Mr. Good Field
Tuning in to Middlebury College's "Radio"
It's an hour before Middlebury College's homecoming football game against Trinity. A short, thin, hunched-over man in a faded blue baseball cap scuttles up and down the home team's sideline, weaving his way between helmeted college boys who step quickly out of his way. The old man carries an armful of white towels piled up to his head. As he neatly folds each towel over the aluminum bench and bends to retrieve stray jackets and mouthguards, a loud, clear voice interrupts his work.
"Pedro! Great to see you! Glad to see you got up for the game! Hey, your feather's looking a little ragged." The player examines the feather, a small, brown, withered thing sticking out of the old man's Middlebury baseball cap. Legend has it the feather has been there for 19 years.
"Well, thank you, it's good to see you too." Peter Kohn's voice is low and somewhat garbled, difficult to understand. Dropping his towels, he hugs the laughing player. More guys nearby drift away from their stretching to form a circle around Kohn.
"Hey Pete, what's the line on today's game?" one asks.
"What?" Kohn turns his body so that his good ear faces the boy.
"What's the line on the game?"
"Well, now, I don't bet."
They all laugh. The boy keeps prodding. "Pete, I bet on Trinity, whaddaya think?"
"Well, not to take anything away from Trinity. I'm sure they're a very, very good team. But I'm afraid you're going to lose [your bet]." Kohn cracks a big smile. The players laugh loudly, clap him on the back and disperse. The small man returns to his towels.
Homecoming has brought 72-year-old Kohn back to Middlebury, where he spent 20 years as equipment and field manager before "retiring" last spring. But Kohn is also a local celebrity, like "Radio" in the recently released, fact-based film about a challenged Guy Friday for a southern high school football team. Middlebury's lacrosse field is named after Kohn, who is himself the subject of a documentary-in-process. Here, everybody knows his name.
But as the opening kickoff approaches, it seems as if Kohn would rather pick up the gloves of fallen receivers than socialize with them. Middlebury's trainer comes over and grabs Kohn around the waist, saying loudly, "Peter! You're retired! You don't have to do that!" Kohn mumbles something inaudible and walks away from the trainer to the water cooler on the other end of the bench. The trainer looks up at an amused fan and shrugs. "I tried," he says.
Kohn has always loved sports, but he could never play them. He's "different" in ways that are apparent but difficult to categorize. There were times as a youth when he didn't grasp things as easily as his peers, Kohn says. But his family had the means to keep him out of institutions, so no one ever diagnosed him or assigned him a label.
Nor did his "disability" stop him from getting on the field. Kohn started slinging towels for the basketball team at the prestigious Park School in Baltimore, where he was enrolled as a student. Baltimore was a center of American lacrosse in the 1940s and '50s and, after graduating from Park, Kohn, at 23, hooked up with various teams in the surrounding area. He came to love the game, and for the better part of the next three decades he worked as field manager for club lacrosse teams and summer camps.
Over the years Kohn's warmth earned him the friendship of some of the sport's great players and veteran coaches, including Jim Grube, who coached the lacrosse team at Middlebury College from 1979 to 1992. Grube befriended Kohn and saw that he needed a change: In 1980, he offered then-50-year-old Kohn a full-time post as an equipment manager in Middlebury's athletic department. There, Kohn says, "I was able to find myself at a late age. I was able to harness the abilities I had."
Peter Kohn has been the face of Middlebury sports for the past two decades, working as an equipment and field manager for all the college's teams, but especially lacrosse and football, which Grube coached. In the spring Kohn traveled with the lacrosse team, picking up spirits as readily as dirty towels.
"He's not an innocent bystander by any means," says current coach Erin Quinn. "He knows his effect, and his sense of timing — when the guys need a lift — is absolutely unbelievable He's so positive. You'll never get him to say anything bad about the other team, no matter how hard you try."
Perhaps that accounts for his good karma. In lacrosse practice Kohn's main role is retrieving balls; he does his job well and without fear, says Quinn: "It's amazing. He's collecting balls that are whizzing by at sometimes 80, 90 miles an hour. If you just yell, Peter, get out of the way,' he'll be sure to stay there 10 more minutes, and you'll have to physically remove him."
Kohn's luck contributes to his savant status. "I probably shouldn't talk about it," says a superstitious Quinn. "One time I heard someone at a game at Amherst talking about Pete's force field, and within a few seconds, I heard this big aah!' — Peter got hit right in the chest. So we're not supposed to jinx it, but talking about it in the off-season might be okay.
"He's got a force field," Quinn elaborates. "I mean, it's mythical, and you have to use common sense in practice. There's no other person who could spend 50 years walking around fields with balls whizzing around and survive without a ding."
The team also employs more practical measures to look out for Kohn. The "Keeper of the Kohn" is an honor bestowed upon a couple of freshmen every year; when the team travels, the Keepers make sure Kohn's around, getting to the right places and getting enough to eat — he has a huge appetite. "Not that he needs [the help]; he's entirely self-sufficient," says Quinn. "When we're in Paris or London, he knows his way around better than any of us. He knows the London train system like the back of his hand. But because he knows how to get around, he's got his own agenda, and sometimes we have to urge him along."
Kohn's agenda includes stocking up on the postcards, newspapers and disposable cameras that he carries around in his infamous overstuffed white canvas bag. "He's got a wealth of knowledge," says Quinn, "and he works to get it. He's always taking pictures, memorizing faces, facts and names." On road trips Kohn is famous for providing historical facts about the towns the team is passing through.
But sports trivia is his forte. One showdown pitted him against a guy at Collins College in Roanoke, Virginia, who correctly identified an obscure pitcher from the 1920s. The Middlebury players groaned, thinking Kohn had been defeated. "Yes, that's right," said Kohn, maintaining a poker face. Then, after a brief pause, he came up with the pitcher's middle name.
When Peter Kohn walks around campus, lots of people stop to say hello. He's gracious to everyone, even though most know him only slightly. "Pete may spend only a week or two here in the fall these days," says Quinn, "but players from all sports who don't really know him still feel a real connection to him. There are very few of us who could have that sort of impact."
Kohn was officially recognized in 2000, when several alumni donated money to build a new turf lacrosse field. When it came time to name it, there was no doubt. Hundreds of alumni gathered to help dedicate Peter Kohn Field, along with its new bleachers — a gift given by Kohn to the college. The most emotional part of the evening came from Kohn himself; he dedicated the bleachers to his mother, saying that she gave "everything in her life" to make his better.
His personal journey is the subject of a full-length documentary by Dave Gaynes. The New York filmmaker was hired by a group of Middlebury lacrosse alumni to make the 20-minute commemoration, Finding Peter Kohn, which was shown at Middlebury this past spring.
Gaynes has since decided to expand the short project into a full-length work on his own. The new film focuses on Kohn's mysterious "condition" and society's reaction to it. "Peter's never been diagnosed," says Gaynes. "He feels no need to know' exactly how he's different."
But other people do. When they meet him, people inevitably ask, "What does he have?"
"What if he does have something?" asks Gaynes, "Is it worth labeling? If there is a problem, maybe it's in those who seek to label him. He's perfectly happy and satisfied with his accomplishments, which, by the way, are absolutely amazing by any standards."
A couple of Middlebury graduates who went on to medical careers have told Gaynes they think Kohn has some form of autism, which Gaynes says is "probably not far-fetched." But Kohn describes himself merely as someone who had a lot of difficulties early on in life, was troublesome to his mother, and did not find himself until he was in his fifties.
In 2002, Kohn was inducted into the New England Lacrosse Hall of Fame. "I'm just thankful I've been able to live as long as I have," he said with characteristic self-effacement. "Otherwise I wouldn't have been able to see so many wonderful things." He then rattled off a list of people he considered more deserving of the honor.
On Homecoming Day, there's speculation that Kohn — who's divided his time between Middlebury and Cape May, New Jersey, since his retirement — might come to the game. But no one actually hears from him until the day before the game, when he shows up at practice and begins handing out towels and water bottles.
Middlebury loses to Trinity, 16-0, and the home team trudges off the field with their heads hanging. The coaches chat with alumni while fans socialize on the field. But the "retired" equipment and field manager is still at work, scouring the Middlebury bench for items the disheartened players have left behind. As he straightens his frail body after retrieving a jacket, he spots a trainer carting off the towel bag.
"Hold it!" Kohn snaps, peering into the canvas bag. "We have to separate that! That one has blood on it!"
The trainer protests, but the old man has made up his mind. He plucks the offending towel from the dirty laundry bag. Then, the last guy on the field, he turns back to the bench, takes one final look around for lost items, and begins the long trek back to the locker room.