Joe Ehrmann lived the high life as an All-Pro Baltimore Colts defensive lineman.
He dominated on the field and enjoyed the spoils of money and women off the field, Ehrmann told an audience at the Palma Ceia Country Club Friday morning. He had fulfilled his father's definition of being a man, and yet he was empty.
Ehrmann, who came to town to help the Ophelia Project launch a new initiative for boys, reached a turning point one fateful December morning in 1978 when he found his 18-year-old brother lying dead in his home. Joe had watched Billy fight a five-month battle against cancer, and the emptiness only grew.
"With snow falling, I'm standing next to his open grave, next to his casket," Ehrmann said. "I see this mass of people out there, and I hear the priest say the final amen, and everybody turns and just starts to walk away.
"I remember wanting to scream, 'You mean this is it? You live, you have some good times, some bad times and you die? That's it?' There's got to be a whole lot more to life than that.''
That moment sent Ehrmann on a quest to find out what it really means to be a man. Eventually, he started an urban ministry in Baltimore, and now his church has more than 4,000 members.
Not only did he find purpose in his life, he also discovered that so many other boys are instilled with a false concept of manhood built on athletic ability, sexual conquests and economic success.
Ehrmann says these false concepts begin at an early age on the playground, where boys who are compassionate and kind are ostracized.
But the most important intangibles of being a man, Ehrmann says, are the ability to love and the ability to have a purpose that transcends personal needs.
Ehrmann said as you lie on your deathbed, you need to be able to look back and say, because you lived and loved, you made a difference.
The Boys Initiative of Tampa Bay will seek to instill that philosophy in local youth and replicate the success of the Ophelia Project-Tampa Bay, now in its fourth year. It will look at gender-specific practices to help young men, who are statistically more likely than girls to underperform at school, engage in risky behavior, not engage in community service and commit suicide.
Director Mike Trepper said the initiative will focus on three areas: meaning, purpose and connection. (For more information, go to www.opheliatampa.org and click on "Boys Initiative.")
Ehrmann said the possibilities of the initiative are significant. "What if you raised a whole generation of boys," he asked, "to understand that wherever they see injustice, their responsibility is to walk in and demand that justice be done so that every person can live with dignity?
"You could address every social problem in this community, and you could alleviate so much pain and suffering."
Much like Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia proved inspiring to the women who wanted to create a stronger network of support for teen and tween girls, Ehrmann's bestseller, Seasons of Life, reflects the desires of this new effort.
And after all, the successes of boys and girls are truly interconnected.
That's all I'm saying.
Ernest Hooper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.