GREEN BAY, Wisc. — It’s been a growing tradition now for some Lewis Mills High graduates.
A group of graduates gather on Thanksgiving morning at the Nassahegan Recreation Complex in Burlington for a rousing game of touch football. For years, Burlington’s Michael Cohen has been one of the organizers of the game.
Boys and girls can play. Every year, a few more friends join the game along with some siblings. A few adults have been known to play. It’s a morning of football, long passes, big runs, touchdowns and fun. A few small trophies and a year’s worth of bragging rights go to the winners.
There was no football team or Thanksgiving Day game tradition at Lewis Mills when Cohen graduated in 2009. It would be nearly a year before the Mills football team made its varsity debut in September 2010.
This November, Cohen finds himself with a new Thanksgiving tradition.
Instead of racing up and down the green grass of Nassahegan, Cohen will be part of the infinitely larger Green Bay Packer family that has millions of fans from coast-to-coast and around the world. Cohen will be in a press box at historic Lambeau Field in Green Bay on Thanksgiving evening when the Packers host the Chicago Bears.
Cohen, 25, is one of the newest writers for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Wisconsin’s largest daily newspaper, and his beat is to cover the NFL’s Green Bay Packers.
Seven years ago, Cohen was a high school senior in Burlington playing on the soccer team, doing play-by-play of Lewis Mills basketball and hosting his own sports radio talk show over the internet and on WAPJ-FM, Torrington’s public radio station.
“I was the rare kid who knew what I wanted to do,” Cohen said. He wanted to be a broadcaster. In 2009, he won the Bohdan Kolinsky Memorial journalism scholarship from the Connecticut Sports Writers Alliance for aspiring journalists and went to study at Syracuse University.
At Syracuse, he fell in love with writing. “I like the creativity that comes with writing and the freedom to explore a point a bit more,” he said. “On a broadcast, you need the ability to create the story instantaneously. With print, I have the time to sit down and craft it. It is a challenge to make it interesting but it is something I enjoy.”
He covered Syracuse University football and men’s basketball. He was sports editor for Syracuse’s student newspaper, the Daily Orange, when the Bernie Fine scandal broke. Fine was a long-time Syracuse men’s basketball assistant coach that was fired in 2011 after he was accused of sexually molesting two ball boys nearly a decade earlier. In the end, federal prosecutors never filed any charges, citing insufficient evidence.
Cohen has published freelance pieces for the New York Times, Sports Illustrated.com, ESPN.com and Basketball Times. He began working at the Syracuse Post-Standard even before he had graduated from SU. Cohen spent 18 months at the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tennessee, covering the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies, Southeastern Conference football and University of Memphis athletics with an emphasis on larger projects such as profiles, investigations and behind the scenes stories.
This past January, he was named winner of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association’s Rising Star award, presented annually to a member under the age of 30 who demonstrates journalistic excellence.
During his time at Lewis Mills in Burlington, Cohen was convinced about his broadcasting future. But Nina Fournier, an Advanced Placement English teacher, urged him to be a writer.
“She encouraged me to be a writer if I wanted to,” Cohen said. “She was terrific. She was as good a teacher that I have ever had – breaking down sentences, the nuances of writing and teaching us ways to elevate our writing, syntax and to structure stories.
“A lot of the stuff that I swore I wouldn’t use, turned into the foundation of what I do now,” he said with a chuckle. “Without her, I wouldn’t be doing what I am for a living.”
Cohen is one of four writers from the Journal Sentinel covering the Packers. According to the website FiveThirtyEight.com, only the Dallas Cowboys generate more hits via Google searches than the Packers. Cohen does weekly chats with fans that come from Wisconsin (of course), Colorado, Oklahoma, California, New Mexico, Florida, Oregon, Hawaii and states all around the country. One week, there was a question from Ireland.
“I’ve never been in a place where the team and the community are so intertwined,” Cohen said. “It’s pretty crazy. The fans are as intense as any fan base I’ve ever been around. The amount of attention, amount of focus and demand for insight is a step above what you see for UConn basketball.”
There are 12-to-15 writers and additional reporters from television stations every day at practice with the Packers. It’s a competitive situation.
“It’s an intense and they’re intelligent,” he said of the Packer faithful. “If you make a mistake, they’ll let you know. They know that stuff cold. It’s a challenge to be on top of your game.”
Cohen said some of the most read stories on the Journal Sentinel website concerning the Packers are pieces about the final cuts in training camp. It’s a fan base just as interested in the No. 52 and No. 53 plays on the roster as quarterback Aaron Rogers and linebacker Clay Matthews.
Cohen, who enjoys writing longer pieces that can dive into a topic, wrote a significant piece for the Journal Sentinel on Packer running back Alonzo Harris, who survived the final day and earned a spot on the Green Bay roster. Cohen spent the day with Harris to provide some insight on the emotions that stir within a NFL hopeful on the bubble.
It’s a unique situation in Green Bay where the fan are so passionate. “It has a small-town feel with an NFL stadium in the middle of a residential neighborhood,” Cohen said.
There are several neighborhoods and modest one-floor ranch homes that look upon Lambeau Field every day. Some homeowners park cars on their lawns while others set up large green and gold-colored tents in their yards for friends and family. Some have portable restrooms to accommodate the crowds as they watch games together.
Green Bay has just over 104,000 residents. In comparison, Waterbury (110,000), Stamford (122,000), Hartford (124,000), New Haven (129,000) and Bridgeport (144,000) each have more residents than Green Bay. On game day, the population swells with more than 81,000 fans filling Lambeau Field and thousands more tailgating in the parking lots surrounding the stadium and the nearby homes.
Many covet the seat at Lambeau Field that Cohen occupies and the access he has to the players in practice. It’s a seat that is earned. Sunday is a game day.
On Monday, he usually watches a film of the game and attends coach Mike McCarthy’s press conference reviewing the Sunday and looking ahead to the next opponent. There is no team availability on Tuesday – a good chance to work on longer projects. On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, there are morning press conferences, afternoon practice and locker room interviews.
“Watching and writing about sports is something many of us have dreamed about since we were teenagers, or maybe younger,” he wrote in a recent weekly online chat with fans. “But there’s definitely an element of grind to the job. We work long hours, long days and when news breaks, we are called on to be there at all times. But at the end of the day, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. To work in sports is a dream come true for me.”
So on this Thanksgiving, Cohen will begin a new tradition in his chosen profession at Lambeau Field.
In the evening, he’ll be at Lambeau Field for the Packers and Bears game – a game that is traditionally one of the most intense of the year for the two teams due to the long and sometimes bitter rivalry with Chicago that dates back to the 1920s.
To add to the excitement, there will be the retirement of Brett Favre’s No. 4 in a special halftime ceremony. It’s just the sixth number in Packer history to be retired. How much does Green Bay love Favre? When he was inducted into the Packer Hall of Fame in July, more than 67,000 fans filled Lambeau Field to watch his induction ceremony on the huge stadium scoreboards.
And in Burlington, the game will go on Thanksgiving morning at Nassahegan. His friends didn’t let Cohen off the hook. He still had to organize the game. But they will include him virtually. Someone is going to set up a phone or laptop so he can see some of the action and chat with friends in the morning.
A few hours later, he’ll be back at work high above Lambeau Field with a sea of green and gold beneath him ready to cheer on their Packers.