Tarik Cohen is much more than the sum of his considerable pain

The former Bears running back is dealing with his latest setback, a ruptured Achilles tendon.

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Former Bears running back Tarik Cohen was injured while working out Tuesday.

Former Bears running back Tarik Cohen was injured while working out Tuesday.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Tarik Cohen recently wrote a painful, touching and unsparing article about his life for The Players’ Tribune. It’s a letter to his 17-year-old self, and the raw honesty of it is remarkable. It’s a hard read, but you’ll be better for taking it on. I’m sure he’s better for writing it.

The former Bears running back has been through so much — is going through so much — but there’s something good out there waiting for him. There has to be. He’s known death after death and injury after injury, but how he has reckoned with his sorrow and addressed his challenges tells me there’s a happy ending on the horizon. I’m rooting like hell for it.

In his letter, we learn of the massive guilt he lugged around after Dante, his younger brother, became involved in drug dealing and eventually got shot in the head, leaving him paralyzed. And more guilt and pain came his way when Tyrell, his twin brother, died after fleeing the scene of a one-car accident. What if Cohen had been around more for them while he was chasing his dream of being an NFL player? What if he had kept them on the straight and narrow? Would that have been enough to save them?

Chicago had known some of the details of what had happened to his brothers while he was playing for the Bears, but we had no way of knowing the agony that was his fellow traveler. If we could have consoled him, if we could have let him know that we were there for him, as flimsy as that sounds, perhaps that might have helped ease his pain. Might have let him know he wasn’t so alone. The cheers and the gasps over his ability to change directions seem shallow now, as if we were all missing the bigger point, the point being that here was a suffering man. 

The oohs and aahs went away when he injured his right knee during a punt return against the Falcons in 2020. He had torn the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments, and fractured the tibial plateau. He hasn’t played football since. The Bears waived him in March. In April, Dante, the brother who had been paralyzed in a shooting, died in a car accident.


And now, a little more than a week after his article ran in The Players’ Tribune, more bad news: Cohen reportedly ruptured his right Achilles tendon Tuesday during a workout that was being livestreamed on Instagram.

It sounds like way too much Biblical smiting, like Job getting through four quarters of affliction only to find out there’s an overtime of more abuse coming. But here’s where it gets better. Here’s where I hope Cohen goes back and re-reads that letter he wrote to his younger self. I hope he focuses on the last two paragraphs and embraces them for all their worth, which is everything:

“You will never be fully clear of the pain. And that’s OK. 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.’’

He’s so much more than the hurt he’s feeling right now over being hurt again. There’s pain, yes, but there’s also a resilience and a perspective to him that will have the final say in the story of his life. If he can make his way back from two terrible injuries and play again, it will be an incredible achievement. But judging by the letter and how he has responded to the suffering and challenges of his 26 years on the planet, he’s so much more than a football player.

He’s still the 5-foot-6 ball of muscle who went from North Carolina A&T to the fourth round of the 2017 NFL Draft to first-team All-Pro as a return specialist in 2018. But he’s also the uncle to his twin brother’s two young children, the one who vowed in his public letter to take care of their needs: 

“First off, buy them a house. All cash. In their names. Free and clear. Theirs to use and own. Give them that security. Next: Make sure college and any other school expenses are fully paid for both of them. Put that money away. Have it all set up. Do this stuff now. Immediately. Because you love them and you want them to feel good, and to know that they’re loved. But also do it as a tribute to Tyrell. In his name. Honor him in that way.

“And then just keep being there for them in a way that shows the world how proud you were to call Tyrell your brother.’’

That’s Tarik Cohen. And he’s going to be OK.

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