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.

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.

“Three…”

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. It’s a mistake to compromise yourself.”
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.”

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.

The choice is yours.

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Rogues

Photo by Brian Brush

By Mark vonAppen

I believe firefighters can be placed into 3 categories in terms of engagement and leadership.  Generally speaking: 

  • 25% believe in (or pretend to believe in) current leadership staff
  •  35% have no faith in (some of them even hate) the leadership staff
  •  40% could go either way given strong direction and leadership 


Of the 35% that contains the haters, there is a very temperamental subset that can have a profound impact on organizational chemistry. 


The most important firefighters to capture are the rogue leaders, those passionate individuals who, if ignored, can be savage and destructive forces on the team.  Like it or not, your truest leaders are not always the ones who do exactly as they are told or what the book says is right every single time. Your best leaders are not necessarily “yes men”.  The best leaders are functionally intelligent, independent thinkers who scare the shit out of micro-managers.

People gravitate toward strong personalities, not drones who do just exactly what is expected of them and nothing more.  Some of the strongest leaders among us have pushed it right to the edge and some have even gotten kicked off of the team.  Passion is energy; channelling that energy in a way to best suit the needs of the team is the key to overall success.  Some of history’s most influential leaders were agents of evil, I sure-as-hell don’t want them on my team.  In order to bring the rogues home, you must first understand who they are.

Rogues are driven by passion.  Sometimes, your informal, real leaders wind up getting chapped by positional leaders who don’t know what to do with them.  Rogues have a lot of energy and original ideas, because of this they are seen as trouble makers who rock the boat.  They ask questions. They can be found training by themselves or in tight-knit misunderstood groups.  They are often your highest fireground performers because their passion and drive for perfection won’t let them stop training and learning.  They are students of the craft in the truest sense.  The rogue believes that when your job has the potential to take your life, you had best make it your life’s work.  Rogues are intolerant of those who do not understand their drive or respect the craft.

Communication, trust, and confidentiality are the keys to success in any leadership endeavor, but particularly when dealing with the bristly rogue.  Cultivating trust in the firehouse is a must have if we seek an elite level of performance. 

“People follow passion much more readily than rules. Rogue leaders have loaded dispositions that can either aid in leading the group forward or act to tear the team apart.  Find your most passionate people and bring them on board.”

Each rogue leader must be engaged individually in order to determine what motivates them.  Build trust by treating everyone as unique, and shower them with genuine interest.  Place these fiery leaders in positions where they have the best chance of affecting others with their strength, their passion for the craft.  They must feel that the organization will not quit on them, even when they overstep their bounds.  The deal breaker is if the rogue does harm to the team, this cannot be tolerated.  The obligation of the informal leader is to make every effort to try to contribute to the success of the team.  People must feel that the leader is speaking to them individually even as the leader is addressing an entire  group. Trust and connection must be built and it might take a while.

How do you develop trust?

  • Communication
  • Honesty – most rogues have something in their career that has made them jaded, be honest or you’ll lose them forever
  • Create stakeholders – include informal leaders in the planning process
  • Clearly communicate the plan and then execute it 
  • Mutual exchange – have expectations of the individual and allow them to have expectations of positional leaders
  • Accountability  
  • Patience
Photo by author
For better or worse, rogue leaders have the greatest influence on the firehouse.  Their infectious, passionate personalities are magnetic.  People are pulled in when they speak and they will emulate their actions. If you are able to rein in their energy for the positive, and are genuinely interested in helping them succeed for the good of all; then you will have an ally for life.  If you double-cross or lie to them you will have an enemy for eternity.  Trust is the biggest factor in getting and keeping rogues engaged.   

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Do your job 
Treat people right
Give all out effort 
Have an all in attitude

Rogue leaders have loaded dispositions that can either aid in leading the group forward or act to tear the team apart.  The key is taking all of that energy and focusing it in the right direction before it goes sideways from lack of exercise and frustration.  Rogues just need someone they can trust and who truly believes in them.  People follow passion much more readily than rules.  Find your most passionate people and bring them on board.  True progress is made when passion and lofty goals meet planning and expectations.
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Children of Lady Luck

By: Mark vonAppen
Performing under pressure is something that people who operate in high-octane professions routinely deal with; firefighting is no exception. How do the great ones deal with chest-crushing, muscle-paralyzing pressure? How do they stay so cool?
The elite among us know that preparing is itself a ritual and they work their craft and themselves hard at every opportunity.
Everything is about competition.
The performance is the reward.  Performing is the payoff of weeks—sometimes years—of preparation in the form of sweat, aches, and mind-numbing repetition.  Performance is where we are tested in our field; where we display our make and mettle.  Elite performance stems from consistency, from performing and mastering the basics over and over again.
The devil is in the details and the demons are exorcised well before they take to the field to do battle.  Top performers sweat the small stuff, and they sort out the details of their task well ahead of time in order to get themselves that much closer to achieving their desired goal.  They know that learning never stops.
When the time comes to rise up will you play big or shrink from the pressure of the moment?
If you are prepared, on game day you should feel loose, relaxed in the belief that the hard work is behind you.  It is time to set your training and preparation in motion.  It is time to show what you are made of, to show the depth of your preparation.  If you have put hard work in ahead of time, the pressure should ease because you have prepared.
Top performers work at winning.  They see successes and failures in training as immediate and concrete feedback.  It is the environment speaking directly to them:
Hmmm, that didn’t work. Cross that one off the list of things to try…
– Or –
Okay, that worked.  Now, take that success and make yourself even better.
You have to believe in yourself and have faith that training and preparation will see you through.  Those who believe in themselves and surround themselves with people of like mind, who share a belief in a common goal, will find success in time.  Success is attributed to hard work, dedication, learning from mistakes, and belief in a cause.
Keys to success in pressure situations
Start with a strong foundation
Build a strong foundation in all aspects of your profession, whatever it might be.  A solid base includes having a strong grip on the mental, physical, and emotional aspects of yourself and your profession—they are all linked together.
If everything else is equal, mental and emotional control can make the difference. Most people feel that top physical performance is all about speed and strength, but it goes much deeper than that.  Some people have a fear of success; others have a fear of failure.  You have to prepare to succeed, and you have to see yourself doing it.
Master the basics
Rehearse basic skills to the point of muscle memory.  Mastering the basics allows you to perform them without thinking, thus allowing for greater awareness.  The greats practice rote disciplines (SCBA donning, air emergency mitigation, calling a MAYDAY, making a stretch, ladder raises, internal size-up) to the point that they forget that they are even performing a skill.
Perform the basics until muscle memory kicks in; then add a sense of urgency and PPE to turn up the degree of difficulty.  Gradually increase the tempo of drills until performance speed is reached.  Alternate between a slow pace in which no mistakes are made and training at the desired performance speed to get the best results.  Mastery of the basics makes you less accident and injury-prone when fatigue sets in, which can make us clumsy and inattentive.
Train proactively
Practice hard and set goals for each training session.  Do not go out and simply go through the motions.  Set your mind on winning, even on the drill ground.  Practice is where you develop good habits.  You must train proactively for any situation.  You have to know how you will react given any circumstance—you can’t guess.  You must practice for every possible scenario so you don’t get surprised.  You have to train to the point that you can anticipate what is going to happen next.
Focus
Learn how to be present in the moment, how to maintain your focus on what is happening around you (fire and structural conditions).  If you focus on living and performing in the moment, the pressure goes away.  In the present, you’re not worried about the past or what might happen, you are only focused on the task at hand.  You have to ask yourself, “What is most important right now?”
You must be willing to move out of your comfort zone.  When you try something new and you feel awkward and uncomfortable, that is when you grow.

We can learn a great deal from observing the work habits of great performers in any arena.  If you get to know yourself and your craft well enough, pressure subsides and fear becomes a tool.  Great performers rely on training and preparation, both physical and emotional, to turn fear into aggression, thus surpassing those who freeze at the moment of truth.  They take fear and turn it into anger, fueling the fire to win or survive.  The great ones normalize pressure situations, emotionally categorizing them as routine—the result of intense preparation.

You must be willing to stretch yourself during training sessions in order to achieve what was previously thought to be impossible.  Fear is conquered through training, visualization, pushing through pain, and finishing hard.  Great performers know who they are before the action starts.
Some will say of those who succeed that their good fortune is rooted in luck. Those who dismiss reaching a goal as something left to chance underestimate the drive and determination needed to achieve elite performance levels.
Are great performers lucky?  Maybe they are if you look at it this way.  Success is not an accident.  Very seldom does Lady Luck play a role in the outcome of high-stakes endeavors.  I’m not even sure that Lady Luck exists at all.  If she does, she has children and she shows them great favor.  She smiles upon the driven few who stay late, put in the extra work, take a few more reps, and sweat that much more than the competition. Some of the best performers create their own luck through hyper-vigilance, and deep, thoughtful preparation.

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