He was a bearded, Bunyanesque defensive tackle whose rugged play helped the Baltimore Colts to three straight division championships in the 1970s. But Tuesday, when Joe Ehrmann addresses a national gathering convened to deal with the problem of child sexual abuse in sports, he'll take part in one of the most meaningful huddles of his life.
His words will weigh heavily on the audience at the two-day Safe to Compete summit in Alexandria, Va., because Ehrmann — minister, motivational speaker and onetime Gilman coach — is himself a survivor of child sexual abuse.
He still feels tremors from that trauma.
"It hemorrhages your soul for a lifetime," said Ehrmann, who, at 12, was raped by two men at a campground near Buffalo, N.Y. "That's the leukemia [of sexual abuse]. It might go into remission, but it never goes away.
"I'm 63 and my life has been a long and painful journey. It didn't have to be this way, if society wasn't so shameful, and if I'd had the help [afterward] that I needed. I wouldn't want anyone else to go through that."
Organizers of the event say that Ehrmann's talk will resonate with the mix of representatives of more than 50 youth-based sports groups, from USA Swimming to Special Olympics to the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation, which helped plan the summit. In all, they'll hear from nine experts, including John Walsh, host of "America's Most Wanted," and John Ryan, CEO of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, which hosts the event at its headquarters.
"We're going to raise the public consciousness about this," Ehrmann said. "It's an opportunity for the sports community to take the lead, where other institutions haven't. No more dirty little secrets. The conspiracy of silence needs to be broken."
Who better to broach the issue than Ehrmann, an All-American at Syracuse and a Pro Bowler with the Colts?
"Joe is both survivor and coach. He has lived through this, and his innate ability to reach down and grab you by the heart makes you really understand the issue," said Steve Salem, president of the Ripken Foundation.
"He is a great facilitator, a national treasure and the best speaker I've ever heard. It's impossible to not do what he wants you to do."
What Ehrmann and supporters want is a positive response in the wake of the scandal involving Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach who was convicted last year on 45 counts of raping and abusing 10 boys over a number of years.
"This [summit] is one unbelievable opportunity for the sports world to create a gold standard for protecting kids, from the hiring and screening of coaches and volunteers to the reporting of incidents," Ehrmann said.
There is no data available on the prevalence of child sex abuse in sports, he said, because most instances, like his own, go unreported.
"Most guys don't report it. It's just too shameful," Ehrmann said. "Then it becomes a lifelong trauma."
What's certain, he said, is that pedophiles become coaches and youth sports volunteers in efforts to "create a facade, to come in under the radar. But if the sports community can raise those barriers, then those predators will move to some other place with lower barriers."
While the summit is expected to heighten awareness of abuse from within sports programs, that's only part of the answer, said Ehrmann. Parents must be pro-active as well.
"You need to be willing to talk about this with your kids. It's not shameful or dirty to do so," he said. "There's an age-appropriate way to address it, and not only as a one-time thing. It's just like talking to your kids about sex."
Too many families in small towns and quiet communities shrug off the problem because they assume "it can't happen here," Ehrmann said. "That's the mantra that's heard far too often, and it does a disservice to kids. If you have a suspicion of other adults, it needs to be brought up and reported. We've got to get over the discomfort of doing that."
Moreover, he said, parents need to examine the safety procedures of every sports organization to which their children belong.
"Ask every youth or rec league coach, 'What is different now because of Penn State?'" Erhrmann said. "If they can't tell you their procedures, pull your kids out and shop around. That's not fear-based. It's rational."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun