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Saber magazine cover of football images from Saint Thomas Academy
David Jacobson

Working on an oral history of the Saint Thomas Academy football program for the Saber magazine recently, it quickly became apparent that the program was built by men of character, who used the program to build more men of character.

Oddly, not many people interviewed for the article mentioned that word, “character.” It’s just as well, because both the word and the concept of a person’s character are hard to define. A common explanation for “character” is “what a person does when nobody is looking.”

For example, if you know you can get away with doing something illegal, immoral, or just plain wrong, and you choose not to, that is one measure of character. A truer measure may be your willingness to go above and beyond, to never cut corners on even the most menial task, and to stand on principle even when doing so is unpopular.

However difficult it may be to define character, that is not the reason the word rarely came up in those interviews with current and former Saint Thomas Academy football folks. The real reason is that character ultimately is a matter more of deeds than of words, anyway.

What was so delightful about writing that article on the football program was that man after man spoke truthfully, accurately and without presumption about acts of high character he had witnessed in and around the program. Starting with Gerry Brown as the Academy’s head coach from the late ‘60s to the late ‘80s, and up to the present day, the program embodies character.

That is no accident. Saint Thomas Academy itself cultivates character. The four pillars – Catholic, College Preparatory, Military Leadership, and All-Male – provide a framework for character education. Living up to the highest values of each of those pillars requires character, so striving to do so is a big part of what builds character.

Upping the ante in the crucible of competition, where Cadets very visibly and publicly either contribute to the brotherhood of the team or fail to, is an even stronger test. To overcome oneself – one’s fear, pain, and fear of pain – every day in football practice, takes character unfathomable to those who have not experienced it. What appears on Friday nights is just the tip of the character iceberg.

Even with the basis of a Saint Thomas Academy education – and even with a rich football tradition that amplifies the school’s academic rigor, spiritual wealth and military discipline – character education in young men does not happen without a specific, explicit commitment from adults in leadership positions.

As an example of the intent required to build young men of character, perhaps the most telling quotation in that Saber article came from Dave Ziebarth: “…due to reading Joe Ehrmann’s Season of Life…(W)e would discuss a lot of non-football things. Tim Hernandez’s son was in a terrible car accident. And we prayed every day after practice, and the kids wanted to keep doing it. We still do that, get together and pray and talk about intentions and things outside of football.

“I’ve been at Saint Thomas Academy for 39 years and been to a lot of weddings and funerals, and I always see the large numbers of teammates who turn out for each other. When I was coaching with Bob (Slater) in ’97, my mother died. When my dad and I walked into the church, we saw 300 kids in their Class A uniforms. It was a really powerful moment. That’s what our kids do.”

For those uninitiated with Season of Life, it is a book by Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Jeffrey Marx in collaboration with Ehrmann, the former Pro Bowl defensive lineman for the old Baltimore Colts. Ehrmann’s tale recounted in the book includes reconciling childhood trauma and the untimely death of a sibling, along with many other social-emotional challenges, in a journey to understanding that the highest values in life are service and relationships. Ehrmann has served as a minister and a high school football coach and has changed thousands of lives for the better with his InSideOut Coaching book, workshops, and advocacy for using sports to teach character.

It should come as comfort and reassurance to anyone involved with Saint Thomas Academy that Ehrmann’s book informs the football program’s continued culture of cultivating character. It should come as even greater comfort that reading Season of Life was never necessary to begin with when it came to character education through football at Saint Thomas Academy.