Tarik Cohen didn’t go into the NFL Draft with high expectations.
“I tried not to have too many high hopes,” he said. “Coming from my school, coming from an HBCU, a smaller school, you never know what to expect.”
Cohen’s school is NC A&T, which is a giant among Historically Black Colleges and Universities but barely a blip on the big-time college football radar compared to its high-profile FBS rivals.
It also didn’t help that at 5-foot-6, Cohen was considered by many as too small to play professional football.
Despite those obstacles, the talented running back from Bunn showed enough promise — primarily as a kick returner — to be selected by the Chicago Bears in the fourth round (119th overall) of the 2017 draft.
Cohen’s expectations were raised considerably once that happened. He wasn’t satisfied just being in the league, he set his sights on excelling once there.
It’s a goal he accomplished this season by earning a Pro Bowl invitation and helping the Bears win their first division championship since 2010. Saturday, the undersized star was honored along with linebacker Darius Leonard of the Indianapolis Colts as the HBCU Pro Player of the Year by the NFL Players Association.
“It’s a tremendous honor,” Cohen said. “It’s good to see that HBCU players can continue on (to) the next level.”
Cohen was also named the HBCU College Player of the Year following his senior season of 2016, in which he rushed for 1,588 yards and 18 touchdowns in helping the Aggies to a 9-3 record.
His latest award was created by the NFLPA in recognition of Black History Month. This is the second year it has been presented. In addition to on-the-field performance, the winners are chosen by a six-member committee — which includes former Super Bowl champion quarterback Doug Williams — based on their “positive influence in the community, ties to their alma mater and good character.”
Adding to the prestige of his most recent award is the fact that Cohen received it at the Black College Football Hall of Fame ceremony in Atlanta.
This year’s class of inductees included fellow running backs Timmy Newsome (Winston-Salem State), Emerson Boozer (Maryland-Eastern Shore), wide receivers John Taylor (Delaware State) and Frank Lewis (Grambling), defensive linemen Hugh Douglas (Central State) and Rich “Tombstone” Jackson (Southern) and coach Arnett “Ace” Mumford.
“I feel like I’m honoring them with how I play every Sunday,” Cohen said of the new inductees and those already in the Hall of Fame. “To see their faces light up when they see me play and to give me their credit is great, to carry on their legacy.”
Cohen followed up a modestly successful rookie season by bursting into stardom in 2018.
He rushed for 444 yards and three touchdowns, caught 71 passes for 725 yards and five scores while leading the NFL in punt return yardage with 411. He finished the season with 1,580 all-purpose yards and even threw a touchdown pass during the Bears’ playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Even though his team lost that game 16-15 on a missed field goal on the final play, Cohen is excited about the direction in which the Bears are heading. He said the key to getting back to the playoffs and advancing deeper into them next season is more offensive consistency.
Cohen said he’s optimistic about that happening, primarily because of the growth shown by quarterback Mitch Trubisky.
“I feel like he’s in prime position right now,” Cohen said of the former North Carolina star, who he called a perfectionist. “This is really the first time he’s going to be in a consistent offense, so he has no ceiling.”
Cohen said he also still has plenty of room to grow, at least from a football perspective.
As for his actual size, he said he doesn’t hear much about that anymore now that he’s established himself as a productive NFL player.
Not that he spent much time listening to the one-time doubters.
“The players who have the height disadvantage really don’t pay attention to it,” he said. “We just go out there and play. The only way to really silence it is to get on the field and actually do that.”