Tarik Cohen's inspiring return to NFL with Panthers runs deeper than football

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers are 0-2 for the fourth time in five seasons. They are coming off a loss in their first "Monday Night Football" game in five years and lost star linebacker Shaq Thompson for the season with a fractured fibula.

Quarterback Bryce Young, who provided hope to the organization in April when he was selected with the top pick of the draft, is struggling and will not play Sunday due to an ankle injury.

There is a woe-is-me attitude among many fans that this will be a sixth consecutive losing season.

Then there is Tarik Cohen.

If the organization and fans need something to feel good about, look no further than the 5-foot-6, 191-pound running back/kick returner who was signed to the practice squad last week.

Cohen’s story is one of hope after years of tragedy and sorrow. Few know it better than Tony McRae, the cornerbacks coach at North Carolina Central and one of Cohen’s best friends since their playing days at North Carolina A&T (2013-15).

“He’s the only person in the world that can have the story he’s got and still be able to play football,’’ McRae told ESPN.com. “He’s like a superhero. Words can’t describe it, honestly.’’

Three years ago this week, Cohen tore his right ACL and MCL during a punt return for the Chicago Bears in Week 3.

During a livestream workout in Charlotte in May of 2022, trying to show NFL teams he was back to his explosive self, Cohen ruptured his Achilles.

But as bad as that sounds, those weren’t the two lowest moments of the past few years for the 28-year-old.

The first came in May of 2021 when his twin brother, Tyrell, was found dead at a power substation in Raleigh, North Carolina. According to authorities, he died of electrocution while attempting to climb equipment while fleeing from law enforcement.

Almost a year later, Cohen’s younger brother, Dante -- who, in 2019, was paralyzed from the waist down after being shot -- died in a car accident.

Their deaths, not the injuries, are what almost led Cohen to give up his dream of being an NFL star.

“I lost a big chunk of my family, so the motivation to play wasn’t there anymore,’’ Cohen said. “ … I’m still dealing with it now. I’ll be dealing with it the rest of my life.

“That’s why I came back home, to be close to my family, lean on them.’’

That’s why he chose to begin his football comeback with the Panthers, the home-state team located three hours from where he grew up in the tiny town of Bunn.

“It was surreal when I walked in here,’’ Cohen said. “Seeing [Panthers legend] Julius Peppers on the wall … I played against his high school almost every year in high school.

“I really feel like this is where I’m supposed to be.’’

Much of Cohen’s inspiration to return came from the birth of his son, Carter, on Christmas in 2021 -- along with his girlfriend, Jasmine Gray.

“Just her being there for me constantly,’’ Cohen said of his girlfriend. “And then my son … I didn’t know you could have a love like that for somebody in this world.’’

But there was a time when Cohen thought the days of dazzling fans with his Barry Sanders-like ability to stop and go on a dime, to make even a punt return an experience worth watching, were over.

He had to dig deep to try again.

“He’s always been strong,’’ McRae said. “I remember he had a shoulder injury in college. I came in the next day to his dorm room, and he was doing pushups.

“He’s a one-percenter. There’s only one person that can do the stuff he does.’’

Cohen showed his stuff to the social media world in a 2015 YouTube video that captured him catching two footballs while doing a backflip.

“That’s the craziest thing I ever saw anyone do,’’ McRae said. “Once people started watching his football highlights, they realized he was a player.’’

Those physical skills quickly translated to the NFL. In 2018, his second year in the pros after the Bears made him a fourth-round pick, Cohen led the league with 411 punt return yards to go with 444 yards rushing and 71 catches for 725 yards on offense.

His special teams coordinator that year was Chris Tabor, now with the Panthers.

“He could create and make something out of nothing,’’ Tabor recalled. “We played in Buffalo and he took it across the field, and he was dead to rights. Then all of a sudden, he stopped and went the other way, stopped again, made a couple of other of guys miss. I was on the sideline going, ‘Just please, stop.’ And then, there, he went around the corner.

“He’s a playmaker.’’

The Panthers need playmakers. The offense has been stagnant, scoring two touchdowns in two games.

Cohen showed enough during his tryout to convince Panthers coach Frank Reich he could help.

“I remember when he was with the Bears just watching him and saying, ‘Man, this guy is different,’’’ Reich recalled. “To his credit, I felt a lot of good energy from him, like he’s ready to play some football.’’

Cohen believes he can be as good as ever -- “maybe better’’ -- when the Panthers turn him loose, whether it’s for Sunday’s game at the Seattle Seahawks (4:05 p.m. ET, CBS) or the following week at home against the Minnesota Vikings.

“I feel like a car that’s been in the garage, a Ferrari that hasn’t been driven in a long time,’’ Cohen said, adding "[I want] to prove that I’m not a washed-up guy, that injuries didn’t get the best of me. That I’m a warrior.’’

North Carolina Central coach Trei Oliver invited Cohen, whom he coached at A&T, to share his story with his team before winning the Celebration Bowl over an undefeated Jackson State, in what would spoil coach Deion Sanders' final game before leaving for Colorado in 2022.

“Just hearing him talk about football, it gives you chills,’’ Oliver said. “His energy is contagious. I can see that rubbing off in that locker room.’’

The one thing Cohen doesn’t talk much about are his brothers’ deaths.

“He don’t want nobody feeling sorry for him,’’ McRae said. “That’s where people miss the point on him. … People think he was out of football just because of the injuries. His brothers played a way bigger role. ‘’

As happy as Cohen was when the Panthers agreed to a tryout, one family member was happier.

“My mom,’’ Cohen said. “She wanted me to come back more than I wanted to come back.’’

Among those who were happy to see Cohen persevere was Alan Tyson, a Charlotte-based physical therapist who helped get Cohen back on the field.

Tyson can’t promise Cohen will be better than before physically, “but mentally he can be better.’’

“As with all athletes that take time away from the game, they get better at the game,’’ he said. “He can’t rely 100% off sheer, raw athleticism. But he’s still got enough of it, and when you combine that with being a little wiser, he could be better.’’

McRae would hate to be the first team that faces Cohen.

“I can only imagine what he’s about to do,’’ he said. “Everything he was motivated by before all this was because people didn’t believe in him. He’s still got all that, and then you add the loss of his brothers, [having] a kid, and people didn’t think he could come back.

“There’s only one person who can do that in the world. That’s ‘Rik.’’