By Claire Thompson
A lone but recognizable figure sauntered, smiling, across the field. It was a familiar sight for any sports team at Rider. But these particular strides were now more symbolic than ever.
Ben Cohen, a 2010 alumnus, walked with pride and maybe the slightest sense of ownership. The ground he walked on was once just a rutted dirt field. It is now covered by posh turf, arena lights and a sign bearing the title, “Ben Cohen Field.”
Though the construction of the turf field has been a monumental catalyst for success, its new name stands for something much more powerful and sends a message worth listening to. It speaks to more than just the teams that compete on the turf and to people beyond Rider’s student-athletes. This message is Cohen’s story.
Cohen credits a particular day back in the spring of 2006 as the start of his Rider legacy. He was only a freshman at the time.
It was a cold, rainy day and Cohen was baffled that the Rider women’s softball doubleheader against Penn State hadn’t been cancelled. But Cohen didn’t have classes that day, so he would surely be in the bleachers to show his support.
Rider took hold of the win in the first game, 3-2.
“I talked to one of Rider’s softball players, congratulated her on winning the first game and wished her luck in the second,” Cohen said.
At the end of the second inning of game two, a Rider assistant coach presented Cohen with a softball that had been autographed by all the players and coaches. It was a gift from the team in an effort to show the players’ appreciation to their new “number one fan.”
“The softball team was the first to let me know how much they appreciated my support, and if it hadn’t been for that, I may not have made the decision to attend most of the games for five years,” Cohen said.
That recognition marked the beginning of an era of fandom, dedication and reward. For the next five years, Cohen was unrivaled in his support for Rider sports, particularly on the women’s side.
Cohen quickly established himself through his presence at many athletic events. Staff members, coaches and athletes all took notice of his unconditional support. Cohen was clutch for recapping the game for late-comers and no-shows. Regardless of the score line, he firmly believed in any team’s ability to fight back. Cohen showed up in rain or shine, whether the team was winning or losing.
In fact, he turned down the opportunity to meet then Senator Barack Obama because he had field hockey match to attend. Obama visited the Cohen residence at the end of his presidential campaign for a final fundraiser organized by David Cohen, Cohen’s father and executive vice president of Comcast. However, Cohen put this introduction on the back-burner for the night — he had a prior commitment.
Fortunately, Cohen had the opportunity to meet the president a year later under similar circumstances. He told President Obama why he had forgone the initial opportunity to meet him.
“He told the president this story, and the president graciously allowed that he admired Cohen’s loyalty and thought he had made the right choice,” David Cohen said.
Cohen was always an avid sports fan. Though he took after his parents in following the Eagles, Phillies, Sixers and Flyers, he is drawn toward sports teams that lack the overwhelming fanfare. For example, he closely follows the Philadelphia Soul of the Arena Football League.
“I tend to be a fan of the underdog,” Cohen said during his speech at the turf field naming ceremony on Sept. 16, 2010.
In high school, Cohen covered sports for the school newsletter and served as manager for the boys’ basketball team. He even received a varsity letter for his time and dedication.
His habit of committing himself to a cause continued throughout his collegiate career. Everyone knew Cohen as Rider’s “number one fan.”
Karin Torchia, associate director of athletics for external operations and senior women’s administrator, became keenly aware of Cohen’s presence at athletic events during the fall of 2005, his freshman year. She recalls the first time she saw him at a field hockey game.
“[He] was pacing along the track with his iPod headphones in,” Torchia said. “Then I started to see him at every event.”
Associate Dean of Student Affairs Ira Mayo also remembers his time with Cohen. The first time they met was at Cohen’s freshman orientation.
“We just clicked,” Mayo said.
Mayo is a New York fan, and he and Cohen would constantly taunt each other about their home team preferences.
Cohen’s outpouring of positive energy was contagious to those he spent time with at Rider. His excellence in commitment made him a role model to others.
“I truly admire Ben’s attitude and competitive spirit,” said Athletic Director Don Harnum.
Cohen was recognized, once again, on Feb. 14, 2010, at the National Girls and Women in Sports Day. He was invited earlier that week to attend a breakfast that preceded a women’s basketball game. Cohen had already planned to be in attendance but was asked to come a little earlier that day. It was that morning that Harnum, Torchia, Rider’s female athletes, coaches and other staff honored Cohen with a plaque “in recognition of [his] outstanding support of and dedication to the Rider University Department of Athletics.” Cohen estimates that he spent about 300 hours supporting women’s soccer and field hockey alone.
While he has been praised by many and will now be recognized permanently by his name on the turf field, Cohen has shown appreciation for those who supported him throughout his journey at Rider.
“My parents are my greatest fans,” Cohen said.
He is thankful that they endorsed his fandom and for the time management advice they offered him to help balance schoolwork and his commitment to athletics. Cohen is also proud that his father was able to give back to the teams he loves. Mr. Cohen generously sponsored the construction of the field both for the sake of his son and the programs that were such a big part of his life in college.
Cohen also mentioned Jonathan Millen, associate dean of liberal arts, education and sciences, as being helpful during his time at Rider.
Finally, Cohen mentioned that Barbara Blandford, director of Services for Students with Disabilities, was a huge support system for him while he was at Rider.
Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of Cohen’s story is the personal obstacles he had to overcome. Blandford would meet with Cohen every week to discuss both academic and personal challenges.
“[My condition] is a result of unusual circumstances while my mother was pregnant with me,” Cohen said. “It resulted in problems with my lungs and orthopedic problems, and I spent close to a year at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia when I was a baby.”
Though he faces some learning issues as well as some physical restrictions, Cohen certainly doesn’t view himself differently than any other college student. Everyone has their own struggles.
“My greatest challenge, not unlike other students, was getting used to the college rhythm,” Cohen said.
He said his passion for athletics helped him manage his time. Cohen had to plan for days and weeks in advance in order to allow for time to watch games.
“Ben doesn’t consider himself disabled in any way,” his father said. “When you go through life facing the challenges that Ben has faced, you can either make excuses or just fight your way through them in a determined fashion. Ben has chosen the latter course, and he is a stronger person as a result.”
Though Cohen may have been limited in his ability to participate in athletics, he found another way to become involved by sitting in the stands and serving as Rider’s number one fan.
It was a proud day when Cohen walked for graduation in May of 2010. More impressively, he found work by October at the corporate headquarters of Education, Sports and Fun Summer Camps in Pennsylvania.
Cohen attended Rider for five years, but his name will live on for much longer.
The turf field didn’t always have a name but Cohen was present for the matches won and lost on the field that preceded the new venue. Though he was only at Rider for the field’s first year of competition, it’s perfectly fitting that its sign bears his name.
Cohen’s dedication to Rider athletics extends far beyond the bleachers overlooking the field — his contributions will stand for a message much more powerful than a sign.
Today, Cohen ponders whether or not he’ll still be remembered once the athletes he supported graduate from Rider. But what’s really important is exactly what he’ll be remembered for.
Cohen will be remembered for the example he set: his positive outlook on his own challenges and the athletic teams. He will be remembered for walking on graduation day and leaving his mark at Rider.
Cohen simply will not be forgotten, nor will his story.