Daydream Believers

updated 10/31/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/31/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

WHEN CHUCK ROSEBERRY MADE the football team at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, he cried. When Mona Cohn was picked as Homecoming Queen at the University of Louisville, she didn't. "But I almost fainted," she says. Oh, those emotional college kids! Except that Roseberry, a defensive tackle, is 46, and Cohn, a justice-administration major, is 48.

Roseberry, a veteran of both the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars who worked as a prison guard and a cop in between, is probably having the rougher time adjusting to age-improbable college activities. His middle-aged body has suffered more than its share of indignities—an arthritic neck, a torn shoulder muscle and tendinitis in both knees. If nothing else—he hasn't yet gotten into a game—his stoicism has earned him the respect of his football teammates and a nickname, the Iceman, because of all the ice packs he needs. "He's been banged around and kicked around," says coach Al Leonzi, 52. "He's an example to us."

Cohn, the divorced mother of a 28-year-old son, showed plenty of tenacity too—and some political savvy—in becoming perhaps the nation's oldest Homecoming Queen. Bypassing the school's fraternities and sororities, which usually control the election, she drummed up votes from traditionally low-participation groups like the ROTC and engineering and law students, not to mention the campus's Southern Police Institute. "I kept naming different people as my campaign managers," she says. "It made them feel so good, and each of them belonged to a different group and made speeches on my behalf."

Middle-aged crazies, inspiring role models—or just a couple of baby boomers trying to live out youthful fantasies? For both Roseberry and Cohn, going to college was the realization of dreams that were put on hold decades ago. Roseberry, a thrice-divorced grandfather of four, was a starting high school linebacker in Washington, N.J., but a poor performer in the classroom. "Football was a good release for me," he says. "When I put a helmet on, I became a different person. I became focused." While his gridiron prowess got the attention of UCLA, Texas and Miami, Roseberry believed that academically he wasn't college material. "I'd hear other guys making plans, and it would break my heart," he says.

Roseberry discovered the source of his difficulty almost by accident. During a desert bivouac in the Gulf War, he was describing how he saw numbers and words backward, and a buddy suggested he might be dyslexic. Back in the U.S. he pursued the idea with his fiancée, fitness instructor Abbie Klapac, 43, and finally had it confirmed this summer by a Veterans Administration psychologist. "It was a relief to hear the diagnosis," he says. Meanwhile, with the help of the GI Bill, he enrolled at Kutztown, where he majors in psychology. By taping his lectures and arranging for untimed or oral exams, he has managed a 3.0 average. But what about the football? "My inner child never grew up," he explains.

Cohn's return to academia—she married at 17 and ran a shoe store with her husband instead of going to college—was inspired by her mother. After her divorce in 1977, Cohn moved to Florida, where she managed Greyhound's Tampa bus terminal and later opened a boutique in Daytona Beach. When her mother, Rose Home, became ill in 1987, Cohn returned to Louisville to care for her. "She was a gutsy woman," she says. "It was kind of a deathbed wish of hers that I go to college."

Cohn obtained grants and loans and enrolled to discover her inner student. "I thought I'd better at least get B's and C's so my son wouldn't be embarrassed, and when I got A's, I thought the professors were just being nice," says Cohn, who has a 4.0 average and a scholarship and hopes to go to law school. "Now I study 5 hours a day, and my son calls me a study geek."

Study geek, perhaps. But Homecoming Queen? The idea started as a joking suggestion by a friend, then snowballed. "To shut up my friend and get myself close to the 50-yard line, I decided, 'Why not?' "

"It was great seeing her so happy," says Cohn's son Jeffrey, a management consultant, of his mother's victory. As for Cohn, who is dating but not going steady, she believes her little coup holds a lesson for others. "I wanted to let people know that life can be exciting as you get older," she says. "You can keep on having fun."

Chuck Roseberry, who intends to go into secondary education after he graduates to help children with learning disabilities like his, doesn't have much time to get social. He lives off-campus with Klapac and her two daughters. He has his studies and his football practice. And partying with his teammates doesn't seem like such a great idea. "These guys," he says, "came to college to getaway from their parents."

MICHAEL NEILL
LINDA KRAMER and BARBARA SANDLER in Kutztown

From Our Partners