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."
That was the whole idea behind Biff and Joe's ironclad rule that no Gilman football player should ever let another Gilman boy teammate or not eat lunch by himself.
"You happen to see another boy off by himself, go sit with him or bring him over to sit with you and your friends," Biff said. "I don't care if you know him or not. I don't care if he's the best athlete in the school or the so-called nerd with his head always down in the books. You go get him and you make him feel wanted, you make him feel special. Simple, right? Well, that's being a man built for others."
How else would the boys make an impact?
By living with integrity...and not only when it is convenient to do so. Always.
By seeking justice...because it is often hidden.
By encouraging the oppressed...because they are always discouraged.
Ultimately, Biff said, the boys would make the greatest overall impact on the world would bring the most love and grace and healing to people by constantly basing their thoughts and actions on one simple question: What can I do for you?
"Not, what can I do to get a bigger bank account or a bigger house?" Biff said. "Not, what can I do to get the prettiest girl? Not, what can I do to get the most power or authority or a better job title? Not, what can I do for me? The only question that really matters is this: How can I help you today?"
Biff and Joe would constantly elaborate on all of this as the season progressed.
"Because in case you haven't noticed yet, we're training you to be different," Biff said. "If we lose every game of the year, go oh-and-ten on the football field, as long as we try hard, I don't care. You learn these lessons, and we're ten-and-oh in the game of life."
One of my favorite afternoon talks was based on a Bible story the parable of talents that Joe had recently shared with Biff. The story comes from the Book of Matthew.
It begins with a man who was preparing to leave home on a journey. He called his servants and distributed his property to them based on ability. To one servant he gave five talents a talent being a monetary unit that was more than the total wages a laborer would earn in fifteen years. To another servant the man gave two talents. To a third he gave only one. Then the man left. The servants were on their own. As the story goes: "He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them; and he made five talents more. So also, he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master's money." Eventually, the master returned to settle accounts with his servants. He was quite pleased with the two who had taken their talents and put them to good use. To each he said: "Well done...enter into the joy of your master." The man was not nearly as kind to the servant who had hidden his talent in the ground, making no use of it at all. Now labeled "the worthless servant," he was sent away "into the outer darkness" where "men will weep and gnash their teeth."
As Joe explained it, the message of the parable was simple.
"God gives each person X amount of talents," he said. "The question isn't really how many talents you've been given. That's the sovereignty of God. The real question is what you do with the ones you have."
Joe and Biff wanted to foster a community in which every member of the team would bring all his talents all the time no matter what the number and everyone would be welcomed as an equal.
"Some of us get paralyzed when we feel we don't have 'as much as' or 'as good as' someone else," Joe said. "But the person we really want to honor is the one who maximizes whatever it is he has. On the other hand, someone with great ability but without the work ethic and the right contributions to the team is really negligible to the community."
Biff played a numbers game with the boys.
"The world will tell you that having ten talents is always better than having seven, and seven is always better than five," he said. "Isn't that what the world would tell you?"
A few of the boys responded affirmatively. The others remained silent.
"Well, that's a lie," Biff said. "If a guy has ten and brings ten every day, that's pretty good. If you have two and you bring two every day, that's just as good. Do you believe that? Honestly, do you believe that?"
Before anyone could answer, Biff declared: "I do. The two-and-two guy is every bit as important as the guy who has ten and brings ten. Because the guy that has two and brings two, he's giving everything he has. What more could we possibly ask of him?"
Now everyone in the room knew exactly why Biff would never cut a player based on the level of his athletic ability. He would not hesitate to run off or at least temporarily suspend someone for drinking beer or mistreating a girl. Those were violations of sacrosanct team rules. But nobody would ever be cut based on athletic ability.
"Schools all over the country are cutting boys right now and sending them home," Biff said. "We don't believe in that. And I'll take it a step further. If you're one of us, which all of you are, then you're going to play. I don't mean just at the end of a game when the score is forty-two to nothing and it's mop-up time. You will all play in the first half of every game. It might be only one play, might be a few plays, but you will be in there when the game is on the line."
Because such a policy puts a guy with two talents right beside a guy with ten. As long as each is bringing everything he has, it validates that they are equals.
The first scrimmage against another team was on a Saturday morning at Gilman. This was also the first time the Greyhounds moved up from the practice field in the woods to the game field right behind the main school building. They played host to Cardinal Gibbons High School.
While the Gilman captains huddled the squad for final words of encouragement before drills that would precede the full-scale scrimmage, Biff convened the coaching staff at midfield. He did not say anything about blocking or tackling or strategy. All he said was: "Remember, teach 'em, love 'em, let 'em have a good experience."
Gilman went on to outplay and outscore Cardinal Gibbons. That pleased the scattered partisans cheering from the modest stands actually slabs of concrete built into a hill on the home side of the field.
What really stuck out, though, was something Biff later said to one of the Gilman mothers. At a cookout after the scrimmage family members included this woman casually asked Biff how things were looking for the team. How successful did he think the boys were going to be?
"I have no idea," Biff said. "Won't really know for twenty years."
She had been inquiring about the season. This season. Biff was perfectly clear on that. But he was not trying to be cute with his response; he was trying to make a point.
"I won't really know how successful they're gonna be till they come back to visit in twenty years," Biff said. "Then I'll be able to see what kind of husbands they are. I'll be able to see what kind of fathers they are. I'll see what they're doing in the community."
The mother managed to smile and get out something about how nice that was. But she still looked somewhat perplexed when she politely excused herself to go sit with her son.
The first real game of the season would be played at night. That was the stated reason for conducting a night practice the last week of August so the boys could get a feel for playing under the lights. But Joe and Biff had something else in mind as well.
"Big tradition," Joe told me. "Whatever you do, you don't want to miss the doughnuts."
I had already been around Joe and Biff more than enough to know them as refined experts on all things sweet the Siskel and Ebert of desserts. They did not only eat, they savored. They also debated. With cookies, cake, pie, or ice cream on the table, Joe and Biff turned to serious analysis and rankings. I once listened to them go back and forth for a good fifteen minutes in a battle of the brands: Who packages better junk foods Hostess or Tastykake? There was no clear winner. Another time, I saw Biff react with sheer horror when Joe committed the unthinkable act of declining a giant chocolate creme cookie from a popular Baltimore bakery. "Man, I feel like calling for taste bud abuse," Biff said.
Nobody would have to make such a call that night the team practiced under the lights. Once the footballs were packed away, the boys, still wearing football pants and cleats, boarded two yellow school buses. As tradition dictated, Siskel and Ebert were taking them to eat doughnuts at Krispy Kreme.
"Now, this is Gilman football," Biff shouted from a front seat in the first bus. "And you're all gonna wear those silly Krispy Kreme hats, too. Gotta wear the hats. It's part of the whole karma."
Biff was so excited he could hardly contain himself. Joe just sat back and smiled.
The guy behind the counter was a bit stunned when one of the assistant coaches put in the order. Customers don't generally buy thirty dozen doughnuts at a time.
It was almost ten o'clock on a late-summer night. Most high school boys in America were doing other things. The Gilman football players were eating doughnuts in a parking lot, chowing them down as if they had not eaten all day, and they were having a blast. The highlight had to be Biff donning his baker's hat and marching around to make sure everyone else was putting one on, too.
"Coach, maybe you need to get a job here," suggested Luke Wilson, one of the biggest boys on the team, an outgoing, fun-loving junior with a sharp wit to go along with some pretty good moves as a defensive lineman.
"Yeah, you might be right," Biff said.
There was lots of laughter in those buses. Lots of togetherness, too.
Copyright © 2003 by Jeffrey Marx