Self-published books that eventually crack bestseller lists are about as common as high school football coaches who stress nurturing the spirit over trampling an opponent. But author Jeffrey Marx has both in his most recent work of nonfiction, “Season of Life.”
More than three years ago, the Washington, D.C.-based writer renewed a friendship with an ex-NFL football star who had become a pastor and volunteer high school football coach. Marx discovered Joe Ehrmann, a feared defensive lineman for the Baltimore Colts three decades ago, was preaching a new kind of masculinity to his players – one that valued empathy over the end zone.
The concept struck a nerve with Marx. He began pitching New York publishing houses on a book that, within the context of one of society’s most violent and popular games, would offer a broader, more compassionate definition of manhood, perhaps even lighting a path toward healing relationships between fathers and sons.
They all said no.
“It was one of those ideas that sounded like a good book,” said Bob Bender, a senior editor at New York City’s Simon & Schuster, who originally passed on Marx’s 14-page book proposal. “But not the sort of thing you’d want to buy until you had the book in front of you.”
Marx, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, understood the rejections and, quite undeterred, wrote the book anyway. He even financed – though he won’t disclose the amount – its initial publication last year. Through speaking engagements, his website (www.seasonoflife.com) and word-of-mouth, Marx sold some 14,000 books – an astonishing number for a self-published effort.
In April, Marx decided to try Bender again, sending him a copy of the book that had prompted a speaking invitation from the Dallas Cowboys. A few days later Simon & Schuster got on board; the company released a new hardcover edition last month that has already sold more than 70,000 copies. The book has since landed on the New York Times bestseller list. Inquiries from Hollywood are rolling in.
“I never expected this,” said Marx, 42, who had written three books previously, including one about his younger sister’s struggle for a liver transplant. “I was simply following my heart and passion, and doing the work I believed in. That’s been my approach to writing and I hope that’s been my approach to life.”
The book is enjoying favorable reviews and its message is being enthusiastically welcomed in the ongoing national discussion about the proper role of sports in contemporary culture.
What’s most significant about this whole story is that it provides another way of being a competitive athlete and building a competitive team
Football as metaphor
Told in a simple, emotionally open and honest manner, “Season of Life” chronicles the 2001 football season at the Gilman School, a private boys school in Baltimore. Ehrmann serves as the book’s sage and soul. His philosophy – be a man in service to others – applies to football and to life.
This first means exposing the “false masculinity” that equates sexual conquest, athletic ability and accumulation of wealth with manhood. Instead, success should be measured by personal connections, standing up for justice and dedication to a cause that transcends self, Ehrmann said.
“There’s so much confusion and shame in our society around masculinity,” said Ehrmann, the 55-year-old pastor of a 4,000-member church in Timonium, Md. “Most men suppress, deny and ignore it all with the result being a constant, low-grade anger.”
Though similar messages have been filling the talk show airwaves and lining the self-help shelves in bookstores for years, Marx’s poignant writing style and Ehrmann’s tough-guy credentials are reaching a new audience.
“By playing in the NFL, I’ve lived according to the masculine code and there’s a willingness to hear me out,” said Ehrmann. “If I were a ballet guy, I don’t think they’d be listening.”
What seems to be resonating most is Ehrmann’s take on the state of the father-son relationship in America – it’s largely dysfunctional due to the pervasiveness of “false masculinity.” Many men, from pro football players to CEOs, try to bury their sense of shame almost exclusively through performance and achievement in hopes of obtaining approval from emotionally distant fathers.
In the book, Ehrmann recounts his earliest memory of his father, a former pro boxer, who takes his young son to the basement for a lesson in manhood. Just 5 or 6 years old at the time, Ehrmann said his father began slapping him in the face and yelling at him not to cry.
“Be tough! Don’t be a girl! Don’t be a sissy! You gotta learn how to give a punch and take a punch in this world!” Ehrmann remembers his father saying.
Contrast that early formative experience with a Gilman football program ritual conducted some 50 years later by Ehrmann and other coaches. The following kind of exchange, observed Marx, is as integral to the team’s success as is running and tackling.
“What is our job as coaches?” ask the coaches.
“To love us,” the boys yell back in unison.
“What is your job?” they shoot back.
“To love each other,” the boys respond.
“What’s most significant about this whole story is that it provides another way of being a competitive athlete and building a competitive team,” said Peter Roby, director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society in Boston. “It doesn’t have to be built on fear, intimidation, violence and machismo. It can be built on love and nurturing, and you can still be successful.”
Striking a chord
Since Simon & Schuster re-released the book last month, Marx has received some 1,400 e-mails and letters including one from an indicted Enron executive (Marx won’t identify him) who is using the book to turn his life around and another from a man who read passages from the book at his father’s funeral. Emotional outpourings also mark book signings, at which men share their stories and even weep.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cried in the last few weeks,” said Marx. “It’s the most meaningful thing I’ve even been involved in as a writer. There’s a lot of pain out there between fathers and sons.”
The book’s origins reach back to Marx’s childhood when he was a ball boy for the Baltimore Colts at Memorial Stadium. It was then that the 11-year-old Marx first met Ehrmann, a boisterous, larger-than-life figure at 6 feet 4, 260 pounds. Ehrmann, known for his hard-partying ways, soon dubbed the youngster “Brillo” for the lad’s head of thick, curly hair.
“Joe was always the most life-affirming guy you’d ever want to meet,” said Marx, who stayed in touch with Ehrmann for the next decade. “I could be doing the most menial task in camp like handing out towels and there Joe would be saying, ‘I’m glad you’re here. You’re doing a great job, Brillo.’”
A freelance writing assignment three years ago about the demolition of the football stadium reunited the two. Marx was in the midst of tracking down more than 200 former Colt players probing for memories about the stadium when he finally dialed Ehrmann. The two spoke for more than an hour and when Marx hung up the phone his life changed.
The newspaper story immediately grew into a book idea. But as Marx gradually learned over the course of the Gilman football season, the story wasn’t just about an old friend with a compelling life philosophy either – it was also about him.
Listening to Ehrmann throughout the days and weeks, Marx began to reexamine his relationship with his father. While the relationship was never abusive, Marx longed for a physical and emotional closeness to his father – a stable, but stoic insurance actuary – that had never existed.
By book’s end, Marx summons the courage to confront his father. How did it turn out?
The book’s closing words are “I love you, Dad.”