Tarik Cohen wasn’t surprised by the physicality of the NFL or what it takes to successfully get through the grind of his 17-week rookie season. What he, perhaps, was less prepared for was the fame that’d come with one of the more exciting debut seasons by a Bears player in recent memory.
“Going out to Wal-Mart, you always gotta take pictures, you gotta sign something,” Cohen said. “I wish it was an area like, sometimes I could turn it off, I could just be invisible, I could go to Wal-Mart and get meat, some paper towels and not be in there for 30 minutes.
“… I see myself as a regular person, I just want everybody else to look at me the same way.”
What Cohen has done on the field in 2017, though, has been far from regular. He’s the first rookie to have a running, receiving, passing and returning touchdown since Gale Sayers in 1965. He’s the shortest player to throw a touchdown, which he did Oct. 15 against the Baltimore Ravens, since Wee Willie Smith in 1934 (“shout-out to Wee Willie,” Cohen said after that game, “I’m Wee ‘Rik”). He’s carried 84 times for 357 yards with two scores and caught 47 passes for 344 yards and a touchdown, all while providing a spark for a frequently-moribund offense.
Back in August, a common line of questioning to Cohen was centered around if he could hold up over the course of a 16-game season. It made sense, at least on the surface: Standing at 5-foot-6 and weighing 181 pounds, the potential for Cohen to be hit hard and thrown around by bigger, stronger defenders was there. And those big hits, theoretically, could lead to injuries and missed time.
There’s been none of that for Cohen, who hasn't ever been listed on the team’s daily injury reports during his rookie year. For a team that’s placed 19 players on injured reserve since the beginning of training camp, that’s an even more impressive feat.
“I think he takes care of his body,” coach John Fox said. “He’s a pretty quick guy. Even though he might be viewed as undersized, he doesn’t experience too many direct hits. I think he avoided that pretty well. His football IQ is good in that sense. He doesn’t put himself in compromising positions. That and I think his mindset has been to take good care of himself. He gets plenty of rest and it’s just being a professional.”
Cohen credited veteran running back Benny Cunningham for helping teach him how to take care of his body during the season. He’ll frequent the ice tub and get off his feet as much as possible, and for Cohen, off days are off days. Not only has that helped keep Cohen physically fresh, but mentally, he hasn't hit a rookie wall either.
“(I try) to give him as much advice as possible about how to stay healthy, how draining it can become,” Cunningham said. “But I feel like he just has a genuine love for the game and you can see that every practice, every game — win or lose, his attitude and mentality, it stays the same.”
The Bears identified Cohen’s work ethic when scouting him, and figured his explosive playmaking ability could translate to the NFL level when they picked him in the fourth round of April’s draft. But Cohen’s blown past expectations like a defender trying to tackle him in 2017, and the Bears can see him growing with Mitchell Trubisky as a big part of their long-term plans.
“He practices really hard and brings a lot of energy and passion to the game,” Trubisky said. “He’s got the right mentality to play this game. His attitude is probably what’s going to carry him the farthest. His ability alone, catching the ball, running the ball, is special, but his attitude is what’s going to separate him. His mentality, no matter who’s up against him, is that he’s going to be successful and beat the man across from him.”
Of course, the more success Cohen has, the more times he’ll be stopped in Wal-Mart or wherever to interact with fans. All those in-person interactions have been positive, Cohen said, and not strange — “Just taking pictured in the frozen food section, holding sausages and stuff.” Cohen figured his diminutive stature makes him stick out, too.
“They see a little grown man,” Cohen said. “There’s only one little grown man in Chicago right now.”