Carolina Panthers

North Carolina product – not that one – brings a jolt of excitement to Chicago Bears

Chicago Bears running back Tarik Cohen (29) was drafted in the fourth round out of N.C. A&T – which was the only school to offer him a scholarship out of Bunn High.
Chicago Bears running back Tarik Cohen (29) was drafted in the fourth round out of N.C. A&T – which was the only school to offer him a scholarship out of Bunn High. TNS

It would be so easy to put Chicago Bears running back Tarik Cohen into one of football’s most classic files: The Longshot Success Story.

And why not? Cohen is 5-foot-6 and 181 pounds. He comes from a small North Carolina high school, Bunn, in a small town in the eastern part of the state. He and his twin brother, Tyrell (who is two minutes older than Cohen, but shorter – and don’t you forget it), were raised by a single mother who worked around the clock to provide for them.

He had one scholarship offer. It came after another unnamed program told him they wanted to give him a scholarship based off Cohen’s highlight-studded film, then came to visit him in person, saw his size and rescinded it. They left it up to Cohen’s coach at Bunn, Chris Miller, to tell him.

Miller groans when he remembers the conversation.

“It wasn’t a good one,” he said. “I was really upset. I think, truth be told, I was more upset than he was. He and his mom were more like, ‘Hey. It’ll work out when it’s supposed to work out.’”

And Cohen began making plans for a potential life without football, in which he’d join the Navy.

But when the real offer came from FCS-level N.C. A&T, Cohen made the most of it.

There, Cohen shattered records as the MEAC conference’s all-time leading rusher with 5,619 yards. He was an All-American in 2016 – also the year he scored four touchdowns of 83-plus yards for A&T. And he built up a dazzling highlight reel that earned him the nickname “The Human Joystick.”

“I’d run into other coaches at clinics, and they’d tell me ‘Wow, we really missed out on that one,’” Miller said. “I just said, ‘I tried to tell you.’”

Then, Cohen got selected by the Bears in the fourth round in the 2017 NFL draft. As a complement to traditional back Jordan Howard, he has won over the Chicago fan base with his electric, part-shimmy-part-smashmouth running style and vibrant, determined personality. He also made history last week as the shortest player to throw a touchdown pass since “Wee” Willie Smith in 1934, a 21-yarder that had to be pitched pretty far into the backfield by quarterback Mitch Trubisky so that Cohen could see down the field over the linemen ahead of him.

Miller says he can see Cohen’s story getting made into one of the famous ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries some day.

“What if I told you that for a 5-foot-6 running back, no play was too big?”

But a “longshot?”

Not buying it.

Because when you watch Cohen run – with joy, and with rage, and with a little defiance in every step he takes – to call him that is simply underestimating his talent.

“I’m having fun out there, so that’s where I think I get the joy from,” said Cohen. “And the anger part comes from being a competitor. Not wanting to lose. You have to run with anger to want to be the best.”

Take last week’s game against the Baltimore Ravens, for example. Cohen’s pass to tight end Zach Miller was all fun, all backyard-style trickery.

“I was the perfect size to make that pass,” Cohen joked on a conference call with reporters this week. “To do that at the highest level, to make that play is really a big play in my career.”

He even heaved it up with a little hop-skip and a lot of celebration after Miller made the catch.

“Tarik is a little kid playing a grown man’s game,” his former A&T teammate and current Baltimore corner Tony McRae told the Chicago Tribune last month.

But capable of “grown man” plays, too. Last month against Atlanta, Cohen extended a play that would have been stuffed behind the line of scrimmage by slipping through the arms of a linebacker as he crossed to the opposite side of the field and turned on the gas. Cohen was chased down by corner Desmond Trufant (who has 6 inches on the running back), and wrapped, but Cohen dragged Trufant for almost 10 yards before he was pulled to the ground.

“He’s a great athlete who just happens to be 5-foot-6,” Miller said.

Miller still kicks himself a little for not using Cohen earlier in his career at Bunn. Cohen didn’t get pulled up to varsity until he was a sophomore, and even then he didn’t play running back. Miller said the first play Cohen ever made that dropped his jaw was actually as a defensive back, when Cohen made a one-handed, over-the-back interception and returned it for a touchdown.

“I looked at my coaches, and I go, ‘That just shows how smart we are,’” laughed Miller. “And he won’t let me forget it.”

From there, Miller used Cohen any way he possibly could. In one state playoff game, Miller recalled, Cohen had over 200 rushing yards in the second half.

“I’m not lying, it was an I-formation and we were a spread team, and just old-school toss-sweep to the kid,” said Miller, his voice rising in excitement. “I’d go right, I’d go left. And the kid rolled up 220-some yards in a half! And I’m like, ‘Why didn’t I do that from the start?!’”

While Cohen has yet to score a rushing touchdown in Chicago (though he does boast a 158.3 passer rating and average 4.5 yards per carry), his big-play ability has certainly not gone unnoticed by Carolina – even if they didn’t pay him much attention during the pre-draft scouting process, according to head coach Ron Rivera.

“But you watch him on tape, he’s pretty dynamic,” Rivera chuckled. “A little undersized, but that’s beside the point. Because he plays big.”

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @jourdanrodrigue