Favorite athlete: Bryce Harper
Favorite team: Phillies
Favorite memory competing in sports: Being a part of the state semifinal team last year
Funniest thing that happened while competing in sports: The bench mafia last year
Music on my playlist: Country, classic rock, EDM
Future plans: Going to university of Pittsburgh to study biological science
Words to live by: “Opportunities don’t happen, you create them.”
One goal before turning 30: To become an orthopedic surgeon
One thing people don’t know about me: I play guitar
By Ed Morrone
It would have been easy to understand if Ethan Cohen gave up baseball for good at any point during his high school career. Not only did the pandemic wipe out his sophomore baseball season, but Cohen also suffered two traumatic knee injuries that required surgery while playing seemingly harmless games of pick-up basketball.
Cohen didn’t play baseball at all for North Penn as a freshman or sophomore, and only squeezed in about half of a junior campaign before his second freak knee dislocation sent him to the hospital in an ambulance. The emotional and physical rollercoaster could have left Cohen jaded, his psyche destroyed while constantly throwing up his hands and screaming Why me?
However, he made it all the way back to play a full senior season and is using his bad injury luck to launch a hopeful career beginning at the University of Pittsburgh in the fall and ending sometime in the future as an orthopedic surgeon. Cohen wants to help put knees back together, the same way orthopedists did for him on more than one occasion. But before he leaves North Penn, it’s important to look back at Cohen’s odyssey, because it says a lot about his perseverance and internal fortitude that he ever stepped on a baseball field again at all.
“Ethan had an ominous start to his high school career,” North Penn head coach Kevin Manero said. “We expected a big impact from him going into his sophomore year. We liked the way the ball came off his bat, and his mechanics reminded us of some of the better hitters we’ve had here in the past. We just never got a chance to put him out there as a young player in the program.
“Then last year, he was our starting designated hitter and hit the ball very well to open the 2021 season. About halfway through, he dislocated his other knee and missed the rest of that season. We always liked him as a player, but it wasn’t until this year where he had a chance to play. He’s spent a lot of time off the field.”
The first injury came during the winter of Cohen’s freshman year. He was playing in a rec league basketball game and went to grab a rebound - when he landed, his foot planted oddly, dislocating his knee while also chipping a piece of bone off the kneecap.
“I didn’t know what happened, and I originally thought it was nothing,” Cohen recalled. “Then next thing you know I had to get surgery and was out for four to five months. The rehab was very tedious and boring, just a lot to handle mentally. I was so young and just wanted to play the sport that I loved.”
Cohen required an additional reconstructive surgery on the knee the following fall of his sophomore year, which shelved him until quite literally the day of baseball tryouts in the spring. He was cleared just in time to take the field.
“I was so excited to be back, just ready to go,” he said. “Then a week later, the season was canceled. That was just crushing.”
Cohen stayed as sharp as possible that summer, playing travel ball for Connie Mack Baseball and making the best of another bad situation that was out of his control. At the very least, he was fully healthy now, and every spring athlete in 2020 was dealing with the same circumstances, so the pandemic ironically didn’t feel as isolating as being laid up following two knee surgeries.
A year later, Cohen’s varsity dreams for North Penn were finally actualizing. Cohen was entrenched as the Knights’ DH, and to make matters even better, he was getting a chance to play on the same team as older brother Sam, a North Penn infielder. Then, about halfway through a season that would end with a third-place finish in District 1 6A and a final four berth in the state tournament, Cohen was again shooting baskets, this time with friends in the driveway of his home while the team was stuck inside during another (brief) COVID pause.
Just like the first time, the scenario seemed completely innocuous. Until it wasn’t.
“Just shooting around in the driveway, nothing crazy,” Cohen said. “I took a false step, and the other knee dislocated. I couldn’t have predicted anything like that would happen again. I hit the ground in a complete state of shock and was borderline about to pass out.”
Cohen’s frantic friends had no idea what to do, and it wasn’t until his parents returned home 30 minutes later that the dread began to sink in. An ambulance arrived shortly thereafter to take Cohen to the hospital.
“I was actually surprisingly positive about it, though that was probably because of the pain medication,” he recalls with a laugh. “They put it back in place in the hospital, and at that point I still wasn’t thinking the season was done for me. I wanted to see the MRI before I made any assumptions. I didn’t want to think the worst.”
However, the fears were soon confirmed that Cohen’s promising junior season was done, and he would later be wheelchair-bound for months following a surgery on July 1 after the baseball season had ended.
“It was a rickety old wheelchair that I think his mom trash-picked,” Manero said, laughing. “They got a good deal, and Ethan was proud of it.”
At first, it was hard for Cohen to be around the team, suddenly unable to play again with yet another freak knee injury. He never outwardly sulked, according to Manero, who was taken aback by how well Cohen seemed to be handling it. But inside, he was a mess.
“I did not want to be around the team or even on a baseball field,” Cohen said. “Our season was turning around by that point, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
Manero said Cohen would show up to every practice and game and do any job he could physically perform, no matter how small it seemed. He would sit on a bucket and corral balls coming back in from his teammates or feeding balls to coaches who were leading fielding drills with a Fungo bat.
“He was so frustrated that he couldn’t play, but he took it in a positive way, just hobbling along doing whatever he could,” Manero said. “He could have faded into the background or become a distraction, but Ethan did the opposite of that. He became such a big part of our bench culture, and was a loud, positive influence for the rest of the team.”
As North Penn made deep runs in districts and states and became the only SOL team to win 20 games last season, the “bench mafia” began to develop, and Cohen was a big driver of that mentality.
“I didn’t want to just sit in the dugout and cry,” Cohen said. “I had to step up. Bench mafia was my way of still being a part of the team. I wanted to help my teammates, and speaking as a player, hearing guys talk from the bench is the best thing. When you hear that out on the field, all it does is motivate you. I felt like if I was at least doing that, it would help the team and make things more energetic. It became fun to contribute in that way.”
Even despite the horrible luck, Cohen never once considered retiring for good. The rehab was even more arduous this time around, but at least at this time Cohen knew what to expect. His surgery occurred on July 1, two weeks after the season ended, and based on what he knew from the previous injury, Cohen saw the timeline line up. If all went according to plan, he should be able to make it back for one more go-round as a senior. He wasn’t planning on playing collegiately, so Cohen understood that this would be his last shot at it.
On a trip to Florida over spring break this past March, Cohen did indeed return to action for North Penn. Not only was he back in the lineup, but he smacked three hits and knocked in four runs in his first game back.
“I would always play out scenarios in my head about me coming back and having a big game,” Cohen said. “In reality, it normally doesn’t happen that way. When it actually did my first game back, it couldn’t have been a better outcome. I worked so hard in the offseason to be back and at the same level as everybody else. It was storybook, in my opinion.”
Manero, watching from the third base coaching box each time Cohen stepped to the plate, was himself filled with immense pride.
“It was absolutely fantastic,” the coach said. “He had so many reasons he could have stopped: the first injury, COVID, the second knee surgery — he could have just decided that all of this was not worth it. Ethan had to start all over again and build himself back up, and he likely had so many opportunities or outlets to choose a different path. But he didn’t. The moment he got hurt, all he wanted was to get back on the field. To get three hits in his first game back, that was inspiring.”
The 2022 season has had its extreme ups and downs for both Cohen and North Penn. Cohen has battled slumps, and the Knights have a sub-.500 record. There won’t be a long postseason run this year because the Knights are on the outside looking in as the district tournament approaches.
That’s baseball for you. It’s a sport of failure, one that humbles you as it unforgivingly chews you up and spits you out. Cohen isn’t thrilled with his or the team’s struggles, but he’s also able to keep things in perspective given all that he’s been through with his knees.
“It’s still very frustrating when I have a bad game,” Cohen said. “All of the ups and downs are that way, but that’s how this game goes. It took a lot for me to make it back, so at the end of the day, I’m just grateful that I can play at all. The best part about all of this is knowing the support I had. Whether it was the offseason or during the season, everyone is talking me up and making me feel better, even if I’m struggling.
“It just showed me that you can do anything you put your mind to, even if the odds are stacked against you. If you truly love what you do, then you can genuinely pursue it. Even if you’re battling injuries, the odds are always in your favor if you believe and put the work in.”
Come the fall, Cohen will be off to attend the University of Pittsburgh, a school he classified as his dream school, one he’s wanted to go to his entire life. Pitt has one of the top medicine programs in the nation, and once Cohen gained admittance, it was a clear decision where he would be attending college. Cohen’s ultimate goal is to become an orthopedic surgeon specializing in knees, and it’s no secret as to why he landed on that aspiration.
“When I was battling these surgeries, I knew I was in the best hands possible,” he said. “I knew that I’d be safe and get better, and I want to make other patients feel that way: knowing they are in the best care and can pursue their dreams and ideas that they wanted to before they got injured. What I’ve gone through has inspired me to become this.”
It certainly hasn’t been the high school baseball career Cohen envisioned. After two knee dislocations and three surgeries, he spent more time in hospital rooms and doctors’ offices than he did on the baseball field. And that’s okay, because he made it back and was fully healthy for his senior year, which seemed like an impossible dream last summer.
“Putting athletics to the side, this experience really just put everything in perspective for me,” Cohen said. “You really can push through anything when you put your mind to it. I had a hard career with a lot of challenges, but I always knew in the back of my mind that I could do this. People have been through way worse than me, but to me it was still the worst thing that could have happened at the time. All of it just propelled me forward.
“I knew in my heart that I was not done with baseball. From my point of view, I hadn’t given the game enough, and after all that’s happened, I think I love it now more than I ever have. There’s nothing more enjoyable in life than winning a baseball game. That feeling, there will never be another one like it.”