His coach sent his film to every school, as far away as California.
It showed what the fewer than 350 residents of Bunn, North Carolina, knew to be true: Tarik Cohen was a star. He didn’t join the varsity until the playoffs his sophomore year and didn’t play running back until the next year. Once he did, he captivated the town, which has one grocery store and one stoplight. He was recognized at the gas station.
The future Bears running back was always confident. As a freshman, when he was even shorter than his current 5-6 frame, he swore he’d play in the NFL.
Before his senior season, he bet on himself. When his mom wanted to move the family 40 miles away to Raleigh for a job, he lobbied to stay. He needed to get a scholarship — he couldn’t afford college otherwise — and didn’t want to start over with a new program in the big city. When his mom, fraternal twin brother and little brother left Bunn, he stayed with an aunt.
But Cohen’s senior season came and went without a scholarship offer.
When coaches came to scout Cohen’s teammates, Bunn High School coach Chris Miller begged them to consider him. They’d see Cohen in street clothes and say no.
Soon, Cohen began talking with a favorite cousin about going into his line of work.
He was going to enlist in the Navy.
• • •
North Carolina A&T coach Rod Broadway thought about Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells’ credo: Err on the side of production.
Trei Oliver, his assistant, loved Cohen’s film and wanted the FCS school 100 miles west of Bunn to recruit him.
When Broadway said he was too small, Oliver lobbied again. And then a third time.
“[Broadway] always said, if it’s someone you believe in, stand on the table,” Oliver said.
Broadway finally agreed to meet Cohen to size him up. In January 2013 — after Cohen’s senior season — he walked onto Bunn’s campus. He’d first gone to Dunn, a town an hour away, by mistake.
“He’s so much smaller on tape than he is in person,” Broadway said. “He’s not small, he’s just short. There’s a distinct difference.”
Cohen’s hands were huge then; now, they measure 10⅛ inches across, almost an inch wider than those of Bears wide receiver Kevin White. Now 181 pounds, he was stout in high school, too.
“He was like one big muscle,” said David Howle, his track coach at Bunn. “And in his mind, he’s 6-2, 230.”
On campus that day, Broadway said he wanted to use Cohen to catch screens and return kicks. Cohen was annoyed. He wanted to run the ball.
Before Broadway left, though, he became the only person to offer Cohen a scholarship.
“We were hugging and crying,” Miller said, “like it was an offer from Notre Dame.”
• • •
Cohen thought Bahrain, where his cousin was stationed, might not be so bad. But when the scholarship came, there was no question he’d chase his dream.
“I knew I was going to take it and run with it,” he said. “Since it was my only opportunity, I was going to make the most of it.”
A&T turned out to be the perfect fit.
“Had he gone to Florida State, N.C. State, whatever it may be, I think he might have gotten caught up in the wash,” Miller said. “I think that’s what he needed to grow.
“I’m ecstatic that that’s the only one he got. It just adds to his story, to be honest.”
Miller made a prediction to A&T: Cohen would break every school record and be all-conference every year. He did just that, setting school marks with 6,564 all-purpose yards and 61 touchdowns. He was All-MEAC four consecutive years.
Broadway’s specialist plan changed his first preseason, when Cohen split a blocker and a defender, made one cut and was gone in a blur.
“Whoa,” he said. “How’d he see that?”
Cohen had a smile stretched across his face in every practice for four years. Broadway learned quickly about his toughness, too. He rarely was hit cleanly. It finally happened in the first game of his sophomore year, the MEAC/SWAC Challenge against Alabama A&M in Orlando, Florida.
“I went over to him and said, ‘Tarik, where are you?’ ” Broadway said. “He said, ‘I’m in Orlando, and I’m ready to get in somebody’s butt.’ ”
Cohen finished with 161 rushing yards, including an 80-yarder, and was named the game’s MVP.
His junior year, the team went to the College Football Hall of Fame before the de facto Historically Black Colleges and Universities national title game in Atlanta. They watched a video about the sport’s greats.
When the lights came on, Cohen remained in his chair, sobbing.
He ran for 295 yards — with touchdown runs of 83, 74 and 73 yards — and A&T won the title.
“I told our people all the time, ‘Sit back and watch because you’re watching greatness as it unfolds before you,’ ” Broadway said.
When NFL scouts came to campus — the Saints and Seahawks liked him — some gave Broadway the same looks he gave his own recruiter.
But Broadway had the luxury of watching Cohen, aptly nicknamed “Chicken Salad” and “The Human Joystick,” four years earlier. When the Bears drafted Cohen in the fourth round, he wasn’t surprised.
“Why so late?” he said.
• • •
Bears running backs coach Curtis Modkins smiled when told Cohen had one scholarship offer.
“I had a guy in New Mexico named Brian Urlacher that didn’t have a lot, either,” he said.
Cohen and Urlacher had the energy and work ethic to earn their sky-high swagger, he said. Cohen’s confidence already has gone up. He has run 18 times for 116 yards this preseason, and he’ll become the first Bunn player to earn a regular-season NFL roster spot next week.
Cohen’s speed is undeniable, but he can run between the tackles and, most important, pass-block. He looks like the Eagles’ Darren Sproles, but Modkins thinks Cohen’s burst — full speed in three steps — reminds him of four-time Pro Bowl player Jamaal Charles. One Bears starter even told a friend privately that Cohen might be their best player.
“Tarik’s always been a beast,” said quarterback Mitch Trubisky, whose Tar Heels played A&T two years ago. “He’s fearless, man. I’ve always said, ‘It’s all about heart.’ ”
• • •
Tyrell Cohen can’t watch his twin brother play without thinking he’s there.
“When I see him on the field, it’s like I’m on the field,” he said. “When he takes a hit, it’s like I take a hit.”
Two minutes older, Tyrell is the smaller of the fraternal twins. His driver’s license says 5-4, but he tells people he’s an inch taller. He played football with his brother through middle school. He was the better one then. Perhaps, Tarik said, he lost interest because it came easily.
Tyrell wonders if he quit too early — “It makes me think I could have had the same thing if I had followed my dream,” he said — but still bubbles with pride.
“He just wanted to pursue that dream, and he stuck to it,” said Tyrell Cohen, who does landscaping in Raleigh.
The day A&T offered Tarik a scholarship was one of the best days of Tyrell’s life.
Draft day was even better.
“Growing up, we always dreamed of it,” he said. “Actually seeing him there, I still can’t believe it.”
His former coaches can.
Broadway thinks his work ethic is inversely related to his size — “It’s maybe that Napoleon complex,” he said — while Howle said Cohen’s heart is larger than any athlete’s he coached in 34 years.
“If he wound up playing in the Pro Bowl next year, I wouldn’t be surprised,” Oliver said. “If he played in the NFL for 15 years, I wouldn’t be surprised.”
Follow me on Twitter @patrickfinley.