"Season of Life:  a football star, a boy, a journey to manhood"
by Jeffrey Marx

Young faces usually filled with warmth and wonder were now taut with anticipation and purpose. Eyes were lasers. Hearts were pounding. It was nothing unusual for the explosive combination of testosterone and youth to unleash a wild display of emotions in the minutes leading up to the start of a high school football game -- and this was no ordinary game for the boys of Gilman School. This was the season opener, being played in front of three thousand screaming fans, and it featured the type of marquee matchup typically saved for a championship contest at the end of a year. Gilman was the top-ranked high school team in all of Maryland. Its opponent was second-ranked DeMatha.

The Gilman boys were decked out in crisp white jerseys and plain gray helmets turned shiny silver by the stadium lights. They were not only schoolboys now. They were also the mighty Greyhounds. The greyhounds paced. They gnashed teeth. They pounded one another on the shoulder pads.

"Pancakes," one of the senior captains growled, meaning he wanted to see opponents knocked flat on the ground. "I'm looking for pancakes."

A sophomore linebacker, normally a very polite and respectful fifteen-year-old, spoke from behind an overdone smearing of eye black that transformed his face into something of a Halloween mask: "They don't want to ask us any questions, 'cause I promise you, we're gonna give 'em some answers."

"Time to get busy!" another boy shouted toward the Friday night sky.

Joe Ehrmann had already seen and heard it all too many times for any of this to affect him a whole lot. He'd seen and heard it as an All-American defensive lineman -- big mountain of a man, six-foot-four, 260 well-packed pounds -- at Syracuse University. He'd seen and heard it throughout his thirteen years as a professional football player, most of them as a star with the Baltimore Colts, one of the most storied franchises in the history of the National Football League. He'd seen and heard it during five years of coaching at Gilman.

At the age of fifty-two, Joe was no longer fazed by the specific circumstances of any single game. No victory or defeat, no matter how glorious or excruciating for his team, would ever eclipse the only reason he was there. What do points on a scoreboard have to do with teaching boys how to be men of substance and impact? Nothing. And that explained the absolute calmness with which Joe now walked toward his huddled team for final comments just before the start of the 2001 season.

Actually, Joe did not walk so much as he shuffled, gingerly calculating his steps, which sometimes moved him side to side almost as much as they advanced him. Joe was prematurely hobbled by the residue of countless full-body crashes on football fields across America, his right side held together by an artificial hip, his left side permanently hampered by long-ago surgery that left him with almost no flexibility in either his ankle or foot.

Joe's brown eyes peered through gold-rimmed glasses that conspired with his white hair -- with his closely trimmed white beard and mustache as well -- to make him look more like a college professor than a jock. He reached into a pocket of his khaki pants for his ever-present tin of peppermint Altoids. That was the only thing Joe carried onto the field. He did not need a clipboard because he coached from the heart. He did not need a whistle because his players automatically fell silent when he stood before them.

"This is one of the greatest experiences of your young lives," Joe told the boys. "So let's make sure you're having fun, all right? You've been doing a lot of work the last few weeks to get ready for this. Now's the time you can let it all hang out. Let's get after them. We're gonna get after 'em. But let's make sure we're having fun."

Other coaches spoke. Then Joe initiated his standard question-and-answer sequence. "What is our job as coaches?" he asked.

"To love us," the boys yelled back in unison.

"What is your job?" Joe shot back.

"To love each other," the boys responded.

The words were spoken with the familiarity of a mantra, the commitment of an oath, the enthusiasm of a pep rally.

This was football?

What was going on here? How in the world had I, an out-of-town writer in the
final year of my thirties, become so wrapped up in it all? And how could I possibly have foreseen the gift of my own transformative experience that would soon be coming? How could I possibly have known that a season of football with a bunch of high school kids -- really a season of life more than anything else -- would ultimately help me open doors to my own father that had always been sealed shut?



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