2016-06-30
Author Jeffrey Marx met Baltimore Colts defensive lineman Joe Ehrmann in the mid-1970s when Marx was a ballboy for the Colts. In 1985 when Ehrmann retired from the NFL after 13 years, he and Marx remained friends. Marx credits Ehrmann with helping him with his relationship with his own father, among other life lessons. In this excerpt from "Season of Life," Marx recounts how Ehrmann turned a personal tragedy into a chance to help others.

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.

It was also soon after Billy's death that Joe and a local psychologist named Jay Levinson first met to discuss a project Levinson was hoping they could pursue together. Motivated by a story he had seen on television about the first Ronald McDonald House, in Philadelphia, Levinson, a death and bereavement specialist, wanted to build a similar facility to house cancer patients and their families in Baltimore. He figured that Joe might be willing to share his personal story and celebrity status to help garner public support, and after listening to Levinson explain his vision, Joe's immediate response was: "Man, where were you and your house when my parents were sleeping on windowsills in Billy's room at Hopkins?"

Long before Billy's illness, Joe had established himself as the Colts go-to guy when it came to helping charities.

Nobody on the team did more community work than he did. But working on the Ronald McDonald House--raising money, organizing and speaking at public events, schmoozing with politicians and business leaders--gave Joe a new appreciation of just how powerful the platform of sports could be when put to good use. It also made him feel like he was starting to make something out of that quote he had read in the hospital: "All that we send into the lives of others comes back into our own."

Another result of Joe's work and his fast-developing friendship with Levinson was an introduction to the writing of an Austrian psychiatrist named Viktor Frankl, most notably his book Man's Search for Meaning. A survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, Frankl developed a school of psychiatry called logotherapy, which teaches that there are only a few primary avenues on which one arrives at meaning in life. One is "by creating a work or by doing a deed." Another is by learning that "even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph." Wow, Joe thought. This is me he was writing about. There is hope.


Yes, on April 28, 1980, when Joe joined Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer at the corner of Arch and Lexington Streets to announce the site of a new Ronald McDonald House, there was both hope and meaning.

There was also hard evidence of the most important lesson I learned while growing up with a professional football team. Being around sports as much as I was, both working with the Colts and as a competitive young athlete myself, I was accustomed to coaches routinely barking out cliches to inspire their troops. There was always something about dealing with "adversity"--how any great athlete, any successful person at all, must always be able to "take something bad and make it into something good." Well, it was one thing to hear someone speaking vaguely about that. It was something else altogether to see someone actually doing it.

Joe took the ultimate negative--death--and made something positive out of it for both himself and others. By showing me instead of telling me, Joe said more than he ever could have communicated with mere words.

Currently Ehrmann is an ordained minister, coaches high school football, and runs a program called Building Men for Others, which stresses character-building and getting young men to think of a cause beyond themselves.

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