The Measure Of A Man

What started as a biography became an affirmation of life for a writer, coaches and a Gilman football team that learned love indeed conquers all.

January 28, 2003|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

Life," a hippie sage once said, "is what happens while you're making other plans."

By the time Jeffrey Marx was done writing his new book, Season of Life, about Gilman School football and two of its coaches, Joe Ehrmann and Biff Poggi, he must have understood Jerry Garcia's philosophy all too well.

"I couldn't have foreseen all that happened in the making of this book," he says. "I'm not that talented. The chain of coincidences goes on and on. If this were fiction, I don't think anybody would believe it."

FOR THE RECORD - A quote cited in a story in Tuesday's Sun - "Life is what happens while you're making other plans" - is more widely attributed to John Lennon than it is to Jerry Garcia, as the story reported. The story, about a new book on Gilman School's football program, also misidentified the position once played by Stan White, one of the team's coaches. He was a linebacker. The Sun regrets the errors.

It's not that Marx, a Washington-based author, lacked a good story: In 1974, Marx, a curly-haired 11-year-old, happened to meet Ehrmann, then a star defensive lineman for the Baltimore Colts. The two hit it off and stayed in touch over the years as Marx became a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Ehrmann, a 260-pound bear of a man, reassessed his life, went to theology school and found his calling as a minister. "Let's face it," says Marx, "How often does a famous athlete leave behind the privileges of fame for a life of serving others?"

The answer, as Marx, a frequent Sports Illustrated contributor, knows, is: not very often. And few should be surprised that in Season of Life - being launched nationally by JAM Publishing in Baltimore on Saturday - he mines the power of such a tale.

What few, including Marx, could have seen coming, is the way Ehrmann, the punishing lineman who awed him as a boy, pursues him and shakes him to his core as a man. By the end of Season, Ehrmann and Poggi, his coaching soulmate, have blitzed their own players and the author with the very force that transformed their own lives - love.

What is left is a whole new sense of what it means to be a man.

On the eve of the book's release, Marx marvels at how it has brought his life full circle. "The whole story was unexpected," he says. "I could pinpoint 50 events and ask, `How could that have happened?' And yet without this event, that one would never have taken place. It's almost scary."

Ehrmann, now a pastor at Grace Fellowship Church in Timonium, calls it providence. "It's interesting how we end up sharing our journeys with certain people," he says. "I don't see that as happenstance."

The pair's journey begins in 1974, when Richard Marx, a stoic New York actuary, sends his second son to McDonogh School for a tennis camp. Jeffrey's lessons all come off the court. The NFL's Colts happen to be training at McDonogh that summer, and Jeffrey watches the players every chance he gets. Their reaction is anything but typical.

The quarterback, Bert Jones, speaks to him. Toni Linhart, the kicker, learns his name. Ehrmann, the Colts' first-round draft pick out of Syracuse in 1973, takes note of him, makes him unofficial team go-fer and grants the ultimate token of acceptance: a nickname. Little white kid with a major Afro? "Let's call him `Brillo,'" Ehrmann said.

To Jeffrey, these players were gods, but their real magic had little to do with football.

Take Ehrmann. Marx recalls him as an "enchanting blend of warmth and wittiness," the "glue" of that team. Colts of all backgrounds partied at his home; bikers and barflies were his buddies. He was the team's "go-to guy" for charity work, and he was "always reaching out to pull someone else in," says Marx.

Tennis faded from Marx's life, but the Colts did not. He was their ballboy for four summers. He played long-toss with Jones, got to know the Linharts. Ehrmann kept tabs on his progress in school.

Today, Marx the grown-up can't tell you where the Colts finished in the standings during the middle to late 1970s. He doesn't know how many sacks Ehrmann notched in his 13-year career. But Marx would be taking notes in 2001, his head spinning, as Ehrmann, now a Gilman football coach, addressed his charges.

"I don't care how many wins and losses you have," the massive reverend with the well-trimmed white beard told his players. "It doesn't matter. Twenty years from now, no one's going to remember that stuff at all. What matters is how much you've loved, and been loved by, other people."

The first piece

As Marx recounts it, he thought he'd always stay in touch with Ehrmann. But as the '70s came and went, life intervened. Marx went off to college, then took a job at a newspaper. Ehrmann started an inner-city community center in Baltimore. Marx followed Ehrmann's career, but for years they didn't speak.

Then Marx read, in 2001, that Baltimore planned to raze Memorial Stadium, former home of his beloved Colts. It was time, he decided, for a "where are they now?" story. Part of the plan was to create biographical boxes on dozens of the former players, some who had become bankers, businessmen, restaurateurs.

But Ehrmann didn't fit in a box. A pastor at 4,000-member Grace Fellowship, a coach at Gilman, head of a foundation called Building Men For Others, he contradicted most stereotypes of the typical ex-jock.

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