Ben Cohen at The Nines Hotel, Portland, OR June 2, 2011. Photo by Jonny Shultz.
Ben Cohen is a stand up guy. A true gent. And incredibly handsome. And, after spending a little time with the rugged rugby athlete on Thursday morning in the library at The Nines Hotel, I realized he's quite the devoted family man.
You see it in the way his 32-year-old face squishes up when he talks about his "girls"—his wife, Abby, and their 3 1/2-year-old twin daughters—and how much he misses them. "This is by far the longest I've ever been apart from the twins," said Ben who's traveled away from his Manchester, England-based family estate for nearly a month now. "I have a horrible ache in my heart."
You see his familial devotion in the way his eyes well up as he describes his father's tragic death in 2000 at the hands of some hooligans during a fight at a bar his dad owned with Ben's brother in the U.K.
And its visible on his face when he talks about his fellow teammates, back when Ben Cohen was considered the best rugby player in the world (he began his career with Northampton Saints in 1996; in 2007 he moved to France to represent Brive before returning to England two years later to join Sale Sharks.) "When I played," says Ben. "I had an emotional attachment to my mates like I would to anyone in my family. They were part of me."
But there's something else.
Ben Cohen isn't just dedicated to his own "family." He's devoted himself to the "family of man"—specifically gay, lesbian, bi and transgendered folk.
I know how strange that might sound. But consider this, now that he's just retired from the world of rugby, this straight "family man" is devoting his life to eradicating bullying and to put an end to homophobia. It's going to be his life's work. And he's more than up for the challenge.
That's why he was in Portland.
Ben chose Portland to wrap up the end of his three-week "Acceptance" tour, which is all part of his brand new Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation. To that end Cohen spent a good share of his time in Beaverton discussing this important issue with LGBT and like-minded leaders at Nike as well as making an appearance at downtown's Niketown (and at a private event at Departure, see photos below).
Oddly enough, Ben says his foundation came about after he found out he had a HUGE fan base on Facebook of men, primarily gay men.
"I discovered I had this massive following," said Ben. "And, after making sure they were actually talking about me, I realized that I have a massive responsibility to them. I am in this privileged position where I can change people's lives, or change someone's thought process. Through StandUp we want to make a big difference in the world, and, at the very least, create awareness."
Ben is not naive. He's aware of his matinee-idol looks. "I'm attractive...fine," he says. "But it wasn't something I focused on or needed to figure out what I could with 'that'."
Fact is, he had bigger issues to consider. "I hate violence, even though there is always a bit of that during a 'pitch.' And there is a controlled arrogance that comes with playing rugby, or any other sport," says Ben who is nearly deaf in both ears. "Especially on game day. Many athletes let that spill over into their personal lives. I didn't want to do that. I think athletes have a responsibility to be role models. There is a ripple effect. That's why it's important to listen to people and be the best person you can be. You have people looking up to you and its our job to make sure they can."
For a part of his sports career though, when he was at the top of his game, Ben says that he was more of a "lost boy." "My father's death dealt me a really heavy blow and my emotions just kind of...drifted" says Ben. "I won the World Cup for my dad, but I never grieved for him. I've never had time."
That has led Ben to think about those kids who commit suicide after being bullied and abused for being gay, fat, tall or small. "I understand that pain," he says. "And it's easy to take for granted that our family members will always be here. But the truth is, my father missed my kids birth, and me winning the World Cup. He wasn't there for any of that."
That's why he created StandUp. "I'm not after fame or fortune," says Ben. "I believe that people have the right to live and love and love others. And I want to make a difference with the first-ever foundation that is headed by myself, who is a world-champion sportsman with a very successful career, but who also specifically supports LGBT youth. My family is my agenda. I want this to be my legacy."
And the response has been overwhelming. "Everyone I've met," says Ben, "have been incredibly supportive. I take real pride in my work. I've retired from rugby and this is my full time job. The StandUp Foundation is part of my family now."
And, Ben, we are proud to say you are part of our family too. And if I could be so bold as to speak on my community's behalf: Thank you, brother.
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Last Updated (Sunday, 05 June 2011 08:11)