USA TODAY US Edition
Power of the pen
Ex-Bears RB details tragedies, abuse he endured
“It’s heartbreaking, but, man, I think very powerful and maybe will let people know these guys they look at on TV are not superhuman guys. They’re like anyone else that goes through the struggles of life.”
Tony Dungy took a photo before the Football Hall of Fame Game in 2018, and on Thursday it gained new significance.
The photo shows his sons Justin and Jason, then in elementary school, standing next to Tarik Cohen, then a running back with the Chicago Bears.
“So nice with the boys and so effervescent,” Dungy, the Hall of Fame NFL coach who is now a broadcaster for NBC, recalled of Cohen. “It was just neat talking to him, but obviously (I) didn’t know any of this that was going on.”
Now Dungy knows – as does much of the sports world.
On Thursday morning, he read a
letter written by Cohen, 26, that was published by The Players’ Tribune on Tuesday and details the tragedies Cohen has endured.
The death of Cohen’s twin brother, Tyrell, who was electrocuted in 2021 while running from police. His young brother, Dante, being paralyzed from the waist down in 2019 after getting shot in the head. There were evictions, police visits and other trouble too – and Cohen’s guilt over watching his family struggle even after he made it to the NFL.
“It’s heartbreaking, but, man, I think very powerful and maybe will let people know these guys they look at on TV are not superhuman guys,” Dungy told USA TODAY Sports of Cohen’s letter. “They’re like anyone else that goes through the struggles of life.
“I can’t really imagine Tarik playing under those circumstances, but he did. And that’s pretty unbelievable.”
The tragedy has continued. An editor’s note on Cohen’s letter reads, “In early April, only a few days after completing this essay about his family and their journey, Tarik Cohen lost his younger brother, Dante, in a fatal car accident.”
Cohen, who made the Pro Bowl in 2018, was released by the Bears in March after struggling to come back from a serious knee injury suffered in 2020.
He talked about quitting football after Dante died April 18, said his mother, Tilwanda Newell. But she said she has encouraged Cohen to play for his 4month-old son, Carter Tyrell Cohen.
“He was just trying to give up and I didn’t want him to give up,” Newell said. “There’s no need to give up. You can’t give up now. What’s happened has happened and I’m quite sure they (Cohen’s brothers) wouldn’t want him to give up either.”
Cohen’s letter has prompted an outpouring of support, which is not what he got from all Bears fans.
Three weeks into the 2020 season, after signing a three-year extension for $17.25 million, including $12 million guaranteed, Tarik Cohen tore the ACL and MCL ligaments in his right knee and also fractured his tibial plateau, according to his letter.
He has not played in a game since the injury.
“Dudes on Twitter will be calling you ‘soft,’ or talking about how maybe you’re just lazy,” wrote Cohen, who played at North Carolina A&T before the Bears picked him in the fourth round of the 2017 draft. “They’ll have no clue. About anything. Obviously.
“But it will still hurt.”
As a head coach, Dungy said, he has witnessed pain from what players experienced off the field.
He recalled the 2006 season, when he helped lead the Indianapolis Colts to a Super Bowl title. But what came to mind Thursday is what happened in the moments of the Colts’ 21-14 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 3.
“Reggie Wayne made a couple of huge catches to put us in position to win the game,” Dungy said. “And Craig Kelley, our PR director, comes up to me in the locker room and says, ‘Hey, we just got a call that Reggie’s brother was killed in a car accident in New Orleans. Someone’s got to tell him.’ ”
Dungy broke the news to Wayne. “I told him right in the locker room,” he said. “It was painful.
“That happens. That’s life. I don’t know that many people in the general public ever knew that, but it happens.”
Then there was Gary Brackett, the Colts defensive captain during the 2006 season, who in a span of 17 months endured the deaths of his parents and brother.
“I think people don’t realize that they look at these guys and they think they’re superheroes out there and machines and they’re immune to everything else, they don’t have those issues,” Dungy said. “But there’s sickness and death and loss of life and problems in athletes’ families just like there are in anybody else’s.”
Dungy is not immune either.
In 2005, his son James, then 18, died in what was ruled a suicide.
Dungy talks of faith and support, and the love of football. And moments like the one on Aug. 2, 2018, when Dungy took a picture of his sons with Cohen in Canton, Ohio, before the Bears played the Baltimore Ravens in the Hall of Fame Game.
Cohen, 5-6 and described by his mother as a “human joystick,” was a rising star.
“My boys, because he’s a dynamic guy and he’s small like them, they wanted to take a picture with him,” Dungy said. “I probably talked to him for five minutes, talked about his role and how they were going to use him and what he was looking forward to and (quarterback) Mitchell Trubisky and that offense and he was so fired up that night and just excited to be a Bear.
“I guess if I had a message for sports fans, it’s just to know that your heroes that you root for and you cheer for and you hold in high esteem, they have maybe even more going on than you would know, and more reasons to root for them than you would normally know.”