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The Poggi Way: Transforming lives and winning football games

The Poggi Way: Transforming lives and winning football games
St. Frances football coach Biff Poggi. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

According to a quote tracker, it was either the legendary basketball coach John Wooden or the sartorially eccentric commentator Heywood Hale Broun who gave the world this: “Sports don’t build character; they reveal it.”

That is one fine, easy-to-remember, tempting-to-invoke expression. It is also simplistic.

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It assumes that a given athlete had a chance, before entering the arena, to develop moral muscle and a firm backbone.

It assumes that the athlete grew up in an environment that nurtured qualities we admire — courage and grit, a sense of purpose, respect for the team, empathy for others, fairness in all things.

It assumes the athlete had devoted parents, mentors or positive role models to show him the way.

It also assumes that the athlete had a roof over his head and enough food to eat. (It’s hard to focus on character development when you are homeless or hungry, or both.)

It assumes the athlete wasn’t delayed in his development by some sort of trauma — a family member’s being shot, for instance.

So, while I agree that sports can reveal character, I also think sports can lay a foundation for it — especially when we’re talking about boys and girls in middle school or high school and, even more so, kids growing up in poverty.

A coach who understands that can make all the difference.

Joe Ehrmann has been preaching this positive, life-changing philosophy for a long time now, and he’s still at it.

He played football for the Baltimore Colts 40 years ago, then turned to urban ministry, coaching and counseling. His purpose in coaching was not about winning. It goes like this: “I coach to build men of empathy and integrity who will lead, be responsible and change the world for good.”

A few years ago, a national magazine declared Ehrmann “the most important coach in America.” His 2011 book, “InSideOut Coaching: How Sports Can Transform Lives,” described his philosophy.

“There are two kinds of coaches, transactional and transformative,” Ehrmann says. “Transactional coaches use players for their own identity, position and purpose, to get what they want, to win. The transformational coach wants to use the platform of coaching to change lives. And there may be no greater transformational coach than Biff Poggi.”

Poggi was head football coach at the elite Gilman School for 19 years; Ehrmann was one of his assistants for 12 of them. (Here’s what Ehrmann wrote about Poggi in a letter to the editor.)

Gilman won 13 championships and a national ranking during the Poggi era.

In 2016, the Poggi Way moved from Roland Avenue and one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the city to St. Frances Academy, the predominantly African-American Catholic high school on East Chase Street, in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city.

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Founded as a girls’ school by the Oblate Sisters of Providence in 1828, St. Frances did not have a football program until about 10 years ago. A donation from Poggi helped establish a team. One noted purpose: to keep SFA boys away from gang members who hung out at a nearby convenience store. "You should have seen the looks on their faces when they first got their football jerseys,” says sports commentator Milton Kent, who produced reports on the program for WYPR.

The team struggled for years in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association.

But after the Poggi Way arrived, the SFA football program grew quickly into a powerhouse.

And now some of the private schools whose teams lost to the Panthers are refusing to play the team in the coming season. Calvert Hall bowed out. Loyola Blakefield bowed out. Mount St. Joseph bowed out. McDonogh bowed out. Others could follow.

Teams have moved between conferences within the MIAA before, but the refusal to play a team that dominated for a couple of seasons is remarkable. And it comes with stunning racial optics that no amount of official denial can erase — mainly white schools refusing to play football against a mainly black school.

I know: It’s more “complicated” than that. Officials at the other schools say these decisions were made out of concern for player safety, and they insist race had nothing to do with it. The suggestion is that boys Poggi recruited to St. Frances are bigger, stronger, faster and presumably more likely to cause injury than boys on other MIAA teams.

There isn’t much, beside fear, to support that argument. I don’t recall potential injury being raised when Gilman dominated.

St. Frances Academy is not a wealthy school. But it holds fast in East Baltimore to give kids facing huge challenges, including, in some cases, homelessness and hunger — and trauma associated with gun violence, according to Ehrmann — a way to a better track.

That’s apparently why Poggi put some of his own wealth into the school. What he’s doing seems to be in the tradition of the school’s long mission — to reach kids who need a hand, transform their lives, build adults of character. Maybe more coaches, more schools should try this. They might even win more games.

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