Men In America
1:38 pm
Mon July 14, 2014

The 3 Scariest Words A Boy Can Hear

Originally published on Mon July 14, 2014 3:24 pm

This story is part of All Things Considered's "Men in America" series.

It's rare that a man makes it through life without being told, at least once, "Be a man." To Joe Ehrmann, a former NFL defensive lineman and now a pastor, those are the three scariest words that a boy can hear.

Ehrmann — who played with the Baltimore Colts for much of the 1970s and was a lineman at Syracuse University before that — confronted many models of masculinity in his life. But, as with many boys, his first instructor on manhood was his father, who was an amateur boxer.

Ehrmann says of his father: "I think his definition, which was very old in this country, was: Men don't need. Men don't want. Men don't touch. Men don't feel. If you're going to be a man in this world, you better learn how to dominate and control people and circumstances."

On the football field, those lessons served Ehrmann well. But, as he tells NPR's Audie Cornish, it was not the same case in the pediatric oncology ward. In 1978, Ehrmann's teenage brother was diagnosed with cancer. However tough Joe was on the field, he did not feel equipped to help his brother or himself.


Interview Highlights

On how his brother's death affected him

When he died, that was devastating to me. And I started to ask all the questions about what is the role, the meaning, the purpose of life. I was 29 years old, I was six years into my NFL career, and I had no concept — no concept what life was about, and no concept what I was about. And on this journey, I ended up asking the question: What does it mean to be a man? ...

I recognized that everything I had invested my life in — all my accomplishments, my achievements, the stuff I had accumulated — I recognized at that moment they offered no hope or help to my 19-year-old brother — 18-year-old brother — lying on his deathbed. ...

All I had was these old "man up" kind of things — "suck it up, we'll get through this together" — when he really needed the emotional, the nurturing, the love. And I had to really struggle to pull that out of my heart.

On the roles a coach can play in his players' lives

There's two kinds of coaches in America: You're either transactional or you're transformational. Transactional coaches basically use young people for their own identity, their own validation, their own ends. It's always about them — the team first, players' needs down the road.

And then you have transformational coaches. They understand the power, the platform, the position they have in the lives of young people, and they're going to use that to change the arc of every young person's life. I think football is an ideal place — sports in general — team sports are an ideal place to help boys become men. And the great myth in America today is that sports builds character. That's not true in a win-at-all-costs culture. Sports doesn't build character unless the coach models it, nurtures it and teaches it.

On what those philosophies look like on the field

I think there's a lot of screamers, there's a lot of shouters, there's a lot of shamers. My approach is this: Boy, you're in the middle of the game, and some kid's having a tough time. They get beat. ... I tell all my players, "Come on over to me during the game and I'll give you a hug." And you think about the power of a hug versus swearing, shouting, shaming at some kid.

When I played football, I hated [when] some kid would get a knee injury, your teammate would go down and that coach would say move the practice down 20 yards and leave that kid laying there. ... As coaches, we can kneel down next to that kid, you affirm the tears, the pain, the emotions, and you bring all the team around to say, "How can we help Bobby? He's one of us; he's done so much. He had so many dreams." So, you teach them how to build authentic community as men caring for and loving each other.

On the changes he's seen in ideas of masculinity

I think those three lies of masculinity — athletic ability, sexual conquest, economic success — in many ways, those things have been heightened. You have this increase in social media. You have young boys coming into this world, and they are hit 24/7. They're given all kinds of negative messages about their masculinity. They've been conditioned, and they have way more messaging out of this culture than I ever had as a young boy. I think in many respects, it's more difficult. There's more negative messaging out there and less positive.

On what it means to be a man

It think it can only be defined by two things: One, it's your capacity to love and to be loved. Masculinity ought to be defined in terms of relationships. Second thing, it ought to be defined by commitment to a cause. All of us have a responsibility to give back, to make the world more fair, more just, more hospitable for every human being. So I think it's about relationships and commitments to a cause. That's the underline of all humanity — men and women.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. We've been hearing about men this summer - how their roles have changed, what their lives are like. And one thing most men are told at some point in their early lives is this - be a man.

JOE EHRMANN: Yeah, I think every boy at a very early age is given this mandate to be a man. They're actually the three scariest words every boy receives.

CORNISH: That's former NFL defenseman Joe Ehrmann. He played in the 1970s, mostly for the Baltimore Colts. As with many boys, his first instructor on manhood was his father.

EHRMANN: I think in many ways my father gave me all the wrong concepts about being a man. I think his definition, which was very old-school in this country, was men don't need. Men don't want. Men don't touch. Men don't feel. If you're going to be a man in this world, you better learn how to dominate and control people and circumstances.

CORNISH: And, of course, men don't cry. On the football field, those lessons served Joe Ehrmann well, but not in the pediatric oncology ward. In 1978 Ehrmann's teenage brother was diagnosed with cancer, and however tough Joe Ehrmann was on the field, he did not feel equipped to help his dying brother or himself.

EHRMANN: When he died, that was devastating to me. And I started to ask all the questions about what is the role, the meaning, the purpose of life. I was 29 years old. I was six years in my NFL career, and I had no concept - no concept what life was about and no concept what I was about. And on this journey I ended up asking the question what does it mean to be a man?

CORNISH: Why that question for this particular really very emotionally wrenching part of life?

EHRMANN: Well, 'cause I think I recognized that when my brother was diagnosed and began his dying process - I recognized that everything I had invested my life in - all my accomplishments, my achievements, stuff I had accumulated - I recognized at that moment they offered no hope or help to my 19-year-old brother - 18-year-old brother lying on his deathbed. I was a socialized male that had separated my heart from my head, trying to live life from the neck up.

CORNISH: You were saying all you had were the locker room speeches basically.

EHRMANN: Yeah. All I had was these old man up kind of things. Suck it up. We'll get through this thing together. When he really needed the emotional - the nurturing, the love. Boy, and I had to really struggle to pull that of my heart.

CORNISH: You went on to seminary and to become a pastor. And you also went on to coach high school football. Now, can you talk about what it is in particular you think coaches can do to shift this ideology and whether you really have encountered coaches who are interested in doing that?

EHRMANN: Well, there's two kinds of coaches in America. You're either transactional or you're transformational. Transactional coaches basically use young people for their own identity, their own validation, their own ends. It's always about them - the team first, players' needs down the road. And then you have transformational coaches. They understand the power, the platform, the position they have in the lives of young people, and they're going to use that to change the arc of every young person's life. I think football is an ideal place - sports in general - team sports are an ideal place to help boys become men. And the great myth in America today is that sports builds character. That's not true in a win-at-all-costs culture. Sports doesn't build character unless a coach models it, nurtures it and teaches it.

CORNISH: You mentioned that coaches are either transactional - what can you do for me - or transformational. On the field, how does that play out? Are you basically talking about the screamers here?

EHRMANN: The screamers, yeah. I think there's a lot of screamers. There's a lot of shouters. There's a lot of shamers. My approach is this - boy, you're in the middle of the game and some kid's having a tough time. They get beat. I tell all my players, come on over to me during the game and I'll give you a hug. And you think about the power of a hug versus swearing, shouting, shaming at some kid. Boy, you know, when I played ball I hated - some kid would get a knee injury. Your teammate would go down and that coach would say move the practice down 20 yards and leave that kid laying there. Boy, as coaches, we get kneeled down next to the kid. You affirm the tears, the pain, the emotions, and then you bring all the team around to say how can we help Bobby? He's one of us. He's done so much. He had so many dreams. So you teach them how to build authentic community as men caring and loving for each other.

CORNISH: I'm speaking with Joe Ehrmann. He's founder of Coach for America. And so you've actually been doing this work for decades. And has the average boy changed in some way or are there changes you've seen in how they approach masculinity than when you were growing up?

EHRMANN: Not too much. Boy, I think there's different nuances and stuff, but we have a real crisis when it comes to what it means to be a man.

CORNISH: Not too much, really?

EHRMANN: I don't think so. I think those three lies of masculinity - athletic ability, sexual conquest, economic success. In many ways those things have been heightened. You have this increase in social media. You have young boys coming into this world and they are - 24/7 they're given all kinds of negative messages about their masculinity. They've been conditioned, and they have way more messaging out of this culture than I ever had as a young boy. So I think in many respects it's more difficult. There's more negative messaging out there and less positive.

CORNISH: Can you talk about a particular incident that really drives that home for you?

EHRMANN: Well, I think the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case - two high school boys - 16-year-old girl - drunk, passed out - hundreds of pictures taken - tweets. And that one person had the moral clarity or moral courage to intervene in the midst of that. Two boys sentenced to prison - had no idea about consent. They weren't taught this stuff. A community tried to cover it up. Boy, I think that thing is played out and could play out at any high school. Boys have to be taught about - they have to have the moral clarity and the moral courage to speak up. That's not going to end. Women can't end it. It's not going to end until we raise up a generation of men that have the courage to call out other men on behalf of women in this country.

CORNISH: For you, what is masculinity? What does it mean to be a man?

EHRMANN: I think it could be only defined by two things. One, it's your capacity to love and to be loved. Masculinity ought to be defined in terms of relationships. Second thing, it ought to be defined by commitment to a cause - that all of us have a responsibility to give back - to make the world more fair, more just, more hospitable for every human being. So I think it's about relationships and commitment to a cause. That's the underlying of all humanity - men and women.

CORNISH: Joe Ehrmann - he's founder of Coach for America. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

EHRMANN: Great to be with you, Audie. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.