Excerpt: Courtesy Call

October 07, 2004 9 min read
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Author Jeffrey Marx

As a defensive lineman for the Baltimore Colts, the 6-foot-4-inch, 260-pound Joe Ehrmann was an all-pro bruiser on the field and a party animal off of it. But in 1978, after his 18-year-old brother died of cancer, Ehrmann blazed another path. He played a few more seasons, then became an ordained minister who since then has run churches and charities serving Baltimore’s neediest residents. He also became a defensive coach—for the private Gilman School—and, along with head coach Francis “Biff” Poggi, established a program called Building Men for Others. A values-centered approach to football, it stresses love, respect, and teamwork, and it demands of the competitive Gilman Greyhounds a spirit of generosity.

When Jeffrey Marx, a former Colts ball boy and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, reunited with Ehrmann a few years ago, he decided to shadow the team. The result is Season of Life: A Football Star, a Boy, a Journey to Manhood (Simon & Schuster). One of the biggest games of 2001 took the Gilman team to New York City to play Poly Prep, whose coach exhibited a style very different from Ehrmann’s.

Soon after we got to the field, we were greeted by whipping winds and thick sheets of rain. “Gilman football weather,” Biff shouted with glee. After weeks of hearing the head coach say the exact same thing, whether it was 90 degrees with stifling humidity or 70 with gentle breezes, I finally realized that all playing conditions were ideal to him. It was always Gilman football weather. Biff took great pleasure whenever one of his players echoed his standard weather report: “Gilman football weather, Coach.” Joe just smiled whenever such an exchange took place.

This time, the day turned dry and even somewhat sunny as the players went through pre-game drills and the Poly Prep faithful filled the stands with the eager buzz of homecoming weekend. The game also marked a personal homecoming for Jon McGill, the amiable first-year Gilman headmaster who had moved to the Baltimore school after six years as a teacher and top administrator at Poly Prep. McGill was on the Gilman sideline for the kickoff, enthusiastically encouraging his newly adopted Greyhounds just as he usually did before making his way to the stands and cheering from there. What a battle he got to see between his former and current teams.

Malcolm Ruff got Gilman off to a quick start with a short touchdown run early in the first quarter. Poly Prep soon answered with a touchdown of its own and then jumped all over Gilman in the third quarter, scoring two more touchdowns for an 18-7 lead (after failing to convert two-point attempts following all three of its touchdowns). But the Greyhounds were not done. Ambrose Wooden scrambled in all directions from his quarterback position and a relentless ground attack allowed Gilman to stage an exciting comeback. With less than two minutes left in the game, Ambrose ran for a touchdown and then a two-point play, pulling Gilman within a field goal at 18-15. For a few seconds on the ensuing kickoff, the Greyhounds had an excellent chance to get the ball back when a short “squib” kick bounced beyond the reach of several Poly Prep players and ended up—ever so briefly—in the hands of Napoleon Sykes. Had Napoleon been able to field the ball cleanly, he would have had a clear path down the Gilman sideline toward the end zone. But the ball went out of bounds off Napoleon’s outstretched hands...and the referee ruled that he had never gained possession. It was one of several hotly contested calls on critical plays. But the football went to Poly Prep. So did the game—though not without one last flurry of controversy.

When my coach taught me about no regrets, he was not teaching me basketball. He was teaching me life.

With Poly Prep running out the clock, its quarterback carefully gripping the snap from center and intending to take a knee to avoid any chance of a fumble, a Gilman defender dove over the offensive line, a last-ditch attempt to strip the ball loose. The effort proved fruitless. But it did prompt a retaliatory shove by a member of the home team, and when Poly Prep was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct, Coach Dino Mangiero stormed the field. In his early 40s, Mangiero was a burly man who had played defensive line for three NFL teams in the 1980s, and he was going ballistic, arms flailing, decibels rising. Once the referee had distanced himself from the tirade, he issued an announcement that stunned everyone on the Gilman sideline. He was ending the game without playing out the final minute. That made it Gilman’s turn to challenge the officiating. It was not a pretty climax to an otherwise fine game.

I’m sure that a good number of the Gilman boys will long remember every detail of that dramatic finish. But what I’ll remember more than anything else was the escalation of diatribe emanating from the opposite side of the field. It was not just the closing scene that brought out the fire in Mangiero. All game long he’d yelled at his own players, usually on the sideline, but sometimes bolting out a few steps onto the field between plays, positioning himself for maximum verbal assault against boys still in the game.

His closing act was the most upsetting. While his players were lining up to shake hands with the Gilman boys, Mangiero charged at them with instructions to abandon the standard post-game ritual.

“Don’t shake hands,” he bellowed. “Straight off the field.”

In an impressive display of teen independence, the Poly Prep boys ignored their coach, sharing respectful handshakes and hugs with the Gilman boys. Meanwhile, Jon McGill, the bespectacled Gilman headmaster, made the mistake of trying to calm Mangiero, a man with whom he had long worked at Poly Prep.

“Stay out of it,” Mangiero yelled at McGill. “You don’t know football.”

“Might not know football,” McGill said. “But I do know courtesy.”

The next “F” word Mangiero fired at McGill was not “football.” I watched in disbelief as the raging coach cussed out the gentle administrator in full view of boys from both schools. Mangiero again reminded me of the same person I had thought about each time I’d seen him unleashing on one of his players during the game. It was my high school basketball coach, a similarly explosive man named Wilbur “Bil” Johnson, who went by “Doc,” a reference to basketball legend Julius “Doctor J” Erving.

Doc was an athletic man who taught history and social studies. In his early 30s when I played for him, he was bright, witty, and considered one of the coolest teachers. He taught me a lot in the classroom and on the basketball court, and I thought the world of him when he was calm and reasonable. But when he took command of the gym, anything could happen. Doc slammed clipboards to the floor and screamed at us as though our failures to execute a play or win a game were affronts to his manhood. He also went after referees.

But the most upsetting eruption came in practice one day during my senior year when Doc blew up at my best friend, Mike Woodrow, for throwing an ill-advised pass. Mike was a fountain of sportsmanship, one of the kindest, most respected boys in the school. But Doc was out of control, concluding his rant with “Woodrow, sometimes I just want to hit you.” Mike stood his ground, chest out, arms by his sides, and returned the fury: “Go ahead, Doc, hit me.” Fortunately, he did not. Doc backed away, and Mike stormed out of the gym. It was an incident I knew I would never forget.

Watching the Poly Prep coach in action was not the first time Doc had come to mind since I’d reconnected with Joe. I had already thought of Doc many times by way of contrast; he clearly represented the antithesis of Joe and Biff’s coaching style. But the initial flashback came the day I went to see Joe speak to high school football coaches at a University of Maryland clinic, when he used a simple exercise to initiate conversation about the impact men have on boys by either affirming or shaming them.

Joe directed his audience to a small circle printed in the Building Men for Others booklets he’d distributed. The instruction above the circle read “Write the names or initials of two men in your life through whom you felt affirmation as a boy.” I wrote “J.E.” for Joe Ehrmannand “J.S.” for Jim Spano. Mr. Spano was a gym teacher and my basketball coach before Doc. Heinstilled in me a simple but powerful philosophy—"no regrets"—that became the core of everything I wanted to be. In basketball, “no regrets” meant that as long as we did all we could to prepare, as long as we practiced and played as hard as we possibly could, then we would never have to worry about the outcome of a game. Win or lose, we would never have to experience the emptiness of regret because we would always know that we had given our best.

But when Mr. Spano taught me about no regrets, he was not really teaching me basketball. He was teaching me life. He was teaching me that as long as I always expended maximum effort in whatever I was doing, as long as I always acted responsibly, as long as I always conducted myself with class and pride and extended kindness to others, then I would never have anything to worry about. No Regrets—that’s what I’d want on my tombstone.

When the coaches were done putting initials in their circles, Joe asked them to move down the page to an empty square. The instruction read “Write the initials of one man in your life who ‘shamed’ you and your masculinity.” I wrote “B.J.” for Bil Johnson—Doc.

Joe offered a hypothetical to the men sitting in that auditorium.

“Twenty years from now, I’m gonna come back and do this clinic, and sitting in here will be the boys that you’ve coached, and I’m gonna take them through this same exercise,” Joe said. “Do we want the kids that we coach to remember us in that circle—as someone who affirmed them, gave them a vision of what they could be, gave them some true criteria of what it means to be a man? Or would we ever want to be put in that box by any single boy that we coached, any boy that we’ve ever come across?”

Nobody needed to answer out loud.

Riding down the New Jersey Turnpike on our way back from Poly Prep, I wrote a letter to Coach Mangiero. I told him about my high school basketball experience and how much he reminded me of Doc. “That made me really sad for both you and the kids on your team,” I wrote. “Sure, the kids will always cherish the victories you have collected. I still cherish my long-ago victories, as well. But I left your field with the profoundly sad thought that your kids will inevitably, in the long run, remember you the same way I look back on my coach.”

In closing, I asked Mangiero two questions:

“When you left the school, alone with your thoughts, were you proud of the way you behaved in front of so many people—most important, your own students?

“How would you feel years from now if you find out your players come to look back on you as I look back on my old coach?”

Mangiero’s response soon arrived in my mail. He did not answer my questions. He did say that he found my letter to be naive, ignorant, and insulting. He called me “an uninformed, silly man” and asked me not to write him again.

Excerpted from Season of Life: A Football Star, a Boy, a Journey to Manhood, by Jeffrey Marx. Copyright © 2004. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster.


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