Review of Season of Life by Jeffrey Marx

I generally did not care for Season of Life.

The book is about the Gilman Greyhounds, a Maryland high school varsity that was apparently THE power in the state in recent years, but lost several games in the 2001 season that the book is about.

The definition of masculinity

Marx would say the book is about teenage boys getting the correct definition of masculinity. We would all like to hear that definition. Unfortunately, such words are will ‘o the wisps. Hard to nail down.

If you asked 100 experts what the definition of masculinity was, I expect you would get 100 different definitions. Plus, there is the problem of deciding who the experts on the subject are. Webster’s says it means having qualities that are regarded as characteristic of men like strength and vigor. That is sort of a public-opinion-poll definition.

If I really wanted a definition, I would ask anthropologists what characteristics of men are consistent throughout all the various current and past societies in the world. I expect they would say the skills and personal qualities of a warrior and hunter like courage, much greater sex drive than females, facial hair, greater strength and speed than females, deeper voices, and so forth.

But not to worry, the two high school coaches that Marx writes about have got it all figured out. How did they get to be the experts on the subject of masculinity? Well, one is named Biff and the other played NFL football for ten years.

So what IS the definition of masculinity according to these two experts? Get your chisel and stone tablet ready.

It is the capacity to love and be loved and focus on others rather than yourself.

Gee! By those standards, the most masculine person in my lifetime was Mother Theresa.

Help others

That definition of masculinity is really just standard general Christian encouragement to be generous to others rather than selfish. That should be no surprise. The former NFL guy in Marx’s book, Joe Ehrmann, is a minister.


To a large extent, this is philosophy. I never studied that subject per se, but I have been exposed to a lot of it just from reading. I suspect that any undergraduate philosophy class could rip Marx and his two coach buddies to shreds in a philosophical debate about the principles they espouse. That’s not to say college undergrads have the only light bulb. It’s just that I am offended by the smug self-satisfaction of these three guys that they have such profound questions all figured out. That is a common occupational hazard of religious leaders and motivational speakers. Many even smirk when they discuss these issues with “infidels.”

Some valid points

To be sure, they have some valid, important points. Too many young football players live in single-mom homes and have no good male role models in their lives. Ehrmann polled various teenage boys and grown men about masculinity and found the teenagers have an immature definition, but that the grown men are not much better. Too much strength, competition, and such. I agree. Manhood involves figuring out how to make an honest living, leading a balanced life that honors your responsibilities to your family, friends, co-workers, subordinates, and so forth. Extraordinary amounts of muscles, fame, sexual conquests, and money are not manhood.

I also like their emphasis on sportsmanship. I do the same or more in that area.

Saints rule

There is sort of an implication in Marx’s book that this team won because their coaches are such saints. They regularly ask their players, “What is our job as coaches?” to which the players respond, “To love us.” Then they ask, what is your job as players and the players answer, “To love each other.” Ooookay.

When I went through West Point, which is arguably is the world’s greatest leadership program, they taught us, among other things, that you have to be yourself to lead. So I will not be doing that love-us-love-each-other routine with my team any time soon. It sounds sappy and psychologically and politically correct to me—NPR’s idea of an ideal football coach.

They also taught us that, as much as possible, you need to recognize the individual nature of each of the people you are trying to lead and appeal to their particular hot buttons. I would expect that many of Biff and Joe’s players think the love routine is bull—but they’re not about to say it because they want to stay on first string.

Where wins really come from

Why has Gilman been a power? Probably excellent personnel in terms of both athletic ability and player leadership and coaching. Why were they not so great in 2001? Probably because they had a down year in terms of player athletic ability or leadership. Perhaps because their coaches have gone overboard on believing that the love routine is the key to their success.

I was annoyed by the self-righteous tone of the book and its heroes. They are just a couple of high school football coaches, not doctors of philosophy. Because most people are intimidated by self-righteous people, I suspect these guys and their author are rarely challenged.

Sometimes, they are so wrapped up in their theories—or in playing “Saint Biff” to the observing book author—that they make fools of themselves. After a game in which they play lousy and get beaten by a much lesser team, head coach Biff tells the team, “I’m not disappointed in you. Not one bit.” Bull! By the time the bus gets back to Gillman, he changes his mind and chews the team out telling them he, “is disappointed, very disappointed.” So much for the “All you need is love” approach to football coaching.

Seems to me the correct approach is to be honest with the boys. If they play lousy, you should say so and express your unhappiness. If they play well, you should compliment them. You can be proud of them in a hard-fought loss. But if you say you’re proud of them after every game, no matter how many mental mistakes they make or how much they loaf, they will quickly recognize you for the politician phony you are.

Loud coaches

Marx rails against an opposing coach who yelled at his team. Sounds like the guy in question did overdo it. But to reject every coach who raises his voice is nuts. There have been all sorts of coaches who were successful and beloved by their players—sometimes only in retrospect—including non-touchy-feely guys like Vince Lombardi and Bear Bryant.

The coach has to be himself. Different styles work for different coaches. R. Lee Ermey, the gruff, former Marine drill sergeant on the History Channel is a classic example of a guy who can yell at people without losing the ability to lead them successfully.

Getting into the heads of teenagers

There is no question that young people are susceptible to cults and other attempts to manipulate them. Because of that, it seems to me that we coaches have an extra need to be careful about getting into kids’ heads. Can we grown-ups manipulate the mind of a boy? Yes. Will that help us win football games? Yes. Should we do it? I think not.

There is nothing wrong with preaching honesty and hard work and the golden rule and teamwork and all the traditional values. But when your football coaching starts sounding like a psychiatrist’s group therapy session, I think you are probably exceeding your authority—practicing psychiatry without a license. Such coaches could be a bull in the china shop inside a teen’s brain.

Adult male hugging

It is recently fashionable in some circles for men to cry and hug each other. This book pushes the adult male hugging big time. I hugged my sons a lot when they were kids. I think it would be awkward to do it to them now when they are grown. I’m sure Marx and his two buds can talk for hours on why men should hug. I think it’s an individual thing and they ought to butt out of judging those who are not comfortable with it—including Marx’s dad.

Having it both ways

I find those who talk about football like Marx and his two coaches try to have it both ways. When they are winning, they claim it’s their more enlightened character-building approach that is responsible. Then when they lose, they change the subject and say it doesn’t matter who wins.

The object of the game is to score more points than the opponent. That’s what all the work and effort are about. Either their approach wins or it doesn’t. If you take the attitude that your only job as a coach is to spout politically-correct rhetoric and that winning is an indirect by-product of rhetoric spouting, you will rarely win and you probably would not be able to sustain interest in a career of such nonsense.

You win in football because you have good players who know their jobs and execute them well. At the margin, Knute Rockne-style “pep” talks can be decisive. But “be a good person” rhetoric alone is not going to win any games absent players who have competitive athletic ability and who execute.

Will this book help you be a better coach? No. It’s barely about football.

Will it at least help you do better with the spiritual aspects of coaching your team? No. It’s too far out. The book you want for that is When the Game Stands Tall by Neil Hayes. That book is about the De La Salle High School team, which is near where I live and which was one of our varsity opponents the last two years. De La Salle is also pretty touchy-feely, but a little more down to earth—with the players making weekly goals that they share with their teammates and promising to do specific things for each other in the upcoming game. They have also had longer sustained success than Gilman. Actually, that’s an understatement. The De La Salle head coach, Bob LaDouceur’s, career record is 295-17-3. They shattered the national consecutive wins record of 71 by stretching theirs to 151. (Our varsity was their 150th consecutive win.)

Another book in that vein that I recommend is The Right Kind of Heroes about Bob Shannon the erstwhile head varsity football coach of the East St. Louis Flyers who were extremely successful in spite of being in one of the worst ghettoes in the U.S. 60 Minutes did a program about what a great job he was doing in a city where no one else seemed to be doing even an adequate job. Shannon was reportedly fired, apparently for making his fellow East St. Louis adults look bad by comparison.

Another excellent book which at least on its cover appears to be of the same vein is Huddle—Fathers, Sons, and Football by Andrew H. Malcolm. It is a very masculine book, if Mr. Marx will pardon the expression. But unlike Marx’s book, it is not self-consciously masculine. It is just the memoir of a football player remembering how he and his father related to each other through his playing football. To put it another way, I think Huddle succeeds wonderfully at what Season of Life unsuccessfully tries to do.

Season of Life is reportedly a best seller, although I doubt they would want to be cross examined about that claim. Such psycho-babble frequently is on best-seller lists.

John T. Reed

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John T. Reed