Philadelphia Sports Day

In “The Arena,” Rafi Kohan Captures Behind the Scenes Lives in Sports

By Jim DeLorenzo

Many a sports fan has dreamed about being a part of the game-day experience beyond just sitting in the stands. While most dream of being on the field or on the court, some wonder about life outside the games themselves.

Author Rafi Kohan spent over a year travelling around the United States to ballparks, stadiums, arenas and other fascinating spots researching his new book, “The Arena,” available August 8th from Liveright.

“I’ve always been a sports fan, always loved going to games, but it wasn’t just the games that excited me but also the sidewalk vendors, the crush of the crowd, the smell of the hot dogs, peppers and onions wafting through the stadium, the first sight of the green field, watching the groundskeepers, and more,” said Kohan, a New York-based freelance writer and editor. “I had the idea to hit the road for a year and explore the unexplored parts of a day at the game, those things a fan in the stands might not be paying attention to – really, it was all just an elaborate ruse to go fire a shot from a t-shirt gun.”

Far more than that, Kohan spent upwards of two weeks at a time at notable sports “temples” such as Wrigley Field in Chicago, Lambeau Field in Green Bay and many more, meeting fans, concessionaires, groundskeepers, scoreboard operators, marketing and “spirit” coordinators, mascots and half-time performers.

It’s not really a sports book in the traditional sense, but a behind-the-scenes tour of how our sports venues affect our cities and communities, including what happens when the stadiums are no longer in active use. Kohan spent two weeks in Salt Lake City, for example, visiting the venues used in the Winter Olympics in 2002 and how they have been preserved and restored for continued use.

“I wanted to absorb the character and flow of the place, and choose a specific scene to tell my story, so I spent as much time as I could in each place,” Kohan said.

Using the t-shirt gun as an example, Kohan noted that “it was everything I imagined it would be and more. I was at a Rutgers men’s basketball game at the RAC, there to assist the Amazing Sladek in his halftime act, I was out at half court holding his tower of chairs six-high on top of a folding table – Sladek lives his passion out at center court, and I was terrified because I thought I was going to get him killed, but I didn’t. After halftime, I had asked everywhere I went if I could fire the t-shirt gun, and this was my last stop and my last chance, and they told me to go right ahead. I walked out to the court and pointed the t-shirt gun into the crowd, and I could see everyone’s faces, they were so excited, it was a feeling of pure love. Two guys I had met working the Jumbotron at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City had told me that fans go crazy for two things, free stuff and seeing their faces on the Jumbotron, and I saw that first hand that night at Rutgers.”

Kohan was fascinated with “The Amazing Sladek,” a former circus performer who travels around the country with an act during NBA games. “There he was, 57 years old, performing incredible physical feats in front of the fans. He started this act when he was 50, used to be in the circus, and I learned about this amazing double-life of a circus vagabond sparkling and shining in front of an NBA crowd and all the hard work and years of routine and practice, how much that went into the act.”

Stories that Kohan tells in his new book include his experiences cutting the ivy on the outfield wall in Wrigley Field, as well as the unusual devotion Cubs fans have to the time-honored tradition of the urinal troughs in the men’s rooms as a rite of passage for generations of Cubs fans.

“Assisting Sladek was an incredible experience, even though I feared for his life,” said Kohan. “I even got to watch an Oakland Raiders game sitting in the Black Hole with the most loyal and notorious Raider fans, who were actually a welcoming group, but it was fun to see fans who took themselves so seriously but were passionate about the game.”

Kohan got to meet many of the “cast of thousands” that make up a community that the casual sports fan may not even be aware of.

“The most surprising thing that I learned in researching and writing the book is that each of these areas, each of these stadiums is a fully realized world in and of itself,” said Kohan. “Each stadium and ballpark and arena I visited, I didn’t know what I was going to learn, and what I was going to find going in. One day I’m working with the Atlanta Braves grounds keepers at Turner Field and the next thing, I’m in South Alabama on a sod farm. I never knew there were so many sod farms in this country. I met the owner of that sod farm at a gas station a few miles away from his farm, because he’s afraid of sabotage and keeps his location secret to keep his product safe! He grows sod for the fields that both Alabama and Auburn use, for example. Here I am standing in fields of fields – a nursery where grass grows up to be a major league field!”

Kohan has captured something in his new book, with tales from vendors, security, scoreboard operators, tailgaters, “bleacher bums,” half-time performers, mascots, turf farmers, ticket scalpers, chefs, and more. For Kohan, a labor of love reveals many of the labors of love that sports fans in the stands take for granted, all the various parts of preparation and performance that take place before, during and after a game.

“Probably the most heart-pounding experience for me was at MetLife Stadium at a New York Jets game,” noted Kohan. “I was on the sidelines with a field-level producer who was organizing a halftime alumni ceremony, and they had the inflatable tunnel set up for the Jets to take the field. It was an amazing visual of this smoke machine going off, with flashing lights and color, and I wanted to take a picture of it, so I went into the tunnel to take a few photos, and suddenly the whole Jets team was in the tunnel. I was pressed back against the wall of the tunnel as the Jets players started psyching themselves up for the game. The adrenaline rushing through that tunnel was incredible, and something I will never forget.”

Kohan’s new book, “The Arena,” is now available at booksellers nationwide.

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