A tough-guy tackle of the Baltimore Colts in the 1970s, Joe Ehrmann turned his life over to God and became a Christian minister after his professional football days. Last week, following the Freeh report on Penn State and Joe Paterno, Ehrmann sent out this Tweet: "My faith position affirms there r no unpardonable sins. But PSU leadership that knew re Sandusky n did nothing is as close as u can get."
This wasn't just another disgusted American commenting on the report's conclusion that Paterno, the legendary (and late) coach, and other officials at Penn State had shown a "total and consistent disregard" for the victims of longtime assistant football coach and convicted predator Jerry Sandusky.
Ehrmann speaks from a highly informed position on the subject of abuse.
He devoted several years to an urban ministry focused on stemming violence among young men in Baltimore. That was followed by the establishment of two programs — one on masculinity and violence, the other on coaching — that made him a sought-after speaker and earned him praise (on the cover of Parade magazine) as "the most important coach in America."
He helped coach football at Gilman School, and a book about his approach to the boys on that team — "building men for others" — became a best-seller.
And Joe Ehrmann has one other point of authority on the subject of child sexual abuse: He is a survivor of it.
Ehrmann decided to reveal that fact last year on page 19 of "InSideOut Coaching," his book about what he calls the "transformational powers" of sports. It took him nearly 50 years to talk about the incident, and he started with his wife, Paula Ehrmann, a psychologist and co-founder in Coach For America, an instructional program for coaches.
The long path to where Joe Ehrmann is in life — 63 years old, white-haired and professorial, preaching a rough-hewn, now refined philosophy about sports, coaching and character — was marked by years of introspection and tough emotional breakthroughs.
From his relationship with his iron-fisted father, to the death of his brother, to his struggles with drugs and alcohol, Joe Ehrmann has always used his life story to connect with those he teaches.
It's in his book that he finally tells of the sexual attack, and if anyone needs help in appreciating the depth and permanence of pain inflicted by men like Jerry Sandusky, it's revealed in a relatively short passage.
Ehrmann was 12 years old, playing tag with friends at the edge of some pines on a church campground south of his native Buffalo, N.Y. It was an autumn evening, and the boys played until after nightfall. At some point, two men approached the boys, chased them, caught Ehrmann, and punched him and kicked him.
"The men dragged me by my wrists to a nearby shack and it was like being taken to a slaughterhouse," Ehrmann writes, describing how he was raped. "I remember lying on the ground for a long time after those men were gone, wondering how I could possibly go back to camp. What had just happened to me? At the age of 12, I certainly didn't know it was called sodomy or that such a vicious thing could be done to a boy. All I can remember thinking was: What would my father say? ...
"For decades, I never spoke of what happened in that shack."
Ehrman says the rape left him with a "shame-driven sense of manhood" that pushed him to become a tough-guy All-American at Syracuse, a professional player with the bygone Colts and "one of the unhappiest 'successful' men you could ever find."
Ehrmann turned to drugs and alcohol and hurtled toward what he calls "an incoherent adulthood."
All these years later, preaching the gospel of character-building in sports, Ehrmann frequently returns to the subject that makes so many Americans uncomfortable — the sexual abuse of children. He cites studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that show millions of American men — as many as 1 in 5 — have been victims of some form of child abuse or neglect.
That's a mountain of human pain, most of it repressed.
We don't pay enough attention to this realm of trauma, Joe Ehrmann says — the abuse of children and the abused children who become adults and try to function in this world.
Since he revealed his own nightmare, numerous men have approached him at his public speaking engagements to say they were victims of sexual abuse, too.
Often, Ehrmann says, men in some form of misery — drug addiction, feeling like social misfits, getting depressed, thinking about suicide — have abuse in their histories. "We tend not to think of it as a root cause of problems," Ehrmann says, "but we need to talk about it. You can't repress it. Men think that by repressing it, they're in control of it. But you can't, because it ends up controlling you. You end up in silence and secrecy and self-loathing, and many victims end up carrying the pain for a lifetime."