Share Bear: Bears RB Tarik Cohen connecting with Chicago youth in inspiring ways

Running back Tarik Cohen has been on a star on and off the field for the Bears. | Associated Press

Tarik Cohen knew what he would say when it became his turn to speak.

But his turn was last.

His words — or one word exactly — would conclude his long meeting with students at Julian High School on Chicago’s South Side.

When the students and instructors finished describing their meeting in their own single word, their attention turned to Cohen.

“Equal,” the blossoming, young Bears star said.

What did he mean?

“When I get in an environment like that, I feel like I’m just one of the guys,” the running back later told the Sun-Times. “I feel like I’m back in high school. I just feel at one with the group.”

It was Monday, the usual off day for players. But by actively taking part in Youth Guidance’s BAM (Becoming a Man) Program, Cohen was living out what he sees as his calling beyond football

“I feel like that’s what I’m here for,” Cohen, 23, said. “I feel like that’s my purpose, to show them a better way and just to spread my story out, just so that people connect with me and see who I am for real.”

* * *

Every year, the community-relations department has rookies complete a survey about their off-field interests, particularly when it comes to community outreach.

“Into talking to at-risk kids,” Cohen wrote last year.

Cohen was once one of those at-risk kids. He’s from a single-mother household from rural North Carolina.

“I feel like sharing some stories of my life will let them know that I possibly may have went through the same things that they’re going through right now,” Cohen said. “I feel like that’s a way to get closer to them.”

And he only has added more stories since being drafted by the Bears in the fourth round of last year’s draft.

— Cohen’s twin brother, Tyrell, was evicted from the North Carolina house that Cohen helped set up for him, forcing Cohen to help again.

— Cohen’s younger half-brother, Dante Norman, was incarcerated in North Carolina, and he has offered financial assistance. (Cohen said he expects him to be released soon.)

— The house his mother, Tilwanda Newell, was living in was robbed, forcing him to handle another move for a family member.

— The vehicle that Cohen leased for Tyrell — a “four-wheeler,” Cohen called it — was stolen forcing him to make a full payment.

Cohen shared it all with the male students in the BAM program. And they’re stories that Cohen later said he’s comfortable with everyone knowing.

“I feel like it made me stronger and made me who I am,” he said. “So I would like to share my journey with everybody.”

Even happy moments at North Carolina A&T turned into what Cohen called “obstacles” for him and his family.

During his junior year, he and Tyrell connected with their father while in New York for Cohen’s track meet. On that visit, Tyrell’s girlfriend was robbed at their home back in North Carolina while their infant daughter was in another room.

Throughout college, Cohen said his mother was homeless, too. To help, Cohen used money from a Pell Grant to pay for hotel rooms.

“Just having her homeless and me not being able to do anything about it, that hurt the most,” Cohen said. “I just wanted to speed up the process and try to get into a financially stable situation so I can help her as quick as possible.”

Hearing bad news, then dealing with it has become the norm for Cohen, but you wouldn’t know it.

“He does a good job of managing that,” said veteran back Benny Cunningham, who is Cohen’s closet friend on the Bears. “If you meet him, you’ll never have an idea of when he’s going through a bad day because he doesn’t show it. He’s always trying to brighten other people’s days. I feel like that’s what makes him so amazing.”

It’s because Cohen is continuously answering the “why” of his life — a question the BAM instructors posed to the male students.

“I feel like me being who I am now is helping [my family],” said Cohen, who has two nieces. “They realize the potential they have also, and they feel like they want to do good for themselves.”

* * *

Cohen’s 45-minute ride home from Julian to the northern suburbs gave him ample time to reflect.

“How I can touch them and how they are going to act when they leave that circle?” Cohen said. “Are they going to take what we talked about and be smart about it? Or are they going to do the same bad things that’s been happening?”

Cohen’s visit wasn’t a photo op. He actively participated in BAM’s discussions and mental exercises. One by one, he heard the students’ stories — private, heart-breaking ones, too.

As Cohen hoped, he became one of the guys that afternoon.

“It’s the obstacles that they have to go against, the fact that everybody has problems of their own,” Cohen said. “When you’re in that circle, no one problem is bigger than the other.”

It was his third visit with students from BAM as a member of the Bears, who have partnered with Youth Guidance, which provides programs that offer assistance to 11,000 students.

An appearance by Cohen can mean plenty, Youth Guidance national director Anthony Watson said. The BAM program consists of 7,000 male students from 7th to 12th grade.

“When we have those conversations, it’s really good for the young men to see that these athletes that they’re human, that they’re men,” Watson said. “They’ve struggled through a lot of the same issues. They came from a lot of the same neighborhoods and how they handled that.

“It’s just a great example, a great role model for a lot of young men to see and to potentially glean something from.”

What was Cohen’s main message?

“Just to not take the easy way out,” Cohen said. “That’s the big thing about everything. Like I was saying in there, selling drugs and robbing, that’s the easy way out because there’s so many people doing it because it’s easy. I feel like going to college, getting an education, that’s harder. I want them to challenge themselves — which they’re doing — and try to go the hard route.”

Cohen, of course, is living, touchdown-scoring proof of what can happen.

“The type of kids that I run into, I see myself in them,” Cohen said. “That’s really what I do it for, the kids who want to see what hard work looks like and what hard work looks like when it pays off.”

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