You don’t need to know a thing about rugby to be a fan of Ben Cohen. The 32-year-old English athlete, who retired from the sport this month, isn’t just a World Cup-winning player — he’s also a champion of gay rights.

It’s an unusual position in the world of professional sports, and it’s even more remarkable given that Cohen is a straight, married guy with two daughters. But when he discovered he’d developed a sizable following in the gay community, he embraced his fan base.

“It was flattering people found me attractive,” says Cohen, who quickly learned that many of his devotees had dealt with years of bullying, which led to depression and worse for them.

“There are everlasting scars. For the rest of their lives, they can remember the smell of the room, the bully’s name,” he says.

He’s decided to do something about it, launching the StandUp Foundation to fight homophobic behavior.

Last week, he swung through Washington during his Acceptance Tour across the U.S. to start raising money and awareness about the issue. The message, he explains, is that people who tolerate bullying allow the problem to continue. When someone uses a gay slur in a locker room and the other players remain silent, they’re bullying, too, Cohen says: “They’re as good as taking part.”

His D.C. events included a fundraiser at Town, with proceeds going to the Human Rights Campaign, and a talk with the gay-straight alliance at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville. He also managed to make one fan’s day by auctioning off a one-on-one workout at Vida Fitness: Ross Yerger, a 39-year-old Secret Service agent, bid $600 for the opportunity. (See box for details.)

Exercise isn’t the highest priority for Cohen these days, particularly because he’s still nursing an injury from his final rugby match in April. (“I snapped my adductor off my groin. It felt like getting kicked in the nuts, and it bled everywhere,” he says.)
But he’s certain to keep running around the hills near his farm in the English countryside and to pursue physical interests he’s put off. “I want to do marathons and other things I could never do as a rugby player,” he says.

Before, he was training to score points. Now, he has a different goal: “I’ve got to keep fit to look halfway decent and not get too fat.” Cohen knows his fans are counting on him.

“I used to work out with a Navy SEAL who said never to let your workout routine become just that,” says Ross Yerger, a rugby fan who won the exercise session with Cohen. So the athlete introduced him to a new program: six sixes. It’s six exercises (bench presses, cleans, squats, squat jumps, overhead presses, curls), six reps, six times. “I didn’t vomit,” Yerger boasts. And he got to take home the sweaty shirt off Cohen’s back.

Photo courtesy standup foundation