue-collar, shot-in-your-beer towns,” he says, sitting in his Hunt Valley office, which is filled, not with sports memorabilia, but with books—the range of titles includes Growing Up in America, The Male Ego, and Dean Smith’s A Coach’s Life.

The Colts selected Ehrmann in the first round of the draft, the tenth pick overall, out of Syracuse. A ferocious defensive tackle, he lined up alongside Mike Barnes, Fred Cook, and John Dutton to form the team’s much-vaunted “Sack Pack.” His anger issues, stemming largely from an abusive father, played well on the football field. Off the field, he became a fixture in Fells Point and drank and drugged away his mental and physical pain.

At the height of Ehrmann’s football fame, his 19-year-old brother, Billy, was diagnosed with cancer and admitted to The Johns Hopkins Hospital. Coming to grips with his brother’s illness had a sobering effect on Ehrmann, who spent the better part of four months confronting death and suffering in a pediatric oncology ward. “It made me question my purpose in life,” he recalls.

A local psychologist gave him a copy of Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. “It was the beginning of a real metamorphosis for me,” recalls Ehrmann, “because Frankl says that the greatest of all human freedoms is the ability to change how you respond to any given situation. No matter what life deals you, you can find meaning in it and add value to it.”

After Billy passed away in 1978, Ehrmann founded Baltimore’s Ronald McDonald House and dedicated it to his brother’s memory. In 1980, his last season with the Colts, he entered the seminary as something of a wounded warrior and emerged an ordained minister committed to social justice. By that time, he was married—he met his wife, Paula, through a radio contest in which he was the “celebrity date”—and winding down his football career. He was also looking to make a difference.

He started preaching at Grace Fellowship Church in Timonium and founded a community center, The Door, in East Baltimore. Middle East was an area plagued by all sorts of urban ills, but Ehrmann didn’t shy from the challenge. In fact, he and Paula moved to nearby Buthcers Hill.

“He cared about standing up for those who were unable to stand up for themselves,” says Paula.

“Playing football gave me the opportunity to cross so many social and economic strata,” he says, “and I wanted to confront the discrepancies between the haves and have-nots.”

One day, he ran into Biff Poggi, an old friend from his Colts days, who was delivering a carload of donated food to The Door’s food pantry. As a teenager, Poggi snuck into the weight room during Colts workouts at Goucher College. Some players grumbled and wanted him tossed out, but Ehrmann befriended him. “Even then, he was reflective and kind,” says Poggi.

After reconnecting at The Door, they stayed in touch and talked about football and philosophy. When Poggi was named head coach at Gilman, he asked Ehrmann to be his defensive coordinator. Ehrmann had hoped to coach at Lake Clifton High School but says the city wouldn’t let him, because he wasn’t a teacher. He accepted Poggi’s offer, which changed his life and set him on his current path.

With Poggi’s blessing, Ehrmann brought his holistic approach, philosophical bent, and empathic worldview to the locker room. “When we first started, Biff got it immediately,” recalls Ehrmann. “We were just coaching out of our hearts and trying to create a team where kids could be real and authentic and become good people. We knew that creating more football players wasn’t the answer to any of society’s problems.”

Writer Jeffrey Marx, a former Colts ball boy, followed Gilman’s 2001 season and documented Ehrmann’s approach in his 2003 book, Season of Life, which turned out to be a bestseller. It gave Ehrmann a national platform. “I started getting calls from all over the country,” he says. “After one or two speaking engagements, I saw the power of that book, and I decided to take the message outside [Gilman], while Biff stayed inside. I’ve been on the road almost 10 years now, speaking and conducting workshops.”

Poggi calls his friend’s work “prophetic,” and Ehrmann’s client list includes the NFL, NCAA, and the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation. But as Matt Hanna, a coach at the Patterson Park workshop notes, “What Joe does is the missing link in a lot of settings. He teaches things that should be common sense.” And Ehrmann himself will tell you the scope of his work has evolved to become “much broader than the sports piece.”

His four children are grown and out of the house, so he can devote more time to expanding his reach. Because his message applies to just about any community setting imaginable (from the boardroom to the classroom), he’s also worked with the Naval and Coast Guard academies, Teach For America, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, family shelters, and companies such as Verizon and Boeing.

He works with Living Classrooms through its Target Investment Zone, which provides a variety of services to East Baltimore neighborhoods. “We’ve admired Joe for many years, and he became a founding partner of that program,” says Living Classrooms President and CEO James Piper Bond, who views Ehrmann’s efforts as “a health-and-wellness initiative more than simply a sports program.”

These days, Ehrmann also focuses a lot of energy on the issues of child sexual abuse and gender violence. After scandals at the likes of Penn State and Vanderbilt, he feels compelled to speak out and raise awareness. “Addressing all these issues is basically the same work I did at The Door, just on a macro level,” says Ehrmann. “You know, you don’t have to be poor to be concerned about poverty. You don’t have to be black to be concerned about racism. You don’t have to be a woman to be concerned about sexism.

“There’s a power in the collective, in learning about and from other people. That’s how you build a team.”