GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Aiyda Ghahramani saw it all up close. His constant pain in not one, but both of his shoulders. His weakness from not being able to lift weights. His sleepless nights where he couldn’t get comfortable. Eventually, it got bad enough that she abdicated her role as concerned girlfriend and put her litigation experience as an intellectual property lawyer to use, bombarding him with questions to get to the truth.
No, Randall Cobb was never himself last season. No, he did not carry the Green Bay Packers’ passing game in the absence of Jordy Nelson the way his team – and his friend/quarterback, Aaron Rodgers – needed him to. No, he was not going to use an injury – even one that he suffered in preseason and affected him all season – as an excuse.
“No one knew what he was dealing with. Not even his friends and family,” Ghahramani recalled. “He was in a lot of pain, but he’s not a person who complains. But I saw it in him. I would just pester him with questions. I was constantly interrogating him. Really, the only way I can say I noticed it [initially] was he couldn’t sleep. He was never right all season.
“There was something very different in his spirit, too. Jordy goes out, [Randall] has these expectations from everyone -- Packers fans, fantasy football fans -- and they didn’t really realize what he was dealing with.
“It was the first time in his life that he had expectations and he didn’t live up to them.”
That is why, after a dream-come-true offseason off the field -- one that featured his graduation from the University of Kentucky and an elaborate engagement proposal to Ghahramani that started with a Baltimore-to-New York helicopter ride and ended with the couple reliving the day they’d met five years earlier --Cobb is supremely motivated to put up numbers similar to 2014 (91 receptions, 1,287 yards, 12 touchdowns) instead of the disappointing totals of 2015 (79 receptions, 829 yards, six touchdowns).
“That’d be a hell of a 2016 if it did [happen]. And that’s what I’m going for,” said the 26-year-old Cobb, who signed a four-year, $40 million contract on the eve of free agency before last season. “Last year was very difficult. Very difficult. You hear things, you see things, people tell you you can’t do this or you’re not who they thought you were. I had a lot of stuff going on last year [injury-wise].
“But none of that stuff matters. I’m not trying to make an excuse for anything. None of that stuff matters. It’s either you played well or you didn’t. And I didn’t handle things well last season. I’ll handle it a little differently this time.”
Perhaps that’s why Cobb isn’t panicking about a slow start statistically (12 receptions, 132 yards, no touchdowns in three games) entering Sunday night’s game against the New York Giants at Lambeau Field. He's only been targeted 18 times, and the Packers' offense as a whole has yet to find its groove, ranking 29th in the league in passing. Plus, Cobb started slow through three games in 2014 (14 catches, 126 yards) and went on to set career highs in receptions (91) and yards (1,287).
Or perhaps it’s just further evidence of how wise beyond his years that Cobb, the first player born in the 1990s to play a down in the NFL, is. He entered the league before his 21st birthday, but he’s carried himself like a seasoned pro from the moment he arrived.
“I liked him the first time I met him,” said Rodgers, whose introduction to Cobb came at the Kentucky Derby after the Packers picked him in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft, which came before Cobb arrived in Green Bay because of the lockout that offseason. “We had drafted him the week before, and he just has this quality about him where he’s kind of an older soul who gets the big picture.”
‘What’s the point of waiting?’
For Cobb, that big picture meant it was imperative to him that he earn his degree in community and leadership development in Kentucky’s college of agriculture, food and environment, an endeavor that sometimes overlapped with the football and, he has been told by some, could have waited until after his NFL career was over. But when he realized he was a mere 18 credits shy of his degree after entering the draft as a junior, he re-enrolled in classes in the wake of the Packers’ NFC Championship Game loss at Seattle after the 2014 season and went to work.
“What’s the point of waiting, if you want to do it in the future [anyway]?” Cobb asked rhetorically. “I’m not one who’s going to say a whole lot. But if I say I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it. And with graduation, I’d been talking about it for years and I realized I was so close. [With] 18 hours left, I was like, ‘I can knock that out in two springs and a summer.’ So I did. Now I’m looking at getting my MBA. That’s something I want to do in the future.”
Cobb has already researched various MBA programs -- “I know there’s one at Miami (Florida) that could work,” he said -- and has helped inspire fellow teammates, including safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who is pursuing his criminal justice degree at Alabama.
“[Graduating] meant a lot to him. Randall, he doesn’t want to just be a football player,” said Cobb’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, who has represented some of the game’s biggest stars, including his first client – legendary Packers defensive end and Hall of Famer Reggie White.
“He doesn’t want to make $10 million a year, save his money and go retire at 32 years old. He’s interested in education and what his life after football holds. I think that was a really, really proud day for him.”
Sometimes, players with outside-of-football interests have their passion for the game questioned. But Cobb’s approach to education is no different than his approach to life, according to those who know him best.
“He’s got a great energy about him, very positive person -- very driven, though -- and he’s a great leader,” Rodgers said. “He cares about his guys, sets his ego aside. But at the same time, he’s also very competitive, tough, gritty.”
That toughness comes from growing up in Alcoa, Tennessee, where he played football in the street – yes, on the cement – with his cousins and neighborhood kids, and from being snubbed by the University of Tennessee, based in nearby Knoxville.
“Now, looking back, that was probably the best thing that ever happened to him, because he was showcased in that [Kentucky] program at all different positions," said Sexton, who went to Tennessee and met White there. "But I think that still is a little bit of a chip on his shoulder. He may never admit that, but I think he’s got a little bit to prove. He’s a little bit undersized – not greatly, but I think there’s always a [desire] to prove to people he belongs. And I think he plays that way.”
‘Tough as nails’
That toughness also is what drove him to play through the shoulder injuries, which began in a preseason game against Philadelphia the week after Nelson was lost to a season-ending knee injury. Initial reports had the injury as a sprained right shoulder, but the way it happened, it at first looked like the same kind of crash-to-the-turf scenario that broke Rodgers’ collarbone in 2013. As it turned out, Cobb damaged both shoulders.
Then, in the team’s season-ending playoff loss at Arizona in January, Cobb leaped for a long Rodgers pass and landed hard again, this time suffering a punctured lung that he believes was caused by a microphone pack beneath his shoulder pads. While the Packers went on to lose in overtime, Cobb was in a Phoenix-area hospital, coughing up blood and arguing with doctors about whether he could play the next week in the NFC Championship Game had the Packers advanced.
“If they would have won that game in Arizona, he was already telling the doctor, ‘I’m playing next week. If we’re in it, I’m playing,’” Ghahramani recounted. “And the doctor is just looking at him. ‘You. Have. A. Punctured Lung.’ He really is tough as nails.”
Except when he’s not, such as when he proposed this spring. His surprise engagement plan, which was designed to coincide with Ghahramani’s birthday, included the helicopter ride; dinner at Nobu 57, their go-to date restaurant in Manhattan; and renting out the Lavo nightclub, where they first met in 2011, so he could pop the question in private. The whole thing was classic Cobb, carefully thought out down to the last detail.
With an April wedding planned -- Rodgers has accepted Cobb’s invitation to be a groomsman -- Cobb’s 2017 has a chance to be even better than his 2016 if he has the kind of season he’s expecting and the Packers claim their first Super Bowl title since winning it at the end of the 2010 season, just before Cobb’s arrival.
“We met a couple weeks before the draft, and Randall had very clear goals,” said Ghahramani, who didn’t actually start dating her future husband until 2014, after she’d finished law school. “He wanted to be a Pro Bowl receiver, graduate college, win a Super Bowl. The Super Bowl is the only thing he hasn’t accomplished.
“Last season, he had a season he wishes would have went a different way. But he graduated, and we got engaged. So hopefully, from here on out, it’s all good things.”