The Door is always open, says Ehrmann

October 27, 1994|By BILL TANTON

The big guy's hair is white now and so is his beard. When he walks, he looks like the ex-pro football player he is.

He limps. He'll get a hip replacement Dec. 12.

This is Joe Ehrmann, a defensive tackle for the Baltimore Colts two decades ago.

I see Joe Ehrmann at high school games. I like high school football. So does he.

"I like high school ball more than pro or college," Ehrmann says. "These kids play football because they enjoy it. But the NFL today . . . it's all money."

It's ironic that Joe Ehrmann would be disenchanted because of the money in football. There was a time -- the year was 1973 -- when his Colts teammates wondered what this rookie out of Syracuse had done to deserve the rich package the team had given him.

Joe laughs when he thinks about it compared to today's numbers.

"I was a first-round draft choice, the 10th guy taken in the draft," he says. "My salary was $22,000. I had a three-year package, including a signing bonus, worth $125,000. Today a first-round pick would get well over $1 million."

Today everything is different.

Today we have athletes earning an average of $1.2 million a year going on strike. We have a rookie pro basketball player asking for a $100 million contract, and his team saying it won't pay him a penny over $70 million.

"You can't dwell on that stuff, man," Joe Ehrmann says. "I try not to think about it. It'll make you cynical."

If anyone has a right to be bothered by the millions lavished on athletes today by owners who seem not to have good sense, it would be Joe Ehrmann.

That's not because he came along too early to reap such riches. That has nothing to do with it. Joe Ehrmann is as selfless as they come.

For the last nine years the Rev. Ehrmann has operated a ministry in East Baltimore for city kids. It's called The Door.

Every day between 100 and 125 boys and girls come to this haven in the 200 block of N. Chester St., seeking and often finding help for lives that are going nowhere.

Yesterday morning, 40 of them were there for classes in something called Life Skills. They would stay for five hours.

Their instructor was 43-year-old Brother Al Moye, an associate pastor at New Fellowship Bible Church near Edmondson Village. Brother Al is a reformed drug addict.

"These kids," says Ehrmann, motioning toward Brother Al's students, "are ninth- and 10th-grade dropouts. They've been written off by society. They're here for hopes and dreams."

So Brother Al teaches them things no one else ever has -- things they're going to need to get jobs and hold on to them, things like dress code, motivation and low-level education such as reading and writing.

"I love it here," says Brother Al, who came to The Door last January after six years at Sinai Hospital as an addiction specialist in the drug dependency unit. "I could have stayed there and been very comfortable but my heart is in working with youth.

"This isn't work. It's a ministry. I'm able to help reconstruct the lives of problem children."

The Door is not able to solve the problems of all who come to it.

"Two of our kids are in jail now," says Brother Al Moye. "I go to jail and advise them. I go to court with them. I'm an evangelist.

"One of our 16-year-old boys was sitting on a bike with a friend right in this neighborhood three weeks ago when someone shot and killed the friend."

This is what Joe Ehrmann deals with every day. This is the work of The Door.

"These kids need so much help," Joe says. "So many kids have no one who cares about them. If one person cares, it makes a big difference."

"All these kids I'm working with are black," says Brother Al, who is also black.

"I tell them that Joe could have taken his work to Dulaney Valley if he'd wanted, but Joe -- a white man -- came here, to the heart of East Baltimore with all the shootings and drugs and violence on these streets. That helps a lot."

Many of the kids at The Door carry guns. "I tell them not to, that it'll only get them in trouble," Ehrmann said, "but they say, 'I have to do it for self-defense.' "

There is more work to be done at The Door than he and his staff can hope to accomplish. The worst part is that financing it is getting more difficult all the time.

"Our annual budget is $600,000," Rev. Ehrmann says. "We've downsized that. We have 15 staff members, full- and part-time. We just had to lay off two of them.

"There are waiting lists for every program we have, but we don't have the staff, the room, the money.

"We get some money from the city and the state and from corporations, but the majority of it comes from individuals.

"There's an anti-urban feeling today. People are saying they've done enough for the inner cities. It's nothing like it was five years ago.

"I was at a convention in Nashville last week and that anti-poor feeling is all over the country. I think you'll see it in these mid-term elections."

And so Ehrmann and his staff work harder than ever to raise funds to continue their work.

"I just got off the phone with Tom Matte," Ehrmann says. "He's arranged for tickets for a whole bunch of our kids to go to the CFLs' game at the stadium Saturday.

"These CFL people have been great to us. Their players have to work in the off-season so they're going to stay here and do some things to help us. That's the history of the Baltimore Colts, man, integrating with the community. The Colt Alumni have been great to us, too."

Joe Ehrmann thanks God that he landed in Baltimore. He says he would have been eaten up in New York or Los Angeles.

"Baltimore keeps you humble, man," he says. "It's still homey."

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