INDIANAPOLIS — “The Human Joystick” isn’t a big guy. He stands 5’6, and odds are you probably haven’t heard of him. His name is Tarik Cohen, and he’s a running back out of the historically black college North Carolina A&T. Now, he’s a member of the Chicago Bears.
Despite his short stature, Cohen feels his game will translate well to the NFL, in two ways that bring on comparisons to Darren Sproles.
“My vision and the fact that I can make a play with the ball without getting like 20 carries a game,” Cohen said. “The suddenness to make an explosive play I feel like will transition well.”
Cohen has been one of the best running backs in the FCS the past four seasons. He’s the MEAC’s all-time leading rusher with 5,619 yards and was the conference’s first three-time Offensive Player of the Year.
“Naturally I have a chip on my shoulder,” Cohen said. “Being on this stage and being from a small school adds another chip on my shoulder.”
He gained national attention for his performance in the 2015 Celebration Bowl against Alcorn State. He torched the Braves for 295 yards on the ground and three touchdowns on just 22 carries in a 41-34 win.
Posting a video of himself doing a backflip while catching two footballs at once got him some recognition as well:
Explosive is a term used often with football players, but Cohen really is just that. Anything less than that, and he’s probably not doing backflips while catching footballs in both hands. He may not have the size that other NFL running backs do, but he’s clearly got the athleticism and hands.
Many players often hope for a long career, but Cohen doesn’t see that in the cards for himself.
“I feel like I want to play at least three years in the league, that’s the average,” Cohen said. “I want to meet the average, get a good name for myself, and then take off in marketing and then do a lot of philanthropy work.”
Cohen added, “I want to be known as a good man outside of football.” He has done work in the Boys & Girls Clubs in North Carolina, and has a real passion for it.
Though he has greater desires outside of football, the impact of his rise as an HBCU athlete means a lot.
North Carolina A&T has produced 33 NFL players. That doesn’t seem like a small amount on the surface — especially for a smaller school — but 13 of them came between 1960 and 1979. Since 1997, North Carolina A&T has produced just one drafted NFL player, Junius Coston back in 2005.
An invitation to the NFL Combine is special for any player, but being a representative of an HBCU adds weight to the meaning for Cohen. “It’s just me and the other guy from an HBCU, Javarius Leamon, so we’re kinda the underdogs.” In actuality, just four of the 330 players invited to the combine came from HBCUs.
“People don’t really know much of us so we really have to put our names out there and do more to get noticed,” Cohen said.
The amount of NFL players from HBCUs has dropped over the course of the past five decades. In 2016, there were 32 players on NFL rosters from HBCUs, down from 36 in 2015. When Black College Sports Page started publishing their report back in 1994, there were 86.
Part of that has to do with the fact that black players used to have no other option but to attend HBCUs, particularly with SEC schools not allowing blacks to even attend most universities at all in the early 1960s. As desegregation took place in the late 60s and early 70s, more and more black players opted for bigger universities. By 1988, 45 percent of black students in the U.S. attended majority-white schools. Now, the amount of HBCU alumni in the NFL is at an all-time low because of it.
The NFL took time at Super Bowl LI to recognize the Pro Football Hall of Famers who attended HBCUs, which included the likes of Doug Williams, Willie Davis, and Deacon Jones, just to name a few. It was a nice gesture in paying homage to players who helped mold today’s NFL.
While it’s great for black athletes to chase bigger opportunities at football powerhouses, it is also refreshing to see HBCU athletes achieve at a high level. It’s a reminder of tradition within the black community, and the advancements that have been made through the decades.
Cohen said that he had a chip on his shoulder and wants to prove people wrong. He not only represents North Carolina A&T in Indianapolis, but all HBCUs in the country. With success at the combine and being drafted on Saturday, he did just that.