Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Three Decades of Perspective

By Mark vonAppen

In 1979, after 17 years of coaching football at the high school  and college levels, Fred vonAppen got his first professional coaching job. He and many others felt as if he had finally arrived. As he prepared to make the transition to the National Football League (NFL), he was fully aware of the challenges that come with coaching professional athletes. A man of strong convictions, he swore to himself and to his peers that he would not allow his principles to be compromised.

Professional football would not change Fred vonAppen.

The Idealist

April 10, 1979

"I'll never forget it," said Frederick (Fritz) vonAppen Sr., a retired captain with the Eugene Fire Department, speaking of his son's playing days. "Fred wasn't very big back then, and he came home after the first practice and just went to bed."

But not before getting sick. "Coughing up blood," said Fred Sr. "But Fred wouldn't give up."

He still hasn't.
"It's a mistake to compromise yourself."
Tucked into vonAppen's personality, somewhere in there, with his chaw of tobacco, his love of hillbilly music, and his bark-may-be-as-bad-as-his-bite bellowing that characterizes his on field coaching is the determination that kept him from quitting football. And he continued to flourish in his drive for coaching success.

"I aspired to play pro football, but I never thought I'd be coaching at that level. I didn't make it as a player. I hope to do it as a coach," vonAppen said. "I know I'll be dealing with grown men whose motivations differ from individual to individual, men who are in a profession trying to be as good or better than anyone else in the profession."

Change? Not vonAppen. "It's a mistake to compromise yourself."

-Bob Rodman
 Of the Eugene Register-Guard

The Radical

September 4, 1980

When I was a fourth-grader my mom and dad met us at the curb by the front entrance to our school. My folks rarely picked my sister and me up from school, I mean rarely. Even on days when the weather was at it's most beastly in Green Bay, Wisconsin - with the wind howling and snow drifts taller than we were - to school we'd walk. Sometimes we'd arrive and the doors to school would be locked due to snow conditions.  

With school closed, we'd climb all over the playground until pins and needles on our noses and cheeks became too bothersome, then we'd trudge the three quarters of a mile back home.

The weather this day was beautiful - the afternoon sky unblemished - my parents met us at the entrance to the school - mom with my baby brother on her hip and dad beside her, arms folded as he leaned against the station wagon.

My parents never came to school together - especially in the Fall. Dad was usually at work these Autumn days until well past dinner time. My mom ran the house during football season and to have us assembled in the same spot during daylight hours - unless we were on the practice field - was entirely out of the ordinary. Even as a 9 year-old I could decypher the semaphore on their faces signaling loud and clear - something wasn't right. 
He took a deep breath in, staring up vacantly at the sky he exhaled, "Hey buddy, I quit my job today."
"Hey guys, let's go," my mother said. Leaning over she kissed us each atop the head. 

My folks shepherded us into the car and off we drove. When the car didn't follow the familiar track to the house, my sister asked in the high, lilting voice of a 6 year-old girl, "Mommy, where are we going?"

"For a walk." dad said. "We need to get away from the house for a while."

Unbeknownst to us kids, a crush of reporters was camped out on our front lawn complete with cameras, notepads, pens, fedoras, and cigars. They all wanted a piece of my dad. My parents thought it best if we were not subjected to the media circus at our house, so we went for a drive.

We traveled - past the prison and over the Fox River Bridge - for 15 minutes in relative silence until we reached a park on the fringes of the city. 

Dad parked the car.

The creek muttered beside us as we walked through our favorite picnic ground not far from our home, a male and female mallard bobbed with the current. My father and I split from my mother and siblings - they headed for the swings beyond the picnic area - my dad and I continued along stream. My dad shuffled down the bank with me, hands in his pockets, head down in preoccupied thought until we reached the spot where I liked to skip stones. 

I grazed the pebbles with my hands as he absent-mindedly swept his foot back and forth helping unearth rocks right for skipping. Like a gem from the sandy earth I'd glean a skipper, examine it for symmetry, curve my index finger around it, whipping it across the stream I'd count.


I'd rake the ground some more and launch another, "Six..." The rock cracked against a boulder on the opposite bank.

My dad stooped, picked up a flat rock gave it a toss in the air and then fired it in a shallow trajectory just above the water.  It skittered cross the surface and it too ricocheted off a boulder on the opposite bank, a cracking report echoing in the maw of a nearby steel culvert that carried the stream to the opposite side of the highway.

Keeping score I said, "Wow, that was like 10 dad."

He took a deep breath in, staring up vacantly at the sky he exhaled, "Hey buddy, I quit my job today."

I paused momentarily and then skipping another stone I said, "That was really dumb dad."

September 5, 1980

Fred vonAppen resigned as the Green Bay Packers defensive line coach just three days before the season opener against the Chicago Bears. (Head coach)Bart Starr said vonAppen, one of the teams most popular assistant coaches resigned because of an incident involving one of his players during a 38 - 0 loss to the Denver Broncos on Saturday night.

- Mike Christopulos, The Milwaukee Sentinel

In the fall of 1980 Fred vonAppen quit his job as defensive line coach of the Green Bay Packers over a matter of principle. His brash move was the culmination of much frustration after repeated attempts at changing a misdirected culture in an organization that was foundering for lack of direction and discipline. It was an incident involving a hot dog that threatened to derail the career of this talented and fiery young position coach.
Some felt that the head-strong vonAppen acted rashly. However, vonAppen said, "I have no regrets."
After his initial season as an NFL assistant coach vonAppen was so troubled by the culture associated with the Packers and was determined to be a catalyst for change. A strong believer in the team concept, rewarding hard work and dedication, he became disillusioned with the team's lack of discipline, the poor overall work ethic, and lack of direction. He was bent on driving change in the organization - starting with his men -  as he began his second NFL season. 

He was uncompromising in his convictions.

VonAppen had been assured by his boss - head coach Bart Starr - that change was on the horizon and they would work as a coaching staff to shift the practices of the organization. He met with his players and informed them of his intent to change the culture, improve discipline, and instill a firm work ethic. All the pieces appeared in place to start the revolution. The world as the Green Bay player's knew it was forever to change.

The writing was on the wall though that changing the culture was going to be a long and difficult task because the organization was blind to the full extent of the problem. Time and again, disciplinary issues were lightly dealt with, or completely dismissed as insignificant, and the team continued down the loser's path. VonAppen's frustration with the organization reached a boiling point in the final pre-season game of the 1980 season.

Following a pre-season pasting (38 - 0) at the hands of the Denver Broncos, vonAppen learned that one of his players, Ezra Johnson, had been eating a hot dog on the sideline during the second half. Johnson was a tremendously talented player and a marked under-acheiver with a sizable attitude problem. Johnson said he didn't mean any disrespect to anyone by his actions. "I was just hungry," he stated in an interview. "I didn't wave it around or anything."
"I believe strongly in the principles of team play, and I am not able to compromise the principles I have."
In a meeting the day after the "hot dog incident" between head coach Bart Starr and vonAppen, the defensive line coach was assured that the penalty levied against Johnson would be swift and severe based upon the symbolism and the potential negative impact on the rest of the team. VonAppen advocated suspending Johnson and went so far as to recommend trading him to another team. Both Starr and vonAppen agreed that a message needed to be sent. 

In the end, Johnson was fined $1,000 and was required to apologize to his teammates. The tariff and the apology were not severe enough in vonAppen's opinion. Johnson was neither suspended nor traded, he was at practice the Monday following the game. 

At the first sign of conflict, and with an opportunity to show commitment to the new way of doing business, the organization did not support the assistant coach or his vision. Instead, they turned tail and ran. Feeling betrayed, vonAppen met with his boss and demanded an explanation. 

When interviewed on the matter vonAppen said, "I was deeply disappointed and troubled by the symbolism of something like that." Then he quit saying that he had no hard feelings towards Johnson. "I am sure that people will think this is extreme, but they don't know all that was involved."

"We didn't need that," Starr said of vonAppen's abrupt departure. "Fred is a man of high principle. Principle is one thing, principle without honor is another." 

"That's my personality make-up." vonAppen said. "I believe strongly in the principles of team play, and I am not able to compromise the principles I have.  So I had to walk."

September 26, 1980

Some people felt that the head-strong vonAppen acted rashly since his resignation came just days before the Packers' season opener against the Chicago Bears. However, vonAppen said he would do the same thing again, "I have no regrets. I quit over a matter of principle. I know the whys and wherefores of what I did."

- Mike Christopulos, The Milwaukee Sentinel

The Pragmatist

Thirty years after the fact, my dad has a different, softened, perspective on the incident. Beyond the precarious family portion of the story, my father's actions did not create the change  he envisioned. The team continued its downward spiral (the Packers finished 5 - 10 - 1) and when all was said and done, he was unemployed. 

Nobody won.

Stories such as this can help those of us who are frustrated with their organizations - the bureaucracy, the pettiness, the lack of vision - find the perspective to carry on in a less confrontational manner knowing that in time that battle that you wanted so much to win was inconsequential to the outcome of the war. Taking a hard stand on principle is admirable, and for a short period of time it may steel some people in your corner, but as days and weeks and months go by these overt acts polarize and divide an organization and make the individual appear to be a loose cannon. 

I can hear myself in the quotes contained on the yellowed pages of the articles written thirty years ago. I think all of those who hit the road in search of "the way" will smirk as they hear themselves in my father's words. It's the same circus with different clowns no matter the occupation. 

Somewhere in a cubicle farm inside a nondescript office building in Any Town, USA some anonymous worker - toiling his life away in his tiny cube - is at odds with his boss waging a similar war based on principle. Or maybe it's a firehouse, and instead of a football field it is the drill ground.
"In the end, I quit my job, making a stand for what I believe in and nothing really changed."
My old man is not a quitter. When I speak with him now about the days when he quit his job with the Green Bay Packers, he is much more pragmatic in his assessment of how his actions affected everyone involved. 

After he quit his job, he had no money coming in, a wife and children to feed, and a mortgage. "You can't feed a family on principle," he said. "If you quit, the organization may pause momentarily to witness the display, but it will move on without you and all that will be remembered - forever - is that you lost your cool and gave up."

Reckless actions aimed at revolution may make a big splash, but most times the ripples don't shift the sands of the intended shore. 

"In the end, I quit my job, making a stand for what I believe in and nothing really changed. Would I do it again? I don't know, but at the time, when I was much younger and more idealistic it seemed like the only move I could make. Would I jeopardize my family's security and my career that way again? Looking back on it, probably not."

Stick with it. Whatever it is.
 Photo by Lloyd Mitchell
We cannot go through our career throwing our hands in the air and giving up when things don't go our way. Time has a way of rendering jagged edges supple. It also has a way of softening our perspective, making us less prone to impulsive decisions. The courage and perseverance that it takes to drive positive change and influence a cultural shift is much less spectacular than the story of one who quits in a fit of passion. The long road to change is not the spectacle of the former, but is nonetheless a mix of triumph and tragedy.

I am every bit my father's son. I am quick to anger, motivated by passion, I have my principles - we all do - and there have been many times when I have been tempted to ring out from being monumentally frustrated and exhausted from jumping through hoops and over hurdles. I don't know what the keys to success are necessarily, but I know the quickest route to failure is trying to please everyone. 
Passion, patience, and perseverance are the keys to driving positive change.
There is a difference between compromise and being compromised. Compromise is an agreement or a settlement of a dispute by two sides making concessions. Compromised is to weaken a reputation or principle by accepting standards that are lower than what is considered acceptable. It is possible to compromise on an issue without compromising your principles. 

Change what you can change and put the rest aside in the short term. The big battles will still be there when you get back, better to chip away at them over time than to try to break off a large piece all at once. The burden you bear will lessen, and your river of personal pessimism will recede because you will witness the positive fruits of your labor in the development of others around you.  

We have to find the thing that drives us most and stick with it. Passion, patience, and perseverance are the keys to driving positive change. It is patience that makes us choose to work for what we want most versus what we want right now. Slow, steady, and consistent wins the race.

Stick with it, whatever it might be. If you don't, you will be forever left with the ache and wonder of what could have been. You can't make the change if you are not there.


  1. Great blog as usual. I am faced with a situation much like you illustrate here. However, my situation has been 30+ years of "slow, steady, and consistent" initiatives for a culture change beginning with others who came before me and now people like myself where we see minimal change in the culture. I am seeing people similar to myself leave the profession, as I am considering also, because the "slow, steady, and consistent" is NOT winning the race. We are realizing what we are doing is not working to change the culture and to stay in this profession is causing us to be compromised because there is no compromise. The "fight" gets old after awhile and you are left with nothing but to throw up your hands.

    If I choose to throw up my hands, yes there might be the wonder of what could have been BUT I would rather have that then stick with it and go through an entire career with seeing no change. I think that disappointment to be worse than the "wonder".

    A firefighter ready to throw up their hands

    1. Anonymous,

      I agree, the fight is exhausting. Most of the posts are pep talks I have with myself. I too am frustrated beyond comprehension at times, but what keeps me going is the enthusiasm of the new people that we are bringing in to the department. Seeing them develop and grow both personally and professionally buoys me in dark times.

      Talking to guys like you let's me know that I am not alone.

      Maybe those big changes you want to see won't happen under your watch. Maybe all you can influence in regards to change is teaching and training the people in your station to be the best that they can be. I am trying to learn to accept that I can only fix what I can fix and then we have to work around the rest. If you read the last post - Pass Road - it speaks to finding a way through it all. It's not easy, and sometimes you have to walk away for a while and see if anyone notices. If they care at all about what you are trying to accomplish they'll notice. If they don't, at least you'll know for sure where you stand.

      I have chosen to take the energy that I used to put into my organization in an effort to make sweeping changes and direct it into my crew, my station, and battalion. Through the efforts of many we are getting better - we still have a long way to go - in a time where we are cutting personnel, companies, and stations. But, it is frustrating knowing what we are capable of and not being able to get there as a whole.

      Guys with some gray in their hair - sounds like you've been in the service awhile - cannot quit. The old guys have to show the young bucks the way. Communicate the passions that you have and focus on the new people in the organization. If you teach them right, they'll keep your passion alive and maybe that change will come eventually.

      The fact that you care enough to read this blog and leave a lengthy comment says to me that you're not a quitter. Focus on what you can accomplish rather than what you cannot. Help the people that are receptive to the message you send. Don't throw up your hands and give up, you have too much knowledge and experience not to share it. It would be a shame to take it all with you when you leave.

      Instead of throwing your hands in the air and saying, "I quit." Take a hand and put it on the shoulder of a rookie and say, "Hey kid, let me teach you something."

  2. "Passion, patience, and perseverance are the keys to driving positive change." Mark you could have just posted this single line because it says it all!

  3. I wish I were that succinct. I'll get there eventually, thanks for hanging in there.

  4. This speaks volumes to me. As a young and eager (new) line officer I often fall victim to wanting things here and NOW! Some days I almost don't care about the path of destruction I'd leave if I pushed ahead with "nothing to lose" as I stand for my principles. Sometimes I just can't understand why the seasoned guys seem to hold me back. However, the more I (calmly) talk to them and the more I read your material, the more I understand how and why things happen the way they do. This article makes me realize that maybe they are not the enemy... but perhaps they actually know what's best for me. Turns out they've wanted much of what I want and have run into similar road blocks along the way. They haven't thrown up their hands yet.

    To Anonymous Above... please stick with it. Somewhere in your dept. is a young guy like me looking for your help and your drive. Even if you only motivate one person it's better than motivating nobody!

    As always... thanks for the therapy Brother Mark!
    -Young Lt. in PA

  5. Larry T... Proud father of a young Firefighter.April 11, 2013 at 5:41 PM

    ...And let the BROTHERHOOD of Firefighters grow in strength of each others wisdom. Sometimes you never realize you are role models for your peers.