Dear 17-year-old Tarik,
Stop screaming at Mom for a second and walk out of the room.
I know you feel like you’re getting good enough at football to maybe earn a free ride to college, and that by moving the family to a new town, Mom would be putting that at risk.
“It’s not fair! This sucks!!!! How could you do this to me?!?!?!”
I hear you, man. I get it.
But do me a favor….
Bring it down a notch. Take a deep breath or two.
Head back to your room and give me a few minutes of your time. Because I have something I need to share with you right now.
It’s about your future, and what comes next.
I know it’s been rough to this point — with Mom trying to raise three boys all by herself, and the jumping back and forth between six different elementary schools in North Carolina before you even turned 10. And now this new move? It’s like: Things couldn’t possibly get any worse!
Well, that’s actually what I want to talk to you about, Tarik. You’re going to need to really hunker down from this point on. Because the next 10 years are about to be even more challenging than the previous ones. And it won’t even be close.
I mean, sure, the football side of things … that will be pretty great.
But everything else.…
It's going to be a lot. And you know what? I wouldn’t fault you if you want to stop reading this letter right here. Not one bit.- Tarik Cohen
Look, nothing I can write in this letter could possibly prepare you for everything that is about to happen. I don’t even know where to start, to be honest with you. There’s just so much. Looking back on it all, it almost doesn’t seem real.
There will be a big bag of crack cocaine.
There’ll be a gun … right there in your hand, ready to shoot, to help you get revenge.
There will be death. In the family. Unimaginable loss.
And that’s only for starters.
It's going to be a lot. And you know what? I wouldn’t fault you if you want to stop reading this letter right here. Not one bit.
But at the same time, I know how you like to be prepared for everything, and how you don’t like being surprised. So I mainly just wanted to write this so you can be better prepared for three specific phone calls that are going to change your life forever.
Ninety seconds total of phone time. If that.
That’s all it will take to turn your entire life upside down. One call each from the three most important people in your life: Your mom, your little brother, Dante, and your twin brother, Tyrell.
Starting in a few weeks, everything is going to change.
After you’re done with all the yelling, you’re gonna need to decide: Move away with the family, or stay with your team here in Bunn and play football.
Moving would mess up all the contacts you’ve made, the people you’ve impressed. There’d be new coaches and teammates. It’d feel like starting all over again. And you don’t want that. So you’re going to let them go. You’ll get your way, Tarik. Mom will let you stay back and live with Aunt Milltrene.
You’ll win the battle.
But the bigger war? Well, let’s talk about that. Because now your family, the only people you’ve ever been close to … they’ll be gone, living in a new town, an hour away. You’ll basically be on your own for your senior year. You’ll be living separate lives.
You’ll drift. And so will they.
Pretty soon, you’re going to start noticing Dante and Tyrell making some bad choices, hanging out with guys who are smoking weed and stealing stuff on the regular.
Actually, let me rephrase that: You’ll know it’s happening. You’ll get word. But you won’t fully notice it.
You’ll be too focused on football, what’s happening on the field. And there, things couldn’t be better. You’ll be making defenses look silly. Breaking ankles. You’ll have that scholarship offer in hand.
Your plan will work, Tarik. You’ll be good. Everything will be rosy. On the football side.
You’ll try tough love. You’ll try the opposite. You’ll try … everything.- Tarik Cohen
But I can tell you that, a decade later, you’re going to look back and realize that this exact moment is when things really started going south. Mom will be working all the time, just like always. And doing that while raising three boys alone … it’s going to start wearing her down. She’s not going to be able to keep everything together and know what everyone’s up to and chase teenage boys around every hour of every day. She’s going to start throwing up her hands to it all. In some ways, she’ll just go numb to everything. She’ll stand down.
Then, when you go off to college, everything will snowball fast. While you’re doing your thing at North Carolina A&T, Tyrell and Dante are both going to drop out of school. It’s going to eat at you when you’re older. The guilt. The knowledge that if you’d been around, you never would’ve let them drop out. Once they do, though, run-ins with the law are going to become common — fighting, stealing Jordans, weed. You’ll try to send home what little money you have, hoping it will stop them from stealing, but it won’t.
You’ll try tough love. You’ll try the opposite. You’ll try … everything.
When you reach your wits’ end, and can’t think of anything else to do, you’re going to sit them down and … I don’t want to say beg them, but, like … you’re basically going to plead with them.
“Just give me a little more time. Lay low. Don’t get in any big trouble for a bit more, and I’ll make everything right for all of us once I get to the league. I got y’all. I promise. I’ll buy you all the Jordans you want. Just give me a few years.”
The thing is: You won’t have a few years.
The day before your signing bonus hits, you won’t have a cent to your name.- Tarik Cohen
Still, you’ll do your best to keep up your side of the bargain. You’re going to end up going in the fourth round to the Chicago Bears — the same team that drafted another running back from an HBCU back in the ’70s named Walter Payton. It doesn’t get much better than that!
It’ll be a dream come true.
When you sign that first contract, it’s going to feel like a huge weight being lifted off your shoulders. The day before your signing bonus hits, you won’t have a cent to your name. In fact, it’ll be even worse than that. You’ll be in the red. You’ll even take a screenshot to remember it.
Then, a few hours later, when the signing bonus clears, you’ll have $635,000 in your account. You’ll feel like the richest man in the world.
The first thing you’ll go out and buy?
An Escalade? A diamond-encrusted watch?
You’re gonna head over to the mall and buy … a pair of Vans.
You know how you’ve just always wanted some Vans! That’s all you’ll need. They’ll be black and white, the classic low tops. Buying those shoes, and slipping them on your feet, is going to make you feel so good.
It’s not going to last, though. The money won’t even be enough to buy a place in Chicago for yourself, much less set up your whole family. And your brother Dante, when he realizes that it won’t all of a sudden be Easy Street for him with you in the league … he’s gonna feel that. He’ll be 18 at that point, and he’ll start hearing it from his friends.
Your brother’s in the NFL, why aren’t you driving a Benz? Why are you still wearing those old-ass sneakers? Why can’t you pick up the tab?
He’s going to respond by diving headfirst into drug dealing. And it’s not just going to be a little thing on the side anymore, Tarik. It’ll be serious dealing. Hard drugs. Real volume. Lots of money changing hands.
Mom evicted from different places because of weed smell, noise violations, police visits, you name it.
By that point, you’ll be playing a ton for the Bears and putting up numbers — rushing, receiving, returns, even throwing passes for TDs. You’ll be all over SportsCenter. People will be adding you to their fantasy teams like crazy.
But you’ll also be living in a rented apartment on the outskirts of Chicago and sending money home to Mom after the latest eviction notice, so she can rent a new house.
And, Tarik, don’t look now but … here come those phone calls.
INCOMING CALL FROM DANTE
“Yo, man … I need you to bail me out.”
The call will hit your phone right after your second season. You’ll have just made the Pro Bowl and been named All-Pro as a returner.
You’ll talk for a few seconds, hang up the phone, and head over to Mom’s house. When you get there, you’re going to take a look around. You’ll know what you’re looking for, and there won’t be a ton of furniture in there, so it’ll be easy to find the stash.
Without thinking twice, you’ll head to the bathroom, pull out all the little Ziploc bags, and flush thousands and thousands of dollars’ worth of crack cocaine down the toilet.
You’ll hope that will be the end of it. Lesson learned. Never again, right? But it won’t stop.- Tarik Cohen
You’ll go over to the jail and bail Dante out after that, and when he gets home, it’s not gonna be pretty. He’ll have tears streaming down his face.
“What did you do?!?!?! How could you do this to me?????”
He’s gonna call you every name in the book.
“Do you know how much money that was???”
You’re just gonna shake your head.
“I have money, bro. You don’t need to be doing this. I told you to just chill and give me time. Why can’t you guys just listen to me? This has got to stop right now!!!!”
You’ll hope that will be the end of it.
Lesson learned. Never again, right?
But it won’t stop.
You’re going to be bailing Dante out again and again. It’ll get to the point where he’s actually going to end up swallowing a bunch of drugs during one arrest.
It’s going to be so sad. And it will have an impact on everyone you love.
Mom will just get more and more defeated, more resigned to what’s going on. Then, with Tyrell, it’ll be a constant battle — you telling him he should be doing more to keep Dante out of trouble, and him shouting back “Well maybe if you were around more you’d understand how hard it is!”
Eventually you’ll start blaming yourself. For everything. In your head, you’ll want nothing more than to be setting the standard, to be the role model. But you won’t know what to do. It’ll seem like everything you try backfires.
You’ll feel like you’re failing as a big brother. It’ll feel like things can’t get any worse.
And then, right on cue, they will.
INCOMING CALL FROM TYRELL
When the phone rings you’ll be prepping for an E:60 documentary set to film that afternoon.
It will be the middle of the summer, before your third season in the league. You’ll be looking forward to telling the world your story of going from an HBCU to the NFL, and ready for a breather from all the drama back home. Something to take your mind off … pretty much everything else.
When you pick up the call, you won’t be expecting anything out of the ordinary.
What’s up, bro?
Tyrell will be sobbing.
“Dante just got shot.”
Then a pause. And more sobbing.
“He got shot in the head, Tarik.”
Is this someone calling to tell me my brother is dead?- Tarik Cohen
At that point, honest to God, you know what your first thought is gonna be? You’ll think about Grand Theft Auto and all the other video games you’ve played over the years. All those headshots you’ve given and taken while playing those games.
The blood. The splatter. The body dropping to the ground. All of it.
Beyond that, though, you’ll pretty much go numb. No tears. No yelling.
No … nothing.
Then, after you hang up the phone, you’re going to actually try and go about the rest of your day like normal. I’d love to try and convince you to cancel everything and head home immediately and allow yourself to properly process what happened, but that’d be useless.
You’re actually going to show up for that E:60 interview. Without telling the ESPN people, or anybody else, what has happened.
I’m sitting here now shaking my head just thinking about that, and how insane that was … but you’re basically just going to head into the studio, shake some hands, sit in the chair, and answer their questions.
You’ll barely pay attention to what’s being asked, of course. Ninety-nine percent of your brain is going to be thinking about your brother. Your phone will be in your pocket, and every time it vibrates, you’ll have a moment of panic like: Is this someone calling to tell me my brother is dead?
So … you’ll turn off your phone. You’ll power through. You won’t even really know why, but that’s what you’ll do.
When the interview ends, you’ll shake some more hands, get on a plane, head home to North Carolina, walk into the hospital, and see your brother lying there. You’ll see all those tubes and wires and bandages….
And you’ll just lose it.
It’ll feel like you’re crying so hard that your insides are coming out of your body, like they’re escaping. Then, along with all the beeping and buzzing the machines are making, you’ll hear the doctors and nurses talking….
“Severe brain injuries.”
“Probably won’t walk again.”
You’ll also hear the story of what happened, or some version of it. Dante had been in a shootout a few days earlier where some kids tried to rob him. He had fired his gun and hit someone, and apparently this shooting was in retaliation for that.
Who knows if any of that’s even true? But at that point, you won’t care. You won’t be looking to analyze things or solve a mystery.
It won’t be that deep.
You’ll grab the pistol you have registered in North Carolina, jump in your car, eyes full of tears, and head out looking for revenge. All you’ll know is that the person who shot Dante was wearing a red shirt. And you’ll be shaking with anger. You won’t be stable. You’ll be sitting there in the driver’s seat, holding that gun, ready to risk it all, to lose everything, for your little brother.
It’ll be like: Red shirt. RED SHIRT. RED SHIRT!!!!!!
Thankfully, for everyone involved, you’re not going to find Red Shirt.
But if you had? Man … I don’t even know.
I honestly can’t say what you would have done. But I can tell you that you were ready to take out your emotions on someone that night.
You’re going to feel like, as the big brother, the leader of the family, you should’ve done more to protect Dante.- Tarik Cohen
Back at the hospital, the breathing tubes are going to be around for a while. Once Dante can move his hands, the nurses are going to have him write any requests on a white board, because when he speaks through the tubes it comes out all garbled. He’ll hate it because he’s going to have trouble writing, but he won’t really have a choice. No one will be able to understand what he is saying.
Actually, no one other than you will be able to understand him.
And I almost feel guilty about admitting this, but, as sad as everything is going to be, it will make you so proud that you’ll be able to understand Dante’s mumbling, that you guys still have that connection as brothers. It’ll be like, “No, not a blanket, he wants some water!” Or “No, no … he’s asking about the TV right now.” You’ll be interpreting what he’s saying for everyone else.
The whole time, you’re going to do all you can not to cry in front of him. You’ll tell him again and again to stay strong, meanwhile, you'll be crying out in the hallway. It’s going to hurt a lot. And the guilt you’ll feel about everything isn’t going to get better over time. You’re going to feel like, as the big brother, the leader of the family, you should’ve done more to protect Dante.
You’re always going to feel exactly like a big brother should.
Then, before you know it, it’ll be back to Chicago for OTAs.
It’ll be like one moment you’re crying in the hospital with Dante … and then Poof! … a week later, you’re having to be NFL Tarik again.
Guys won’t even know what happened. And it’s not like you’d be trying to talk about it even if they did. You’ll just be working hard on your craft. Getting your reps in. Doing your best to hold it together.
It’ll be easier said than done.
That 2019 season will end up being your worst as a pro. It won’t go anything like you’d hoped — both individually, and for the team as a whole. It’s going to be tough to stay positive, on a bunch of different fronts. But when you head back to camp the following season, you’re actually going to arrive with a sense of hope, with some confidence that things will get better. It’ll be like: Maybe this is gonna be my year. I’m due to catch a break at some point!
And the beginning of that season is going to be really promising for you. After the second game of 2020, you’ll sign a big three-year extension. Real money — $17.25 million, $12 million guaranteed. You’ll be calling up Mom like, “Yeah, O.K., you can forget about ever having to work again. Now I really got you. I got alllll of you! Just like I said I would!!!!”
You’ll be smiling and laughing again. Mom too. Feeling some joy.
But here’s the thing. This is what I’m trying to get at here in terms of a big picture. It’s almost like, for you, nothing can just be easy and work out and make everyone happy.
One week after signing that new deal, you’re gonna blow out your ACL against the Falcons.
And that’s going to put you out of action for … man, you’re not even going to believe for how long.
At first, you actually won’t be too worried.
It’ll be like, I’ve seen dozens of guys bounce back off ACL injuries. No big deal! But it’ll be one doctor’s visit after another, and the news will only get worse. Turns out you not only tore your ACL, you also tore your MCL. And you fractured your tibial plateau.
It’s going to be a struggle.
A few weeks after the first surgery, there will be times when you miss a step, or stumble walking down the hall, and before you know it you’ll be cursing at yourself. Screaming at the top of your lungs about how you’re not yourself anymore. No one beyond your inner circle is going to know the full extent of your injuries. Everyone is just going to think it’s a regular ACL tear. And, like you, they’ve seen Odell and a bunch of other guys come back from that in less than a year. So people are going to start questioning you on a bunch of different levels.
Dudes on Twitter will be calling you “soft,” or talking about how maybe you’re just lazy.
They’ll have no clue. About anything. Obviously.
But it will still hurt.
With injuries ... it may not always go according to plan, but at least there’s a plan. With life, though? That’s just not how it works.- Tarik Cohen
That stuff, though, the football stuff? When you look back on it down the line, you’re going to realize that it was actually the least of your worries — the easiest of all the challenges you’ll face.
Because with injuries, at least there’s a roadmap there. You have schedules and routines. It may not always go according to plan, but at least there’s a plan.
With life, though? That’s just not how it works.
INCOMING CALL FROM MOM
“Tyrell hasn’t come home tonight. I’m worried.”
After you get that call, you’ll hang up and start trying your twin brother’s phone over and over.
At first, you won’t be too concerned. Tyrell has always been the one you didn’t have to worry about. He’s the brother who always seemed able to figure stuff out for himself.
But then at one point you’ll look up and it’ll be like 2:30 in the morning … and still no word. You’ll try to go to sleep, but you’ll wake up every hour to check your phone.
When you talk to Mom again, she’ll tell you Tyrell was in a one-car accident and flipped his Jeep, but that no one can find him. His friend who was with him will tell her Tyrell took off running because the two of them had been drinking, and that he headed off into the woods.
Weirdly, that will actually put you at ease. Because it will mean he’s alive, and he must not be hurt all that bad. You’ll be thinking, Tyrell’s good. He’s gonna be fine.
The next morning when you wake up, the news will come fast.
The police are going to find a body at an electrical plant near the scene of the car accident. The cops won’t be able to identify who it is at first, because they’ll need to have the power shut off before they can go investigate.
You’ll try to convince yourself of some alternate explanation. It’ll be like, Maybe it’s not Tyrell. Maybe it’s someone else. You never know.
But … you’ll know.
Before they even identify his body, you’ll know.
Later that day, you’re going to have to tell Tyrell’s two little girls that their daddy isn’t coming home.- Tarik Cohen
Tyrell tried to climb some equipment at the substation and touched something that electrocuted him. Just like that, he’ll be gone.
Your twin, your companion from the beginning, gone.
Later that day, you’re going to have to tell Tyrell’s two little girls that their daddy isn’t coming home.
You’ll take it upon yourself to be the one to do that. You’ll volunteer. You’ll know that it needs to be you. But, man….
Doing that will completely break you. Going over to the house and looking a six-year-old and a four-year-old in the eyes and trying to make sense of that? Seeing the looks on their faces when they hear that their daddy is gone forever? Just all that sorrow.
That moment will be rock bottom. It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do in your life.
After Tyrell passes away, I’m not gonna lie: It’ll be like … What’s the point?
It will feel like you can’t take much more, and that if one more bad thing happens to you, you’re probably going to check out. It’s going to get to the point where you feel like you don’t want to be here anymore. That you don’t want to be living, don’t want to have to go through more pain.
Tyrell is gone.
Dante is no longer able to walk.
You’ll be filled with sadness, but also with guilt. The guilt is overwhelming, just questioning all these different decisions, all these big and small choices.
Maybe you should’ve gone with them back in high school. Why didn’t you just move everyone up to Chicago with you when you got drafted?! What if you had sent even more money home? Did you call them enough? Should you have paused football at some point and just gone home for a year to get things in check?
Just question after question, everything second-guessed.
At the time when I’m writing you this letter, it’s been more than 18 months since you last played in the NFL.- Tarik Cohen
Sitting here now, looking back on everything, it almost feels like, with football, you kind of made a deal with the devil or something. Like all that’s happened was somehow the price you had to pay to make it to the NFL and be successful. And maybe that’s the case or maybe it’s not, but it’s something you’re going to have to think long and hard about, basically for your entire life going forward.
You’re going to survive, though. You’re going to figure out how to look at the future with hope, and see that even with everything you’ve been through, better days can exist ahead.
At the time when I’m writing you this letter, it’s been more than 18 months since you last played in the NFL. It’s a few weeks since you got released by the Bears.
And you better believe you have something to prove.
Here’s the good news: You’re finally starting to feel more like yourself again as a football player. That burst, it’s back. The quick-twitch muscles, they’re back. The ability to cut on a dime? That’s back too. And it feels amazing.
The rest … well, it’s on you to decide what the future holds.- Tarik Cohen
But like I said — that’s just the football part.
The rest … well, it’s on you to decide what the future holds. The biggest impact you could make? I’ll tell you: Take care of those kids!
First off, buy them a house. All cash. In their names. Free and clear. Theirs to use and own. Give them that security. Next: Make sure college and any other school expenses are fully paid for both of them. Put that money away. Have it all set up. Do this stuff now. Immediately. Because you love them and you want them to feel good, and to know that they’re loved. But also do it as a tribute to Tyrell. In his name. Honor him in that way.
And then just keep being there for them in a way that shows the world how proud you were to call Tyrell your brother.
It won’t make the hurt go away. You will never be fully clear of the pain. And that’s O.K. You wouldn’t want to forget the past anyway. Your past … it’s all just part of who you are now.
But who you are can be so much more than just hurt.
Editor’s Note: 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. He would like to thank everyone for their prayers, condolences and messages of support. Our hearts go out to Tarik and his family.