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Carolina Panthers running back Tarik Cohen awaits chance to make an impact  

Cohen credits time as North Carolina A&T Aggies star player for preparing him for NFL comeback

When running back Tarik Cohen decided to try to return to the NFL after a three-year hiatus due to injuries, there was only one team the North Carolina native wanted to play for: the Carolina Panthers.

“I called it,” said Cohen, who officially signed with the Panthers’ practice squad in September. “I wanted to go to the Panthers. Even my agent told me people don’t really get to call their own shots and just go to whatever team they want. But I told him I was sure I would impress them [the Panthers]. I wanted to put all my eggs in one basket, and that’s what I did.”

Cohen began his NFL career when the Chicago Bears selected him in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL draft. Cohen’s career stalled when he tore his ACL and MCL in Week 3 of the 2020 season, sidelining him for the rest of that season and all of the next. In 2022, Cohen tore his Achilles tendon during a workout, further delaying his return to the NFL.

Cohen took time for himself and initially was not concerned about football but eventually started to miss playing the sport he loved.

“At first, I wasn’t doing anything,” Cohen told Andscape. “I was just chilling at the crib, gaining dad weight. I saw a picture of me and thought I had too much weight on me. I wasn’t used to that. But I slowly but surely got back into the football mood and started doing more football workouts to get back in shape.”

Earlier this month, Panthers special teams coordinator Chris Tabor said Cohen was performing well on the practice squad but didn’t specify when he might play in a game. However, now that Cohen is back in the league, he simply wants to help his new team.

“I just want to get on the field and make an impact,” Cohen said. “Whether that be on special teams or offense. Or even if it’s just motivating the guys and giving them some knowledge I’ve gained over the years, I want to make my presence felt.”

Cohen’s desire to play for the Panthers is primarily due to his North Carolina roots. A native of Bunn, North Carolina, he played football at Bunn High School for two seasons, rushing for 1,424 yards and scoring 38 touchdowns.

“It means a lot to me to be able to play with the Panthers,” Cohen said. “It’s really about having so many people here that love and care about me and being so close in proximity to them.”

Cohen remained in his home state throughout his collegiate career, playing at North Carolina A&T State University from 2013-16. During his four-year career with the Aggies, Cohen was the 2013 MEAC Rookie of the Year, earned three First Team All-MEAC selections, was a two-time MEAC Offensive Player of the Year and won the 2015 Celebration Bowl Offensive MVP award. He also combined for 2,883 rushing yards through his sophomore and junior seasons, the most in FCS football history over two years.

Sam Washington, associate head coach for North Carolina A&T’s football team from 2015-16, coached Cohen and remembers him having all of the keys for success as a young Aggie.

“When I think about Tarik Cohen, my first thought is instant offense,” Washington told Andscape. “He understood the preparation it takes to win and prepared every day. He checked all the boxes: athletic ability, speed, strength, agility, vision and most importantly, determination and willpower. The great ones make everyone around them better, and he [Cohen] did.”

Cohen’s college teammates knew from the start he would eventually be on an NFL team.

“He still owes me from a bet we made in college,” said former North Carolina A&T quarterback Kwashaun Quick. “After seeing him play his freshman year, I bet him that he would get drafted. Since his first year, I knew he was special. He was a great teammate and friend and still is. He’s the type to give you his last and leave himself with nothing.”

North Carolina A&T alumni remember Cohen’s MVP performance at the 2015 Celebration Bowl: He rushed for 295 yards and three touchdowns to lead North Carolina A&T to a 41-34 win over Alcorn State.

“I remember seeing him [Cohen] run and thinking, ‘Dang, this little guy is fast,’ ” said Layla Brenshaw, a 2017 graduate of North Carolina A&T. “He was so shifty, and it seemed like he never lost energy. That was a great day to be an Aggie, and Tarik showed the world what Aggies do.”

Cohen said his time at North Carolina A&T prepared him for the NFL. 

“It’s like growing up with less,” Cohen said. “At A&T, I didn’t feel like I had the same resources compared to other colleges. So when I got there [A&T], it taught me how to get good with not much, so when I had more, I could just add to that.”

The Panthers (1-6) will face the Indianapolis Colts at 4:05 p.m. Sunday at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Kamryn Jackson, a 2024 Rhoden Fellow, is a senior multimedia journalism major from Prince George’s County, Maryland. In the fall she will serve as the managing editor of The A&T Register and president of Associated Sports Press Editors. Her favorite sport to play is volleyball, and her favorite sport to watch is basketball.