They called him "Mr. Joe," a towering figure who stood above them, a former pro football star dressed all in black, with his sheet-white hair and beard. Joe Ehrmann, the pride of Riverside some four decades ago, came back to his roots Wednesday to deliver a message that he began with two simple questions:
What does it mean to be a man?
And what does it mean to be a woman?
As the kids, almost 100 of them from ages 5 to 15, squirmed restlessly on the blue mats at the Town Boys & Girls Club near the Riverside-Town of Tonawanda border, Ehrmann let them answer the questions.
Don't do drugs, one boy said. Protect your children, one girl said.
Ehrmann had the youngsters hooked now. They listened intently as he told them the lies about being a real man or woman. It's not, he said, about being a great athlete, or hooking up with the opposite sex, or having the perfect face or body, or making a lot of money.
"It's all about developing relationships, about loving other people and letting them love you," he said.
The Rev. Joe Ehrmann, who has been called by his biographer "the most important coach in America," came back home Wednesday for two days of public appearances, to speak to young people and support both the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Northtowns and the Northwest Buffalo Youth Programs.
Ehrmann, 56, was a star football player at Riverside High in the mid-1960s, before going to Syracuse University and becoming an All-American and a first-round pick of the Baltimore Colts. But seven years into his NFL career as a defensive tackle, his life changed in 1978, when his younger brother Billy developed cancer, a cancer that the doctors couldn't fix, he told the kids.
On Dec. 19, 1978, the snow was blowing, and hundreds of people came to bury 18-year-old Billy Ehrmann in Elmlawn Cemetery. The priest said amen, everyone started to turn and walk away, and Joe Ehrmann had a question that had formed deep in his heart: "What is the purpose of life?"
Joe Ehrmann has spent the last 25 years answering that question. He co-founded a Ronald McDonald House in Baltimore. He became an inner-city minister and is now pastor of a 4,000-member church. He founded a community center and launched a racial-reconciliation project.
He's now a volunteer assistant coach of a high school football team in Baltimore, stressing relationships and having a cause beyond one's self. And he has been the subject of a best seller, "Season of Life," by Jeffrey Marx.
In his folksy, interactive 15-minute chat Wednesday, Ehrmann told the youngsters: "God has put each and every one of you in this community and into your homes to make this a better place. Go out there . . . and love people and spread kindness."
After his speech, Ehrmann talked about the people who work in the trenches with little fanfare, like past and current Boys & Girls Clubs directors Jack Jaeger, Gary Krasinski and Bob Nowak.
"These guys are the bedrock of a community," he said. "These guys and teachers and people who commit their lives [to others], they don't get enough praise or thanks.
"These guys are the real heroes."