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Monday, March 13, 2006

Book Review: "Season of Life" by Jeffrey Marx

Okay, so I'm a bit late, but I don't know how many of you diehard sports fans read this book. You see, it's more about life than it is about football, even though one of the main characters is former Baltimore Colts defensive lineman Joe Ehrmann, now a minister and defensive coordinator for a Baltimore private school, albeit one with what now has become a perennial power in the East. And while the book might fail in its quest to become the next "Tuesdays With Morrie" (its short length and book jacket combine to try to give you that image), it is a book worth reading.

If you're a father, a son looking to connect with a father, a coach of boys, a teacher of boys or a leader of boys, you should read this book. Basically, Ehrmann and the private school's head coach, a solid man whose name is Biff (but is hardly the effete prep that his nickname might otherwise suggest), coach boys in a wonderful way. They encourage boys to be men -- courageous men -- measuring them by how they treat and sacrifice for others and not by the sometimes all-too-typical standards that high school boys judge themselves (on athletic exploits, sexual conquests, ability to shame/humiliate/outcool others). The teams that they coach excel, and the boys that they're helping turn into men are measured totally on substance.

Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying, "It takes courage to be kind." Both Biff Poggi and Joe Ehrmann match up with anyone as male role models and leaders. They stress teamwork and character over everything else. And, yes, while they recruit and win most of their games, they do not sacrifice their core values and beliefs in so doing. It is clear that these men would prefer that their teams go 0-10 if they know that they're turning out men who will benefit society than go 10-0 if they knew that even one player would go onto become a campus headache at a big-time football school.

Marx admires both Poggi and Ehrmann, but this book, I believe, is not a lionization of either man. In fact, the book is also about Marx, his life's journey, his connection with Ehrmann that dated back to when he was a high school kid going to tennis camp at a different private school where the Colts held their training camp, and his relationship with his father. While Marx does a good job of describing Poggi's and Ehrmann's attempts to build better men, he falls a bit short in developing the parallel them of connecting with his father. In this portion of the book, Marx holds back a bit and doesn't give us much depth of context as to his historical relationship with his father. All he reveals is that his father was hard-working and first told him he loved him when he was in his twenties. There's no description of a "Great Santini" here, no comparison to Ehrmann's father, an absent, itinerant stevedore who worked the Great Lakes and slapped him silly when he was a very young boy, so, in a sense, you have the author giving you a view of his life without revealing much. I don't think that this book would have become a "Tuesdays With Morrie" for men looking to be better men anyway, but had it had a chance to do so, Marx failed it with the incomplete effort regarding his relationship with his father.

That said, I acknowledge that I'm being a bit of a tough critic here. Perhaps the "Tuesdays with Morrie" motif created expectations for this book that were too high. Perhaps I was looking for comparable excellence in the parallel themes that Marx adroitly created. All that said, Marx's book is very much worth reading. Poggi and Ehrmann and men worth listening to and following, and Marx himself gives some helpful hints about trying to heal the void he obviously carried with him about the metaphysical distance between him and his father.

It's always important to set examples for young men. Stories several years back of the hazing of high school football players at a Long Island High school were nauseating. That football coach, and a former NFL player turned sensei for the bad kids in the first "Karate Kid" movie who is profiled in this book, are the types of leaders of men that fracture our society. You don't build better men by berating them and humiliating them, by shaming them. You build better men by showing them how to be men, by teaching them how to lead, how to sacrifice, how to make the worlds in which they live a better place.

That's what Biff Poggi and Joe Ehrmann do. And that's the gift that Jeffrey Marx gives us.

In trying for perfection, Jeffrey Marx gives us an excellent book, one to read, re-read, share with a friend, discuss, and use to teach our boys to become men.

It may take courage to be kind, but it takes even more courage to take a stand against coventional mores that honor sports heroes because of their points, averages and scores, and not necessarily because of any measurement of character. One of the best high school football teams in the East knows that.

Let's hope that many others learn it.

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