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.
“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.”
He still hasn’t.
“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.”
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.
He took a deep breath in, staring up vacantly at the sky he exhaled, “Hey buddy, I quit my job today.”
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.
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.”
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 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.”
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
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.
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.”
“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.”
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.