Read an Excerpt
Season of Life A Football Star, a Boy, a Journey to Manhood
By Jeffrey Marx
Simon & Schuster Copyright © 2003 Jeffrey Marx
All right reserved.
Chapter One The 2001 Gilman football team came together for its first practice at eight in the morning on a warm and overcast Monday. It was August 13. After driving from Capitol Hill to the leafy Roland Park neighborhood of Baltimore - a forty-eight-mile trip I would repeat many times during the next three months - I was greeted by the familiar sound of cleats on concrete. It was the same sound that used to fill that tunnel at Memorial Stadium, only now it was the click-clacking of boys pounding a paved path en route to a secluded practice field tucked away in the woods behind their school. For the boys, the short walk through the woods opened up to a rectangular plot of land - striped with fresh white sidelines and yard markings - on which they would transform themselves from classmates into teammates, from friends into family. For me, the walk yielded an introduction to an unmistakably unique high school sports program - and to a season that captured both my mind and my heart in ways that I never could have anticipated.
When I arrived, Joe was standing in the near corner of the field, welcoming everyone back from summer vacation, sharing hugs and handshakes as if he were running for mayor.
"Hey, Coach Ehrmann."
"Great to see you, Coach Ehrmann."
It was strange to hear the boys addressing him that way. I was still working on the transition from thinking of Joe as an "ex-Colt" to viewing him as a minister, "the Reverend Joe." Now he was "Coach Ehrmann" as well. Joe was the defensive coordinator. He was encircled by a few of the boys, introducing me around, when the shrill sound of a whistle violated the serenity of morning.
"Bring it up, boys." The booming voice prompted immediate scurrying toward the center of the nearby end zone. "Let's go. Everyone up."
The shouted instruction emanated from an oversized teddy bear of a man, big, thick guy with a buzz cut of brown hair, wearing baggy, nylon mesh shorts and a Gilman T-shirt with the sleeves cut away to free his massive upper arms. He was the head coach, Francis "Biff" Poggi, a former Gilman football player (class of 1979) and now a wealthy business owner who devoted much of his time to philanthropy. Financial management was his business - his local investment company, Samuel James Limited, had been quite successful in a wide range of public and private equity deals - but working with children was his passion. Biff was Joe's best friend and the man with whom he had started Building Men for Others. Their roles varied depending on the setting and context in which they were implementing their program for boys and men, but at Gilman they generally stuck with a single formula. Joe was the ecclesiastic authority who often stood in the shadows but always provided wisdom and guidance. Biff was the program's public face and its animated voice. And now it was time for his opening remarks to the team.
In a sense, the same scene was unfolding that very day, or perhaps it would happen in the next week or so, on high school fields throughout the nation. Tough guys of all shapes and sizes were strapping on helmets with the boundless excitement of youth and the anticipation that comes with the clean slate of a new year. On another level, though, what happened that first day at Gilman was entirely unlike anything normally associated with high school football. It started with the signature exchange of the Gilman football program - this time between Biff and the gathered throng of eighty boys, freshmen through seniors, who would spend the next week practicing together before being split into varsity and junior varsity teams.
"What is our job?" Biff asked on behalf of himself, Joe, and the eight other assistant coaches.
"To love us," most of the boys yelled back. The older boys had already been through this routine more than enough times to know the proper answer. The younger boys, new to Gilman football, would soon catch on.
"And what is your job?" Biff shot back.
"To love each other," the boys responded.
I would quickly come to realize that this standard exchange - always initiated by Biff or Joe - was just as much a part of Gilman football as running or tackling.
"I don't care if you're big or small, huge muscles or no muscles, never even played football or star of the team - I don't care about any of that stuff," Biff went on to tell the boys, who sat in the grass while he spoke. "If you're here, then you're one of us, and we love you. Simple as that."
"Look at me, boys," he started again. Most of them were already staring up in at least the general direction of his six-foot-three, 300-pound frame. Thanks to the combination of his physical stature and his never-ending passion for both football and the overall well-being of his players - "my boys," he always called them - Biff never had much of a problem holding their attention. But he often used that "look at me" phrase as a rhetorical device to signal when something really important was coming.
"Look at me, boys," Biff said. "We're gonna go through this whole thing as a team. We are the Gilman football community. A community. This is the only place probably in your whole life where you're gonna be together and work together with a group as diverse as this - racially, socially, economically, you name it. It's a beautiful thing to be together like this. You'll never find anything else like it in the world - simply won't happen. So enjoy it. Make the most of this. It's yours."
Biff asked the boys to take a few moments and look around at one another. With heads swiveling, what they saw was indeed a melting pot of black and white, rich and poor, city and suburb. Though an elite private school for boys only, Gilman had long prided itself on diversity, and thanks to the effect of recruiting and a powerful equalizer known as financial aid, the football team offered an even better cross section of society than the overall student population.
Heads were still turning when Biff broke the silence with slowly spoken words strung together into chunks for emphasis: "The relationships you make here ... you will always have them ... for the rest of your life ... the rest of your life."
Biff was speaking just above a whisper now. There was something magical about the spell of such a big, powerful man turning down the volume like that. His players were totally locked in.
"Cherish this, boys," Biff said. "Cherish this."
So what if the Associated Press had recently anointed Gilman as the top-ranked team in Maryland and USA Today had picked the Greyhounds for the pre-season Top Ten of the entire East? Gilman football did not exist for anyone on the outside looking in. It was not about public accolades. It was about living in community. It was about fostering relationships. It was about learning the importance of serving others. Oh, sure, Biff allowed that he was definitely in favor of beating archrival McDonogh - the same McDonogh at which I had spent that fateful summer of 1974 with the Colts. In fact, winning that one game and successfully defending the league championship (Conference A of the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association) were the only performance-related goals he announced to the boys. But such accomplishments would only be by-products of a much broader agenda. The only thing that really mattered to Biff and Joe was offering a solid foundation on which the boys could later construct lives of meaning and value.
I watched a variety of football drills and conditioning exercises during that first day on the field in the woods. I also listened in on offensive and defensive strategy sessions in the team meeting room on the second floor of the school's field house. At one point, I even heard the Reverend Joe Ehrmann temporarily abandon the soft language of his day job when he introduced the three P's expected of anyone who wanted to play defense for him. Penetrate. Pursue. Punish. "All eleven men flying to the ball," Joe said. "All eleven men. Every single play."
Still, no matter how much football I saw and heard during those initial hours of the season, I drove away thinking only about the philosophical overview Biff had shared with the boys during those first few minutes of the morning. If a Martian had just happened to land on Earth and somehow found himself witnessing only that introductory talk, a perfectly logical communique home might have included a summary such as this: "Learned about some sort of group gathering called football. It teaches boys to love."
Joe, Biff, and the boys had nineteen days to prepare for the first of ten games on their schedule. The toughest part of that stretch included both morning and afternoon practice sessions - "two-a-days" in football parlance - wrapped in the stifling heat and humidity of late summer. Standing on the sidelines and wandering around the field for a good number of those practices, there were times I felt like a kid again. Occasionally, during a break in the action, I would get one of the boys or one of the coaches to play catch for a few minutes. With the pebbled leather of a football both scuffing my palms and stoking my imagination, I might as well have been back in training camp with the Colts.
Of course, it never took too long to be reminded that my reality was now housed on a totally unfamiliar end-of-the-age spectrum. With the Colts, I was a wide-eyed kid running around in an adult world filled with real-life action heroes. At Gilman, I was a grown man surrounded by football players still dealing with pimples and prom dates.
I initially found it disconcerting whenever one of the boys addressed me with a deferential "sir" or called me Mr. Marx. But spending time with them quickly proved to be an extremely refreshing experience. Without any children of my own, I enjoyed the burst of exposure to the rhythms and rituals of the teen years. The boys were so excitable. They were often hilarious. And they were always open to new thoughts and ideas - so inquisitive and ready to learn.
They could not have found two better men to serve as teachers.
Joe and Biff originally met in the mid-1970s, when Joe was with the Colts and Biff was a high school football player who sometimes found a way to sneak into the team training facility and lift weights with the pros. Though their only conversation was brief, Biff would always remember being charmed by the magnificent leader of the Sack Pack, and that alone made him feel personally connected whenever he saw Joe play at Memorial Stadium or on television. More than a decade later, after Joe had retired from football and Biff had completed his own playing days as an offensive lineman at Duke, the memory of that one chance encounter in the Colts' weight room remained fond enough for Biff to respond with great joy when he happened to see Joe back on television. It was around Thanksgiving. Biff was visiting his parents when Joe was interviewed for a feature story about The Door.
"Hey, Dad, we need to go down there," Biff said. "Can't we do something to help?"
They drove downtown to The Door, unannounced, with a sizable donation of food. Biff was pleased to find Joe there, and they struck up a conversation that has never really ended. The first project they did together was a football camp - part football, part education, actually - for kids from The Door. Then they started working together on a summer camp for disadvantaged youngsters in South Carolina, where Biff had a home. Over time, their wives became friends and their young sons started playing together. Joe and Biff became inseparable.
"We've always had an incredible bond," Biff told me. "It just seems like there's a bridge between our souls."
When I asked Joe about that, he said, "Biff is God's replacement for Billy."
Even the age difference - Joe now fifty-two, Biff forty-one - was about right.
Joe simply loved having a little brother again.
My favorite part of two-a-days was Biff's daily talks about Building Men for Others.
Prior to afternoon practices, the boys streamed into the meticulously maintained field house officially known as the Redmond C. S. Finney Athletic Center (named after a longtime Gilman headmaster) and climbed the stairs to the team meeting room, where they plopped themselves in chairs behind four long rows of tables. Large windows at the front of the room overlooked a cavernous gymnasium, but the blinds were generally kept closed. All eyes were on Biff. He usually began in a chair, facing the team from behind a small table of his own, but he often got up to use the grease-marker board waiting in a corner for him, and once standing, Biff typically paced for a while as he spoke. The talks usually lasted twenty to thirty minutes. I was the only one taking notes. Everyone else just listened.
There were times when Joe contributed a relevant story from the Bible to underscore a particular message Biff was sharing with the boys - and Biff sometimes injected a brief passage on his own. But the overriding themes were, if not entirely secular, certainly universal.
"I expect greatness out of you," Biff once told the boys. "And the way we measure greatness is the impact you make on other people's lives."
How would the boys make the most impact? Almost anything Biff ever talked about could be fashioned into at least a partial answer to that question.
For one thing, they would make an impact by being inclusive rather than exclusive.
"The rest of the world will always try to separate you," Biff said. "That's almost a law of nature - gonna happen no matter what, right? The rest of the world will want to separate you by race, by socioeconomic status, by education levels, by religion, by neighborhood, by what kind of car you drive, by the clothes you wear, by athletic ability. You name it - always gonna be people who want to separate by that stuff. Well, if you let that happen now, then you'll let it happen later. Don't let it happen. If you're one of us, then you won't walk around putting people in boxes. Not now. Not ever. Because every single one of them has something to offer. Every single one of them is special. Look at me, boys."
They were looking.
"We are a program of inclusion," Biff said. "We do not believe in separation."
The boys would also make an impact by breaking down cliques and stereotypes, by developing empathy and kindness for all.
"What's empathy?" Biff asked them. "Feeling what?"
"Feeling what the other person feels," said senior Napoleon Sykes, one of the team captains, a small but solid wide receiver and hard-hitting defensive back who had already accepted a scholarship to play college football at Wake Forest.
"Exactly right," Biff said. "Not feeling for someone, but with someone. If you can put yourself in another man's shoes, that's a great gift to have for a lifetime."
Excerpted from Season of Life by Jeffrey Marx Copyright © 2003 by Jeffrey Marx. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.