Tarik Cohen knew what he would say when it became his turn to speak.
But his turn was last.
His words — or one word exactly — would conclude his long meeting with students at Julian High School on Chicago’s South Side.
When the students and instructors finished describing their meeting in their own single word, their attention turned to Cohen.
“Equal,” the blossoming, young Bears star said.
What did he mean?
“When I get in an environment like that, I feel like I’m just one of the guys,” the running back later told the Sun-Times. “I feel like I’m back in high school. I just feel at one with the group.”
It was Monday, the usual off day for players. But by actively taking part in Youth Guidance’s BAM (Becoming a Man) Program, Cohen was living out what he sees as his calling beyond football
“I feel like that’s what I’m here for,” Cohen, 23, said. “I feel like that’s my purpose, to show them a better way and just to spread my story out, just so that people connect with me and see who I am for real.”
* * *
Every year, the community-relations department has rookies complete a survey about their off-field interests, particularly when it comes to community outreach.
“Into talking to at-risk kids,” Cohen wrote last year.
Cohen was once one of those at-risk kids. He’s from a single-mother household from rural North Carolina.
“I feel like sharing some stories of my life will let them know that I possibly may have went through the same things that they’re going through right now,” Cohen said. “I feel like that’s a way to get closer to them.”
And he only has added more stories since being drafted by the Bears in the fourth round of last year’s draft.
— Cohen’s twin brother, Tyrell, was evicted from the North Carolina house that Cohen helped set up for him, forcing Cohen to help again.
— Cohen’s younger half-brother, Dante Norman, was incarcerated in North Carolina, and he has offered financial assistance. (Cohen said he expects him to be released soon.)
— The house his mother, Tilwanda Newell, was living in was robbed, forcing him to handle another move for a family member.
— The vehicle that Cohen leased for Tyrell — a “four-wheeler,” Cohen called it — was stolen forcing him to make a full payment.
Cohen shared it all with the male students in the BAM program. And they’re stories that Cohen later said he’s comfortable with everyone knowing.
“I feel like it made me stronger and made me who I am,” he said. “So I would like to share my journey with everybody.”
Even happy moments at North Carolina A&T turned into what Cohen called “obstacles” for him and his family.
During his junior year, he and Tyrell connected with their father while in New York for Cohen’s track meet. On that visit, Tyrell’s girlfriend was robbed at their home back in North Carolina while their infant daughter was in another room.
Throughout college, Cohen said his mother was homeless, too. To help, Cohen used money from a Pell Grant to pay for hotel rooms.
“Just having her homeless and me not being able to do anything about it, that hurt the most,” Cohen said. “I just wanted to speed up the process and try to get into a financially stable situation so I can help her as quick as possible.”
Hearing bad news, then dealing with it has become the norm for Cohen, but you wouldn’t know it.
“He does a good job of managing that,” said veteran back Benny Cunningham, who is Cohen’s closet friend on the Bears. “If you meet him, you’ll never have an idea of when he’s going through a bad day because he doesn’t show it. He’s always trying to brighten other people’s days. I feel like that’s what makes him so amazing.”
It’s because Cohen is continuously answering the “why” of his life — a question the BAM instructors posed to the male students.
“I feel like me being who I am now is helping [my family],” said Cohen, who has two nieces. “They realize the potential they have also, and they feel like they want to do good for themselves.”
* * *
Cohen’s 45-minute ride home from Julian to the northern suburbs gave him ample time to reflect.
“How I can touch them and how they are going to act when they leave that circle?” Cohen said. “Are they going to take what we talked about and be smart about it? Or are they going to do the same bad things that’s been happening?”
Cohen’s visit wasn’t a photo op. He actively participated in BAM’s discussions and mental exercises. One by one, he heard the students’ stories — private, heart-breaking ones, too.
As Cohen hoped, he became one of the guys that afternoon.
“It’s the obstacles that they have to go against, the fact that everybody has problems of their own,” Cohen said. “When you’re in that circle, no one problem is bigger than the other.”
It was his third visit with students from BAM as a member of the Bears, who have partnered with Youth Guidance, which provides programs that offer assistance to 11,000 students.
An appearance by Cohen can mean plenty, Youth Guidance’s BAM national director Anthony “AJ” Watson said. The BAM program consists of 7,000 male students from 7th to 12th grade.
“When we have those conversations, it’s really good for the young men to see that these athletes that they’re human, that they’re men,” Watson said. “They’ve struggled through a lot of the same issues. They came from a lot of the same neighborhoods and how they handled that.
“It’s just a great example, a great role model for a lot of young men to see and to potentially glean something from.”
What was Cohen’s main message?
“Just to not take the easy way out,” Cohen said. “That’s the big thing about everything. Like I was saying in there, selling drugs and robbing, that’s the easy way out because there’s so many people doing it because it’s easy. I feel like going to college, getting an education, that’s harder. I want them to challenge themselves — which they’re doing — and try to go the hard route.”
Cohen, of course, is living, touchdown-scoring proof of what can happen.
“The type of kids that I run into, I see myself in them,” Cohen said. “That’s really what I do it for, the kids who want to see what hard work looks like and what hard work looks like when it pays off.”
Nagy on rookie QBs
If quarterback Mitch Trubisky were a rookie, he might not be playing for coach Matt Nagy.
With the Bears hosting the Jets and Sam Darnold, the third overall pick this year, Nagy was asked about his philosophy on playing rookie quarterbacks.
“I always think that it’s great to be able to have a guy sit back and get to understand the formations, the motions [and] the shifts in your mind and then in practice go through that,” Nagy said. “So then, [he won’t] be thrown into the mix right away. But right now you’re seeing a lot of teams . . . that aren’t going that route. There’s that instant gratification that they need it right now.”
The Bears went through that last year with Trubisky. Their plan to sit him behind Mike Glennon didn’t pan out, though.
In Kansas City, veteran Alex Smith had the best statistical season of his career with Nagy as his play caller. It allowed the Chiefs to go slow with Patrick Mahomes, who has thrown 22 touchdowns during the Chiefs’ 6-1 start.
The Browns, Bills and Cardinals also turned to their rookie quarterbacks Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen, respectively, this year.
And the same is true for Darnold. Nagy said it’s apparent that the Jets trust him.
“Right now, you’re seeing more and more people that are kind of going that route,” Nagy said. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that as long as you feel like he’s protected within the scheme by how you call plays.”
Similar to the Bears, the Jets believe in the importance of surrounding Darnold with veterans who can help him on and off the field. The Bears signed veteran Chase Daniel to help Trubisky this year after signing Mark Sanchez to help him as a rookie.
Darnold, meanwhile, has 16-year veteran Josh McCown, a former Bear who was adored in the locker room, to turn to for advice.
“Josh is amazing,” Darnold told New York reporters. “Just a great person to have in my corner. Whenever I have a question or need to ask him something, maybe about a certain coverage or maybe about life outside of football, he’s usually able to answer it.”
Send your questions for the Sunday Twitter mailbag to @adamjahns.
Q: Do you believe Allen Robinson is ever going to give this team the WR1 production they expected from him or is Taylor Gabriel the diamond in the [rough] we as fans can view as a WR1 going forward?
A: Well, the Patriots certainly treated Gabriel as a WR1. They bracketed him with coverage to eliminate his speed. But I don’t think that means he’s the Bears’ top receiver. That’s still Robinson. That said, it wasn’t a good sign that Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore got the better of Robinson in their one-on-one matchups, but Robinson was playing with a groin injury. He didn’t practice Wednesday or Thursday. The more interesting question is whether Matt Nagy’s offense requires a true No. 1 receiver. I don’t think it does. He likes to spread the ball around and the Bears also have plenty of options.
Q: Do you anticipate an increased role for Bilal Nichols this week?
A: I expect something similar to last week against the Patriots. He played a season-high 35 snaps and made an impact by forcing and recovering a fumble. The fifth-round pick is undoubtedly winning over the coaching staff. He played more than Jonathan Bullard (22 snaps) and Roy Robertson-Harris (16) against the Patriots. “[Nichols has] done well,” Fangio said. “When he’s gotten in there, he’s done his job, and when you do your job, there are going to be some plays made available to you, and he’s capitalized on that. He’s done a nice job.”
Q: Do you think we’ll see more snaps for Kevin White this week?
A: Maybe. I’ve come to expect unexpected things from Nagy’s offense, whether it’s his play calls or personnel groupings. But it’s important to not make too much out of White’s Hail Mary catch against the Patriots. It would have been more impressive if he gained separation on the goal line and caught the jump ball thrown to him earlier in the game. Miller is close to breaking out, not White.