Football and Chemo
A former NFL player turns a family tragedy into hope for others.
BY: Jeffrey Marx
Eighteen-year-old Billy Ehrmann filled two vital roles in Joe's life: brother and best friend. Ten years behind the star of the family, Billy had always worshipped his only brother. Whenever Billy had any sort of a problem, he would look to Joe for a solution, and Joe always seemed to have just the right answer. In turn, Joe felt the pride of a father as he watched Billy navigating the challenges of being a teenager. "No question," Joe would say. "It's gotta be the greatest thing in the world to have a brother."
And so the brothers Ehrmann were equally excited about the summer of 1978. Joe was at the top of his game, he was even being featured on the cover of the new Colts yearbook--and Billy was coming down from Buffalo to work in the team training camp. First they would spend the summer together. Then Billy would live with Joe while attending school and playing football at nearby Towson State University.
That was the plan, anyway. Then fate got in the way.
Billy had just finished a workout one day at the Colts training camp when he first noticed the ugly bruises--dark and menacing--all over his upper torso and arms. He went to Joe, of course, and Joe figured Billy had probably just overdone it a bit, maybe busted some capillaries. Joe asked the team trainer to take a look, just to play it safe, and the trainer wanted Billy to see a doctor. Next thing Joe knew, after the results of initial tests were in, he was scrambling for a dictionary to look up what it meant that he and Billy were being referred to an oncologist. Billy had a wicked form of cancer called aplastic anemia. His bone marrow was not producing enough blood cells.
Everyone in the family was tested to see if there was a match for a bone marrow transplant. There was not. Chemotherapy was the only option. And none of the doctors held out much hope. The next five months--with Billy tucked away in room 356 at Johns Hopkins Hospital--would prove to be as close to hell as anything the Ehrmanns had ever experienced. Billy battled the best he could. Joe spent many nights crumpled up on a cot so his little brother would never be alone while undergoing the worst of his treatments. But what could Joe possibly do to make that damn disease go away? What could anyone do?
Joe had never felt so utterly powerless, had never felt such anguish, such emptiness and confusion, but all he could do was hold Billy tightly and declare his hope for a better day.
"It has to get better," Joe said. "Has to."
But he also knew that to be virtually impossible.
No, Billy's childhood dreams would never come true. He would never get to follow his big brother into professional football. They would never get the chance to start a business together.
One day, passing time in the hospital by reading a book, Joe was all but mesmerized by a passage from a poem by Edwin Markham.
There is a destiny that makes us brothers: None goes his way alone. All that we send into the lives of others Comes back into our own
Joe read that quote over and over--wrapping himself in those words as if he were sinking at sea and they would somehow be used as a life jacket--and he knew right then that he would always carry the comfort of that passage with him. He knew that he would always try to live by those words.
When the end was imminent, Joe took Billy out of the hospital so he could spend whatever time was left at home. But first the Ehrmanns made one last stop on their way to Joe's house. It was Thursday, December 14, 1978. The Colts were preparing for practice at Memorial Stadium. As part of his final journey, Billy wanted to be with them one more time. A few players came out to the parking lot because Billy was too weak to walk. He had to be lifted out of the car and carried into the locker room. But Billy smiled quite a bit that morning. He sat in a whirlpool, which temporarily swallowed some of his aches and pains, and then a trainer provided additional relied by massaging his legs. Mostly though, Billy was happy just to see everyone, just to visit with friends. Two days later, surrounded by love and resting peacefully in the home of his big brother, Billy Ehrmann took his final breath.
Early in the afternoon of Tuesday, December 19. 1978, turning away from the grave into which the body of Billy Ehrmann had just been lowered at Elmlawn Cemetery in Buffalo, Joe felt a cool wind whipping across his face and found himself struggling with some of life's most difficult questions: If there truly is a God who loves us, how could he allow this to happen? How can there be so much suffering and so much unfairness in this world? What is the purpose of life? Where does real meaning-real value-come from?
Having been raised in a home with only a limited sampling of religious instruction, Joe had long before carved out for himself a framework of life in which the sport of football, its attendant fame and fortune included, offered the only salvation required. But now he needed something more. He needed answers to the most profound and complex questions he had ever encountered. Back in Baltimore, Joe started meeting with Larry Moody, unofficial team chaplain for the Colts, and the Bible became his constant companion. It carried Joe away from the party life and transformed him into a devout Christian. And this was only the beginning of his spiritual journey.