The Speediest Running Back You May Not Know Yet
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because, as his teammate says, he’s “fast as shit.”
In Week 1 of the 2017 NFL season, the average player stood 6.18 feet and weighed 245.39 pounds. Running back Tarik Cohen is 5 feet, 6 inches and generously listed at 181 pounds, making him much shorter and lighter than the average football player — and any of his teammates on the Chicago Bears. So how has such a diminutive back become such an effective weapon in a contest ruled by Goliaths? Bears offensive tackle Bobby Massie, a 6-foot-6, 317-pounder, has the answer, telling OZY: “He’s fast as shit.”
Cohen’s ascent in the NFL has been just as rapid. In his very first game, on September 10, the 2017 fourth-round pick amassed 158 total yards, a Bears rookie record. “I knew it was coming,” Cohen says. “I felt like I’d have a good matchup for the whole game.”
The Bears moved their new recruit all over the field, testing him as a running back, slot receiver, punt returner and even as a wildcat quarterback, where he handed off to Jordan Howard for a 4-yard touchdown in Week 1. “We use him in a lot of different places,” Massie says.
Cohen grew up in a place called Bunn, North Carolina, a 500-person, one-stoplight town. At Bunn High, the speedster scored 17 touchdowns and averaged more than 9 yards per carry — while also running the 100 meters in 10.65 seconds and serving as the anchor leg on the state champion 4-x-100 relay. But because of his size, the only college to offer him a scholarship was North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. “Everybody thought he was too short and too small,” explains David Howle, the longtime Bunn High football coach who coached Cohen in track. “But what they didn’t know is what was inside his chest.”
The secret’s out on what we have in him.
Chicago Bears quarterback Mike Glennon
Cohen used that willpower to overcome a trying childhood. He was raised by a single mother, Tilwanda Newell, a nursing assistant who struggled to make ends meet. Tarik and his twin brother, Tyrell, resorted to turning on the oven to heat the home, and Tarik cycled through half a dozen elementary schools. When Newell had to relocate to Raleigh, Tarik moved in with his aunt, Milltrene Newell, so he could continue playing for Bunn.
At North Carolina A&T, a small, historically Black college in Greensboro, Cohen became the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference’s all-time leading rusher with 5,619 yards and a three-time conference player of the year. That earned him a berth in the NFL Combine, where he was the smallest player, but his 40-yard-dash time of 4.42 seconds put him second among all running backs.
During that draft evaluation process, NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah dubbed Cohen “Chicken Salad” because he had a habit of using his agility to turn chickenshit plays into something tasty. (Turns out chicken salad and Ritz crackers was a favorite meal when Cohen was growing up.) He earned another nickname — “the Human Joystick” — because the elusive cutback style he displayed during NC A&T highlight reels looked like it came straight from an old-school video game. “Elusive,” however, definitely doesn’t apply to a 2015 video showing Cohen doing backflips while catching a football one-handed.
That kind of confidence and athleticism was on full display during his NFL debut. Cohen made a one-handed catch with two minutes left in the game, and on a 46-yard run, he reversed field on a toss play and broke two tackles. In Week 3, his 36-yard run against the Pittsburgh Steelers was the penultimate play of the overtime victory. And in Week 6, he became the first Bears rookie running back to throw a touchdown pass since Gale Sayers in 1965. “I don’t care about his stature,” says Bears tight end Zach Miller, adding, “Can’t say enough about him.”
Still, the question remains whether Cohen is big enough to hold up. Near the end of the third quarter of Week 1, Atlanta Falcons linebacker Deion Jones drew an unnecessary roughness penalty for throwing Cohen out of bounds. On the second punt return of his NFL career, Cohen was drilled by rookie Falcons linebacker Duke Riley. Two plays later, he caught a 2-yard pass over the middle, and safety Keanu Neal drilled his shoulder into his chest. Cohen got up, adjusting his face mask. “They got pretty good solid hits on me,” he says. “I’ve got to dip my shoulder a little more, turn my body so they don’t get a square hit on me.”
Beyond self-protection, the rookie is still learning. In Week 2, a punt bounced inside the Bears’ 15-yard line, and, instead of running away from it, Cohen tried to make a play and fumbled. That led to a Buccaneers touchdown on the very next play. “I thought it was going out of bounds. Then it was bouncing inbounds so I was trying to stop the bleeding,” he recalls. “I just got to be more decisive and take my loss.”
So far, though, Cohen has been a net gain for the Bears. While complementing the bruising 225-pound Howard, his fellow tailback, the more fleet Cohen leads the Bears in receptions (26) and averages 4.5 yards per rushing attempt. “The secret’s out on what we have in him,” says Bears quarterback Mike Glennon. “He’s a playmaker, and we’re lucky to have him.”
Correction: An earlier version placed North Carolina A&T 90 miles west of Greensboro, when in fact the university is in Greensboro, 90 miles west of Cohen’s hometown of Bunn.