Tarik Cohen’s story: Unimaginable loss, unavoidable pain, and unbelievable strength

At 5'6" and 190 pounds, Tarik Cohen isn't the biggest, but a peek behind the curtain reveals a man carrying more weight than anyone should.

Death. Financial struggles. Guilt. Former North Carolina A&T and Chicago Bears running back Tarik Cohen has carried weight that no one should. More than a 5’6″ and 190-pound athlete under a helmet and pads, Cohen’s story is one of tragedy, triumph, and hope.

Tested beyond belief, Tarik Cohen’s perseverance stands to inspire

In a letter to his younger self, Cohen detailed his constant upheaval as a child, bouncing between six elementary schools before he turned 10. His mother, Tilwanda Newell, raised him, his twin brother Tyrell, and his younger brother Dante on her own, working long days to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. A “bubbly” child, Cohen was akin to a firecracker with a never-ending fuse.

As a result, Cohen found solace on the football field in Bunn, North Carolina. A one-stoplight town with a population hovering around 500, it’s not exactly the football capital of the world. Yet, Cohen made the most of his opportunities, scoring 17 career touchdowns and averaging 9.2 yards per carry. But the speedster also thrived on the track, timing 10.65 seconds in the 100m, and was the anchor leg on the state champion 4×100 relay team.

But it almost didn’t happen. Late in Cohen’s high school career, his mother had to move the family to Raleigh — about 40 minutes away from Bunn. Moving wasn’t new for Tarik, but this time, he felt he was on the verge of earning a scholarship offer. If he moved, those connections might fall through, and his dreams of being a professional football player would cease to exist. Ultimately, his mother agreed. So, Cohen stayed in Bunn with his aunt.

The decision, a no-brainer on the surface, would cause a life-changing butterfly effect. While Cohen broke ankles and carved defenses up, his brothers began to mesh with the wrong people. As he wrote in his letter, “Pretty soon, you’re going to start noticing Dante and Tyrell making some bad choices, hanging out with guys who are smoking weed and stealing stuff on the regular.”

From Bunn to Greensboro, North Carolina

Although he heard about his brothers, Cohen was focused on the football field and his avenue out of Bunn. But by the time his senior campaign ended, Cohen resorted to emailing his highlight tape to programs around the country, seeking a chance. His lack of a recruiting trail primarily came down to one thing: his size. Ironically overlooked, Bunn High School head coach Chris Miller recalled recruiters routinely leaving him with the same message, “Coach, he’s too small.”

Cohen’s track and assistant football coach David Howle received similar remarks: “Everybody thought he was too short and too small. But what they didn’t know is what was inside his chest.” Despite the support of his coaches, Cohen had to start thinking of contingency plans.

“I had took the [Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test],” Cohen stated. “I had scored real high — I was going to go to the Navy.”

But all it takes is one person. And that one was North Carolina A&T then-assistant coach Trei Oliver. Oliver fell in love with Cohen’s skill set and urged head coach Rod Broadway to make the hour-and-a-half trip east to visit Bunn from Greensboro. Although he initially had the same reaction as the coaches before him — “he’s too small” –, Broadway eventually came around and gave Cohen all he was asking for: a chance.

Atlanta, GA – Dec 19, 2015 – Georgia Dome: Tarik Cohen (28) of the North Carolina A&T State University Aggies during the 2015 Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl. Credit: Phil Ellsworth / ESPN Images

Cohen’s illustrious career at North Carolina A&T

It didn’t take long for Cohen to validate Oliver and Broadway’s confidence in him. NC A&T running backs coach Shawn Gibbs broke down a play from practice that highlighted the freshman RB’s video game-esque abilities that earned him the nickname “The Human Joystick.”

“We were doing inside runs, and he got the ball with nowhere to go,” Gibbs recollected. “Tarik ran between [the offensive lineman and linebacker], under their arms, while they were engaged. Nobody even realized what he did. He just disappeared and popped out on the other side. We had to keep rewinding it on tape to even believe it.”

Four years later, Cohen rushed his way into the conference and school record books. His 5,619 career rushing yards are the most in MEAC history, and he set program highs for career rushing touchdowns (56), total touchdowns (59), and points scored (339).

A three-time MEAC Offensive Player of the Year, Cohen earned an invite to the NFL Combine and promptly ran a 4.42 40-yard dash. Though some pegged Cohen as a late-Day 3 pick, the Chicago Bears saw enough to pull the trigger in Round 4 of the 2017 NFL Draft.

“I was so happy for him because he deserved it so much,” Gibbs stated. “I’ve been there throughout his journey, and I’ve personally witnessed how hard he worked and how much he wanted it. I immediately appreciated how much this would change his life for the better.”

But Cohen’s life had already been changing, and much of it for the worse.

While Cohen’s path became clear, his brothers grew foggy

As Cohen avoided tackles on the field, his brothers could not avoid the influences around them. Both Tyrell and Dante dropped out of school and regularly faced run-ins with the law. Cohen sent home as much money as he could to try and alter their trajectory. But when that didn’t work, he sat them down for a talk.

“Just give me a little more time. Lay low. Don’t get in any big trouble for a bit more, and I’ll make everything right for all of us once I get to the league. I got y’all. I promise. Just give me a few years.”

Just minutes before Cohen’s $635,000 signing bonus with the Bears reached his bank account, his balance sat at -$99.46. But that money wouldn’t stretch long enough to take care of his whole family. And when Dante, then 18 years old, realized it, his “friends” quickly led him to a new life as a drug dealer.

Cohen’s mother was evicted multiple times for the smell of weed, police visits, and loud noise stemming from their apartments. She did her best to take care of her boys. But when you’re working far more than the typical 9-5 shifts to pay rent, you can’t possibly keep track of what two adult teenagers are doing 24/7.

So, while Cohen was catching stride as a rookie in the NFL, he would send money for his family to rent a new house. After his rookie season, “The Human Joystick” generated a breakout campaign in 2020, earning a Pro Bowl nod and a spot on the All-Pro team as a return specialist. Cohen was in his prime, reaching the surface of his potential. But life isn’t always easy.

Sep 29, 2019; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bears running back Tarik Cohen (29) scores a touchdown in the first quarter against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Credit: Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

One red shirt could’ve altered history

Cohen’s phone rings. It’s Dante. “Yo, man … I need you to bail me out.” After talking for a bit, Cohen made the trek to his family’s house with one purpose. It didn’t take him long to find thousands of dollars worth of cocaine that Dante was pushing. Without hesitation, Cohen dumped all of it into the toilet and went to bail his brother out. Words were exchanged, feelings were shared, and Cohen hoped it would be a wake-up call for Dante. It wasn’t.

Cohen would bail him out several more times, with each arrest further defeating their mother. Cohen berated Tyrell for not keeping Dante on the right path, which brought the words that no brother wants to hear: “Well maybe if you were around more you’d understand how hard it is!”

At this point, football was an afterthought for Cohen. He felt as though he was failing as a big brother and as a son. Life was spiraling, and just when it seemed things couldn’t get worse, they did.

While prepping for an “E:60” documentary detailing his journey from an HBCU to the NFL, Cohen gets a call — this time from a distraught Tyrell. And the words he uttered will forever haunt him: “Dante just got shot.”

Cohen couldn’t fully understand what happened. No one could. Not in a few minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, or even years. In response, his body protected him. He became numb and went on with his day as normal, sitting down with the “E:60” crew.

It wasn’t until he got on a plane, flew to North Carolina, and set foot in his little brother’s hospital room that it began to sink in. Dante wouldn’t walk again, paralyzed from the waist down. But after the sadness began to dissipate, uncontrolled rage emerged.

As Cohen wrote, “You won’t be looking to analyze things or solve a mystery. … You’ll grab the pistol you have registered in North Carolina, jump in your car, eyes full of tears, and head out looking for revenge. All you’ll know is that the person who shot Dante was wearing a red shirt. And you’ll be shaking with anger. You won’t be stable. You’ll be sitting there in the driver’s seat, holding that gun, ready to risk it all, to lose everything, for your little brother.”

All Cohen needed to see was a man, any man, wearing a red shirt that night, and multiple lives would have been ruined. Thankfully, there was no man with a red shirt. Just Cohen, driving alone with his thoughts, wanting to release his pain onto someone else. Following that pivotal night, Cohen spent the week taking care of his brother in the hospital. And just like that, it was time for his third year of OTAs.

Cohen’s big-time extension followed by big-time injury

As Dante recovered, Cohen and the Bears struggled in Year 3. It was his worst season as a pro, but that didn’t stop Chicago from awarding him a three-year, $17.25 million deal with $12 million guaranteed in 2020. After all the struggles, Cohen could finally retire his mom and set up his family the way he always dreamed of.

But once again, with each period of jubilation came an even longer period of adversity. One week after signing his extension, Cohen tore his ACL. He thought to himself, “I’ve seen dozens of guys bounce back off ACL injuries. No big deal!” But it wasn’t just an ACL injury — because life, for him, isn’t always easy. Cohen also tore his MCL and fractured his tibial plateau.

Many don’t think about the mental toughness it takes to bounce back from a major injury. And while Cohen had his lows, what we know from his story thus far is his mental toughness can never be questioned. The sad part: we’re not done.

Twins separated too soon

Cohen’s mother called him, concerned about his twin. Tyrell hadn’t come home one fateful May night, but Cohen assured her he would be okay. After all, Tyrell was the brother Cohen didn’t have to worry about. Soon after, Tyrell’s friend explained they had flipped their jeep near the woods, and they both fled the scene because they had been drinking that night.

Then the news came. The police found a body at the electrical plant near the accident. Cohen didn’t want to believe it, but deep down, he knew. Tyrell climbed a fence at the substation. Just like that … the person Cohen came into this world with was gone. That’s enough to break anyone, but Cohen had to hold himself together to tell Tyrell’s six- and four-year-old daughters that dad wasn’t coming home.

Cohen penned, “It will feel like you can’t take much more, and that if one more bad thing happens to you, you’re probably going to check out. It’s going to get to the point where you feel like you don’t want to be here anymore. That you don’t want to be living, don’t want to have to go through more pain.”

Despite the unfathomable loss, Cohen somehow maintained his relentless positive mindset, viewing the future with hope. He bought a house for Tyrell’s children and began putting money away for their education.

Overwhelming tragedy followed by overwhelming tragedy

While still recovering from his leg injuries, the Bears placed him on the physically unable to perform list, and he missed the entire 2021 campaign. But as he continued his rehab, things were looking up for Cohen. In December, his son was born, naming him in honor of his twin, Tyrell.

Yet, life isn’t always easy. In March of 2022, the Bears cut Cohen, and it had been 18 months since he last played football. But as he wrote, “You’re finally starting to feel more like yourself again as a football player. That burst, it’s back. The quick-twitch muscles, they’re back. The ability to cut on a dime? That’s back too. And it feels amazing.”

This is where I would love to stop writing. Cohen had just welcomed his firstborn into the world, his body was almost fully healthy, and the 26-year-old had endless possibilities on the horizon. But life has never been easy for Cohen. And unfortunately, the hardship that plagued him isn’t over. A few days after Cohen completed his letter in the Player’s Tribune, Dante was involved in a fatal car accident. What more can one family take? The bubbly kid that brought an infectious attitude to every room he entered has faced loss after loss, each time stripping away a piece of him.

As he broke down emotionally and spiritually, it wasn’t long before his body followed suit. In May, Cohen was training for the NFL offseason and recorded himself live on Instagram. POP. The sound of his Achilles tearing echoed through the speakers of thousands of watchers.

What’s next for Cohen?

Coming off multiple serious leg injuries, it’s not unreasonable to question if Cohen could — or should — attempt another NFL comeback. And even if he did, would he be 70% of the player he was?

The only thing that matches Cohen’s sheer amount of suffering is his inspiring strength. Anyone would crumble under the weight he carries. Life has pushed every part of him to a breaking point. Yet, all Cohen has done is make good decisions and do the right things. Many would say all he has been rewarded with is trials and tribulations. But through it all, he remains a beacon of positivity and hope.

With a son to raise and two nieces to take care of, Cohen aims to show them that while life isn’t always easy, you decide who you become:

“It won’t make the hurt go away. You will never be fully clear of the pain. And that’s O.K. You wouldn’t want to forget the past anyway. Your past … it’s all just part of who you are now. But who you are can be so much more than just hurt.”

James Fragoza is a Writer and News Editor at Pro Football Network. You can read his other work here and follow him on Twitter @JamesFragoza.

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