Lacrosse icon Kohn inspires many

By Aimee Berg, special for USA TODAY


On Wednesday afternoon, just before Middlebury takes the field for its quarterfinal in the NCAA Division III men's lacrosse tournament, a player will inevitably ask the team's 73-year-old field manager, "What time is it?"


Peter Kohn, shown in 'Keeper of the Kohn,' is a favorite among Middlebury lacrosse players.


"Time to beat Wesleyan," Peter Kohn will say.

Players have been asking Kohn what time it is for 24 years, and if Middlebury advances to the title game as it has five of the past six seasons, then the scene will repeat itself all the way to May 29.

The shtick has become as beloved as Kohn himself and not just at Middlebury, where the women's lacrosse and field hockey field bears his name.

"No one has touched more lives in the game," says Jim Grube, the former coach who persuaded Middlebury to hire Kohn as an assistant equipment manager in 1981. Kohn also has been involved with annual lacrosse festivals, camps, 32 all-star games and six world teams.

"He's an institution," says current head coach Erin Quinn.

As proof, last year Kohn was enshrined in the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame, though he never scored a goal.

And last month in Baltimore, six decades worth of Kohn fans showed up to greet the city's native son as he shuffled humbly down the red carpet as the star of an award-winning documentary, Keeper of the Kohn. The film takes its name from the one or two freshmen, known as "keepers," selected each year to look after Kohn and ensure his daily needs are met.

Kohn has demonstrated symptoms of mild autism since childhood, although he has never been formally diagnosed. He is enamored of trains, counts their cars and records the numbers in a notebook. He remembers players' middle names decades after they've graduated. He also habitually carries four or five different cameras to lacrosse functions.

He lives on his own but is hard of hearing and doesn't drive.

"Initially, I thought it would be much more of a burden, but quickly I found out that it's an honor," says midfielder Dave Campbell, a 2005 keeper.

One of the main responsibilities is to make sure Kohn has a ride to practice. "I don't have a car," Campbell says, "but my teammates always let me borrow theirs. I think I've driven every car on the team."

Although Kohn is technically responsible for filling water bottles, retrieving errant balls and cleaning players' cleats, his influence extends far beyond the field.

"For every second spent on Pete, you take something valuable away, whether it's newfound knowledge of the railroads, baseball statistics or something a lot more special. Pete showed me a lot about life," says 2004 keeper Alex Palmisano. "I was amazed at how thankful he was for all we gave to him when he really gave so much more to us."

Getting the job at Middlebury, however, "really took some convincing. I brokered hard," Grube says. "My wife and I were just about to start a family. It would have been so easy to say, 'Don't complicate your life,' and sort of shut the door before it's open."

Says Kohn: "Middlebury gave me an opportunity to harness the skills I had. I don't like talking about my skills because I don't want to make myself look big. But I wanted the kids to know what I was doing and why I was doing it. Middlebury gave me an opportunity to do that. Otherwise, I wouldn't have had a chance to make it."

As a result, players rarely ask him about his condition. "You treat him the way he is," says Campbell.

"People who meet him feel like they're part of a profound exchange," says director David Gaynes, who chronicled Kohn's 2003 season, his last before semi-retiring. (Keeper of the Kohn won the Jury award for best documentary at the Vail Film Festival and the Audience award for best documentary at the Palm Beach Film Festival; it will travel to Vermont, Connecticut and New York City in June.)

During filming, Middlebury lost its bid for a fourth consecutive title in sudden-death overtime, and Kohn also lost two close friends (including Jerry Schmidt, a Hall of Fame coach and player who had lobbied to get Kohn in the Hall).

Kohn missed his extended family and has been returning for tournaments ever since.

It was therefore no surprise when the lights went up after the Baltimore premiere and someone yelled, "Hey Pete! What time is it?"

Without hesitating, Kohn said, "Time to give back what so many have done for me for so many years."