Whicker: Beware Tarik Cohen, the Chicago Bear who came in from the cold

CHICAGO — Tarik Cohen is a star. He used to be an asterisk.

He used to be the guy who ran up yards and touchdowns and never could get out from beneath the “yeah but” that everyone puts on 5-foot-6 ½  athletes who aren’t jockeys.

“Most schools go out and recruit four-stars and five-stars,” said Shawn Kemp, who coaches the running backs at North Carolina A&T. “The HBCU schools have to find the no-stars.”

That’s the acronym now. Historically Black Colleges and Universities are HBCUs. Most are public, most play football and other sports well outside TV range and not always on immaculate turf. They don’t have “football buildings” or nutritionists.

Cohen carries their flag as high as he can. He is the most exciting player on the most surprising team in the NFL, the same Chicago Bears who host the Rams on Sunday night at Soldier Field.

The NFL history book would be just an oversized pamphlet without HBCU players. There are 30 in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, almost 10 percent of the membership.

Walter Payton was the leading rusher in league history before Emmitt Smith, and he was from Jackson State, as was Rams tackle Jackie Slater.

Jerry Rice is and might always be the leading receiver in league history, and he was from Mississippi Valley State.

South Carolina State has three HOF members: Deacon Jones, Harry Carson and Marion Motley. South Carolina has none.

Tennessee State has two: Richard Dent and Claude Humphrey. Tennessee also has two.

There’s not enough room to explain them all, to recount what John Stallworth (Alabama A&M), Mel Blount (Southern), Art Shell (Maryland-Eastern Shore), Bob Hayes (Florida A&M) and Willie Brown (Grambling) did for the game.

There are so many more greats who haven’t reached the Hall, like Otis Taylor (Prairie View), Doug Williams (Grambling) and Isiah Robertson, the effervescent linebacker from Southern who was a two-time All-Pro for the Rams and died Friday in a limousine accident in Texas.

Former Rams defensive end William Hayes, now with Miami, played at Winston-Salem State. Current Rams receiver KhaDarel Hodge is a Prairie View alum.

But only three HBCU players were drafted last season. Darius Leonard went to Indianapolis in the second round, and the linebacker from South Carolina State leads the NFL in tackles.

“He’s a monster,” Kemp said. “We tell our guys to tell us if they don’t feel they can block a particular player. We can always double-team and adjust. But it’s hard to get a player to admit that. I remember the first time we played Leonard, it was a kickoff return and we had a guy come and say, ‘You gotta help me on this guy.’ Nobody in our league is surprised at what he’s doing.”

Sign up for Home Turf and get exclusive stories every SoCal sports fan must read, sent daily. Subscribe here.

Obviously the HBCU competition was at its best when the established Southern schools weren’t recruiting African-Americans. But when Cohen or Leonard make it, it proves NFL eyes are everywhere, and maybe that news can seep down to a kid who might be a little rough around the edges, more comfortable on an HBCU campus.

Cohen was a track and football star at Bunn, N.C., a town of 350 near Raleigh. His high school coaches sent Cohen’s tape all over the place, but when the phone didn’t ring, Cohen contemplated joining the Navy. But A&T kept in touch and signed him.

In the fifth game of Cohen’s freshman year, the Aggies gave him a chance against Hampton. Cohen gave them 180 yards in 22 carries.

“We lost the game, and that’s when I knew he was special,” Gibbs said. “Most kids would be happy about that kind of performance in his first game. Tarik was in tears because we lost. The rest is history.”

Cohen started 41 games and scored 56 touchdowns. He also stirred up the Internet by catching two footballs while doing a backflip. “He was like a rock star,” Gibbs said, and the NFL scouts gathered.

But only the Bears’ Sam Summerville was sold, citing Cohen’s outsized hands and his similarity to Darren Sproles, who has played 13 years at Cohen’s approximate height. Summerville called him a “human joystick,” and the Bears took Cohen in the fourth round.

Cohen caught eight passes in each of his first two NFL games last season. This season, he leads the Bears with 59 catches and has four TDs receiving, two running and another passing.

The Bears are 8-4 and bearing down on their first division title since 2010. The Rams need this win to keep home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, but on a 23-degree night they’d best be aware of stars, moving fast around their feet.

***

Note from WSOE.Org : This content has been auto-generated from a syndicated feed.