Mark Cohen interview
All too often we talk about ‘legends’ of the game, with names like Joe Montana, Franco Harris and Jerry Rice spoken in warm rich tones, evoking memories of great games past.
Here in Great Britain (GB) we too have a glorious American football history, with teams like the Birmingham Bulls, the London Monarchs, and more recently the Coventry Jets all providing unforgettable catches, kicks and tackles.
One man has, over the past twenty years, managed to play for all three teams, as well as represent his country more than any other American football player in GB history.
Remarkably going into 2009 and still undecided if retirement is the right route to run, this 38 year old wide receiver is a two-decade veteran of the British American Football scene, or as it is more affectionately known Britball.
He has epitomised the spirit of the game, sacrificing both time and his body to play the sport he loves, without the $ million salaries, ridiculous signing bonuses or off-season cash from Campbell’s Chunky Soup advertisements.
NFLFANINENGLAND editor Lawrence Vos (LV) is honoured to have interviewed wideout Mark Cohen (MC). The full interview took place in December 2008, in Birmingham, England is below.
Lawrence Vos: Firstly Mark thank you for your time, which must be precious as we near the Christmas holidays. You have been sprinting up sidelines for a remarkable twenty years, how did it all begin?
Mark Cohen: I first started in 1988 playing for Sutton Royals (Sutton Coldfield is in North Birmingham, in the West Midlands). I had a very good friend Lee who was playing running back and asked if I’d like to go training with him. It was the best decision I’d ever made. I think the team spirit and the fact that it took a whole team to win a game, was one of the main triggers in getting me started.
LV: The late 80s was a key time for many people in Great Britain to be introduced to the NFL by Channel 4. Can you remember the first game you saw on television and the first game you actually saw live?
MC: The first game I ever saw was a San Francisco 49ers game with Jerry Rice and he had an absolute blinder of a game. The first game I actually saw here was a Birmingham Bulls game against the Nottingham Hoods. Watching the likes of Alan Brown and Mikey Price making some spectacular catches really gave me a buzz.
LV: Do you have any particular fond memories of being at home on a Sunday night watching NFL on television whilst recovering from playing a full game on a Sunday afternoon?
MC: My favourite memories of watching the sport on tv has to be watching the great chemistry between quarterbacks and receivers. Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, Marvin Harrison and Peyton Manning, Terrell Owens and any quarterback always keeps me on the edge of my seat. A receiver that can dominate any defence, get hit and still catch the ball and also score when being double-teamed that’s all that I live for. I think watching Terrell Owens score then run into the middle of the field and celebrate on the Dallas star, before he played for them, just really showed the audacity of the player. I don’t think I’d ever be that bad, but a rye smile does cross my face when thinking of doing something like that.
LV: In your 20 years playing you have suited up for the Sutton Royals, Redditch Arrows, Coventry Jaguars, Birmingham Bulls, Herlev Rebels (Denmark), Copenhagen Towers (Denmark), Hanau Hawkes (Germany), East City Giants (Finland) and the current British champions the Coventry Cassidy Jets. That is remarkable in itself, but you also got to play in NFL Europe for the London Monarchs (in 1995) what sticks out?
MC: My fondest memories when I played for the London Monarchs were all the support and best wishes I received from the Britball family. I remember the shock of training twice a day, then watching video then lifting weights. There was never any time for the party life as you were just way too tired. I remember coming out of the tunnel against Frankfurt Galaxy at their ground in front of 60,000 people and someone from Birmingham waving and giving me the thumbs up. There were also lots of times when we played at White Hart Lane and seeing my Redditch Arrows colleagues all come to support me.
LV: When you were playing for the London Monarchs in 1995 did you have ambitions to take it one stage further and crack the NFL? Was that your physical peak?
MC: I think at my peak which must have been 1995 at the Monarchs, I had the mind set, determination and will to eat and sleep American football. Whether I would have made the NFL well I doubt as I never had the speed. At my fastest I remember running a 4.61 for the 40 yard dash which at 16 stone wasn’t too bad. However I’ve always had the hands and you can always train someone to build up their speed but I feel, personally, that if you can’t catch, then receiver just isn’t for you.
LV: Still playing aged 38 is a real testament to your personal fitness regime. What sort of routine do you have to keep fit both in and out of the season?
MC: During season I probably train four times a week in the gym and twice on the field in kit running routes and catching the ball. In the gym I’d always start with a run, 12 minutes of interval running. This consists of ¾ pace for the first 2 minutes then every other minute I’d sprint for one minute, and ¾ pace for the other. It really gets the heart racing and is a great warm up and aids recovery. After that it’s a case of knuckling down to the weights, off-season sets of 4 with 6 reps heavy weights. During season it’ll be three sets of 10 reps medium weights. I also incorporate 300 sit-ups, 10 sets of 30 and carry out all my normal stretches that I’d do before a game. I found this to be the most helpful and I also got the most gains from this way of training. It’s hard especially now with a family and a wife, but worth every ache and strain.
LV: I know the likes of Roger Craig would paint power pyramids on his ankles – do you have any pre-game rituals?
MC: I don’t really have any pre-game rituals apart from Team Prayer before every game. This is a rough and ready sport and there have been some very serious injuries. To ask the Lord to watch over us, both teams, is only a small thing to ask but something that I never leave out. I also like to be out of the changing rooms before the other players and jog a lap of the field and then go through my whole stretch routine before the team comes out and going through it all again. This I find helps me focus on the task at hand and calms the nerves as I still get nervous before a game.
LV: That seems very odd that you get nervous! Now Mark we know that you are a vocal player both on the field and on the sidelines – where does that mindset come from?
MC: I’m extremely vocal on the field which can get me into trouble with team mates and coaches alike. I just can’t explain why I am like this. It’s got to be something to do with the desire to win no matter what. However I do know that not all players respond well to shouting and it’s always been a thorn in my side, though I believe I’ve calmed it down quite a bit. It just gets really frustrating when I look around at all the talent on my sideline and players are already conceding to losing or think that the game is over just because the opposition have brought 55 players. At the end of the day there is only 11 either side on the field at any one time. Being vocal and supportive is a good thing. Being vocal and criticising your own team players isn’t going to get you anywhere.
LV: Not being shy on the field must mean you have to take comments from the opposition as well as giving them – what comments over your playing career, both good and bad, stick out?
MC: I’ve heard some pretty poor comments in my areer. I was only ever racially abused once and I paid that db back by running in a 40 yard bomb, straight past him. That’s the best way to get into your opponents head, just let your football do the talking. Wasting all that negative energy on trash talking can put you out of your own game. I think my most memorable comment was off a defensive back for Leicester and I was playing my first game back for Birmingham after being at the Monarchs. I ran a pattern across the middle of the field and dropped the ball whilst getting hit. The defensive back then said, “You’re crap, Joe Greenidge (my team mate) is better than you, how did you make the Monarchs.” Well this got my blood boiling but all I said was, there’s a long way to go. Subsequently I scored four touchdowns that game, one was one handed in the end zone and the db didn’t even look me in the eye when the game was over. However I suppose the really big smile and the look of “I told you” said it all.
LV: Being a physical type of wide receiver, one who is prepared to run a crossing pattern in the middle of the field must have meant you have taken a fair share of licks – which ones stick out?
MC: The hardest hit I ever took was in a friendly in 1995 for Birmingham. We were playing Frankfurt Knights and they had an American safety. In the huddle John Riggs our QB said “Bird, 7 the hard way” which was a slant pattern across the middle of the field. As it was 3rd and 6 I knew I had to make and hold onto the ball. As I ran the route, I saw the ball coming but also the safety coming too, but not to chicken out I caught the ball and got absolutely levelled. I jumped straight up, smiled and remember saying “Is that it?” Then I walked to the huddle and said whatever you do don’t throw the ball to me as I can’t see straight. To my surprise someone in a rough German accent said, your huddle is over there, I’d only gone into the German defences huddle by mistake! The worst hit I took was playing for GB against France in the European Championships final. It was a seam route and the quarterback put the ball high. As I went for it the safety caught me in textbook fashion, breaking my rib frame at the front and a rib in my back. However after gaining my breath back I got up and jogged off the field though the pain was the worse I’ve ever had. It was a great hit, but I still managed to play, holding the winning touchdown that won us the championship and throwing the 2-point conversion.
LV: What motivates you to take that kind of punishment week on week?
MC: Helping my team mates win gives me the motivation to take the hits week in week out. I love the big whack across the middle yet still hanging onto the ball. It shows other players who may have only heard your name, just what it takes to be a good receiver. Winning in this sport is everything, there is no taking part, not in my book.
LV: Being a real team player must mean you have had some very positive influences in the game. Who would you like to pay tribute to both at a coaching and playing level?
MC: The most influential coaches and players in my career, well there have been many. Players like Mikey Price, Alan Brown, Leroy Innis all made me want to play and train that much more. Coaches wise well there is Gerry McManus, Lionel Taylor (Monarchs), Tony Allen and an inspirational coach/ friend Coach Riq (Great Britain). Each one had something to tell me to help me become the player that I am today and I can never repay any of them enough.
LV: Despite the number of teams you have played for is there still anyone that you would like to or have liked to play with?
MC: I always wanted to play on the same field as Leonard ‘Moon’ Valentine (former LSU Tigers quarterback who led the London Olympians to three Britball titles and two European titles) but actually for rather than against. Every time we (the Birmingham Bulls) played the (London O’s) I would always see him throw the ball with such ease yet precision and he always made the receivers look more open than they really were. Off the field I heard he was a great guy and never had a bad word to say about anyone. One of the true legends and gents of the game.
LV: The Birmingham Bulls playing the London Olympians was a rivalry that would be the NFL equivalent of the Dallas Cowboys v Pittsburgh Steelers. Were they your most bitter rivals?
MC: Bitter rivals in this sport come very few and far between. Rivals yes but never bitter. I think the main clashes in my memories were the London Olympians, Leicester Falcons and also the Glasgow Lions. The London O’s were always a hard hitting, well drilled and organised team who were just so damn hard to beat. If they didn’t beat you with the run then the pass would just break the game open and vice versa. Leicester was just one of those teams that, even though you’d win, you knew that you had been in a game with all the hard hits. As for Glasgow Lions well they would just come and pull a win from nothing especially with the chemistry that Scott Couper (former Scottish Claymore and Chicago Bear) and Darren Trainer had between them. All the mentioned teams had the same desire and determination and skill to win, and also had a lot of good friends on the opposite side of the field who you’d be laying hits on one minute, then drinking and relaxing with the next.
LV: You are the proud owner of a 2008 Britball winners medal, along with the 2008 Coventry Cassidy Jets Offensive Player of the Year. What ingredients have created the winning formula for you and the team this season?
MC: I think our winning formula for 2008 comes from Gerry McManus and all the other coaches who went out of their way, researched a very good QB in Dax Michelena, and just gave us the support and discipline to win. The whole team wanted to win, though getting players to practice was difficult due to the huge breaks in between games. However, key players in key moments helped us regain the national title. I think the 2007 season final was ours for the taking but the lack of self-discipline from many of our players, including myself, resulted in the loss. We also had a team of individuals instead of a team so this also contributed to our downfall. This year we had a quarterback that just wasn’t going to give up at any cost and also we had the desire and self-belief that we were the best in this country, we just had to prove it.
LV: Will 2008 be your final season in Britball and does married life have any impact on your decision?
MC: Is this my final season? At our awards night I did announce my retirement from the game as I wanted to finish a winner. I’m still training at the same intensity as I’ve always done so who knows. If I do continue to play it’ll be a joint decision with my wife as we have a small boy to take into consideration along with very demanding jobs. If there’s the time and backing from the family, who knows? My wife has been through all the knocks and aches with me. It can’t be nice for her to hear me moan every Sunday night, Monday morning about this ache and that ache but I think she feels lonely more than anything else, as the games and training do take up a lot of my time.
LV: Maybe it is time for you consider swapping a helmet for a clipboard – would you like to become a coach, maybe even in America?
MC: If I had a chance to coach in the NFL it would only be if my wife and two sons could come along with me. It probably would have to be somewhere warm too as I do get a bit sick of the cold, unless I’m skiing. My aim at the moment is to coach on the GB team as they have given me so much time and help with my own career and I feel it’s my way of putting something back into the game. Helping these youngsters to achieve their goals would be very fulfilling to me as a previous player.
LV: With NFL teams coming over to England to play what do you think of the fact that we have no American football magazines or newspapers published in Great Britain dedicated to the game both at an NFL and Britball level (after the death of First Down magazine in 2007)?
MC: I’m gutted that there isn’t as much publicity for the British game as it deserves. The loss of first down just blew things out of the water. I’ve always wanted to present a weekly show which covers the British league, maybe all the divisions with a game of the week for people to look forward to? This would also bring back the good old days of having the fans come and support you as there is nothing more important than giving the fans something to cheer about. Also I think more sponsorship from the lottery fund would help clubs lower the cost of admission, and entice family and friends to attend.
LV: On a more upbeat note we are now two years into the NFL sending two teams over to play a regular season game at Wembley Stadium, who would you like to see face each other this side of the pond?
MC: I think I’d love to see Indianapolis v New England come to Wembley that would be a cracker of a game. Both offences giving it their all and defences being really stingy would be great. Two fantastic quarterbacks in Manning and Brady along with receivers such as (Marvin) Harrison and (Randy) Moss what a game this would be.
LV: Only a few questions left. Firstly what advice would you give to anyone who has not been to see an American football game in Great Britain?
MC: If I had to give any advice to someone who has never been to a Britball game, it would be go, enjoy it, have fun and get behind your local team. There is so much to see and once you have the basic knowledge it can be one of the best Sunday afternoons you’ll spend.
LV: Just for the record who do you think will win the Superbowl this season?
MC: Superbowl teams for 2008 well I’d like to see New England or Indianapolis get to the “final dance” but doubt if they will. I think that either New York Giants or the Titans will win it this year, however I have been known to be well off in the past.
LV: Mark Cohen, NFLFANINENGLAND would like to thank you for your time and wish you and your family and your team-mates a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Mark Cohen profile
Birmingham Bulls rookie of the year 93, offensive player of the year 94, Coaches player of year 95, Coventry Jets Coaches player of year 06, Offensive player of year 08
Honours otherwise British Records
British record for most touchdowns in a season, 33
2nd in most catches in a game 16
9th and 10th most yards in a game (240yrds-07) (228yrds – 06)
9th receiving yards in a season (1274yrds-1994)
6th catches in a season (74 – 1994)
3rd longest catch in a game (94 yards – 2007)
Honours for Great Britain
Most capped player ever
Voted onto all star team in European Championships Amiens France
Sutton Royals, Redditch Arrows, Coventry Jaguars, Birmingham Bulls, London Monarchs, Herlev Rebels (Denmark), Copenhagen Towers (Denmark), Hanau Hawkes (Germany), East City Giants (Finland) Coventry Cassidy Jets.
Wide receiver, Punter, free safety (rarely)