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Tarik Cohen returns to football where he says he's "supposed to be" 

Tarik Cohen

CHARLOTTE – The story of Tarik Cohen's professional football journey sounds like more of a movie script than real life.

He'd be among the first to admit it.

A Bunn, N.C. native, the 28-year-old running back and return specialist had a promising career halted for nearly three years by a flurry of injuries. Cohen missed the last two NFL seasons, suffering setbacks at times he thought he was ready, and reached points where he felt like it was all over. 

He's back in a locker room with his hometown Panthers after signing onto the practice squad, now passing large photos of Carolina legends on the Bank of America Stadium walls. An image of Julius Peppers, the defensive end set to be enshrined in the Panthers' Hall of Honor this year, stuck with him.

Tarik Cohen

"It was like a surreal feeling," Cohen said of stepping into the Panthers' facility this week. "I saw all the pictures on the wall, seeing Julius Peppers. I played against his high school (Southern Nash in Bailey, N.C.) almost every year in high school. Seeing him on that wall, it's like, I just really feel like this is where I'm supposed to be.

"You know how that stuff is just, like, written? And that's the way I feel."

Cohen has tasted success in the league and was on track for more accolades with the Bears when the injuries first popped up in 2020.

But he's back now, where he wanted to be the most, because he feels like he could be even better than he once was.

"I'm very confident; that's the only reason I came back," Cohen said. "I told everybody who wanted me to come back before that if I wasn't myself – like, if I was a fraction of myself, I wouldn't come back at all. And now I feel like I'm that – maybe even better.

"So with two years rest, I feel like a car that's been in the garage, a brand-new Ferrari that hasn't been driven in a long time."

Tarik Cohen

Cohen was a standout at North Carolina A&T from 2013-16, leading the Aggies to the 2015 Black college football national championship and earning the 2015 Celebration Bowl's offensive MVP honor.

The Bears selected Cohen in the fourth round of the 2017 draft, and he made a significant impact on punt and kickoff returns in Chicago.

Under the direction of special teams coordinator Chris Tabor (in Chicago with him at the time), Cohen was named first-team All-Pro as a return specialist after a 2018 season with 411 punt return yards on top of 444 rushing yards, 725 receiving yards, and a total of eight touchdowns.

"He was a dynamic player," Tabor said. "At that time, when he caught the punts, he did punts and kicks for us. … He stretched the whole field. You had to defend the entire field, and he could start and stop so quick. He was a dynamic player."

Cohen was electric in Chicago, putting up 1,575 yards receiving, 1,101 rushing, 985 on punt returns, and 628 on kicks with 15 career touchdowns across three full seasons and three games in 2020. He signed a three-year contract extension with the Bears in September 2020.

But it all started to fall out in Week 3 of the 2020 season.

Tackled on a routine punt return against the Falcons, Cohen fell injured with tears to his right ACL and MCL, along with a tibial plateau fracture.

He landed on injured reserve and missed the entire 2021 season while recovering from the injuries. In March 2022, the Bears released him.

Later that spring, Cohen, who had returned to his home state in North Carolina, streamed a workout on Instagram Live from a YMCA near Ballantyne. He said he was "trying to get back in shape before the draft to try to impress teams," looking for that next opportunity.

But he went too far, sustaining an Achilles tear on his left leg that day, and adding another setback to the journey that had already kept him away from the football field for nearly two full seasons.

"I worked myself too hard that specific day," Cohen said. "That was my first day in two years running, and I tried to push it. And I made a cut too hard, and my leg just gave on me.

"It was the opposite leg. I think I was compensating a lot on my other leg. So that's why it just gave up."

Cohen worked to come back from that injury based out of his home in High Point, N.C., near where he went to college at North Carolina A&T. He spent time working out with former teammates and players from the Carolinas, including Johnathan Alston, a former NFL defensive back who previously played with the Lions and went to Bunn High School with him; Rob Hunt, a wide receiver he played with in college; Falcons running back/return specialist Cordarelle Patterson, a Rock Hill, S.C. native; and Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph, also from Rock Hill.

Tarik Cohen

But Cohen had tough conversations with his agent, feeling like the future may not be so bright after that Achilles injury. When he couldn't get ready to come back fully before this year's draft, Cohen thought it might be the last straw.

"Mentally, I see myself as a strong person, a disciplined person," he said. "When I couldn't get back before the draft, I sat down with my agent. I was like, 'You know, I think I'm going to call it quits. If you think now's the best time to get back, and I can't do it now, I'm going to just call it quits.'"

Cohen didn't arrive at that decision permanently, though. Recently, while running around in the backyard with his son, Carter, who will be 2 years old on Christmas, he noticed that he felt like his "old self."

He called his agent and said, specifically, "Call Carolina and see if they can use me. If they can, I'm ready. I'll be ready."

Carolina called him in for a workout Tuesday, and Tabor was among the group impressed with what he saw.

And above all else, Tabor was impressed with how he came back. He saw Cohen through the first injury, and he has seen his potential up close in Chicago.

"Just personally, he means a lot to me," Tabor said. "We know he's a good player. But more importantly, he's a great person, and he's been through a lot. He sustained his injury on a punt return down in Atlanta. So, I always selfishly felt responsible for that. And I was just so happy just to watch him work out, and see him run and move around."

Tarik Cohen

Cohen got the call soon after, answering the phone while playing video games with friends.

The Panthers were giving him another shot, bringing him onto the practice squad.

"I kind of knew what the call was going to be about, so I left it on speaker phone," Cohen said. "Then it was a long conversation; I was trying to stay calm through the conversation, and then, as soon as I hung up the phone, I lost my mind."

Cohen was brought back to the league and brought into the place he wanted to be, and he was also reunited with Tabor, whom he said he had a "great relationship" with.

And now he's rearing to show what the last two years of challenges were leading up to – a return to the league near his home base, that storybook kind of twist.

"That's what I love to do, put on for those who supported me and always believe in me," Cohen said. "I just felt like I wanted to come full circle. I was born and raised here, grew up playing football in North Carolina. I just feel like I just needed to be here, and this was the place for me."

View photos from the Panthers' practice on Thursday.

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