Tarik Cohen is HBCU Football's Biggest Gift and Biggest Curse

Tarik Cohen belongs in the NFL. He is the greatest football player in North Carolina A&T’s history, among the top five greatest of all-time in MEAC football history, and through week one of the NFL season, the NFL’s top rookie performer who has exceeded the high expectations set for most fourth-round draft picks.
He deserves everything coming to him, and so does the HBCU community which reared him into a standout football talent and a contemporary sports statesman for HBCUs. But these wonderful things are also plagues to his alma mater, his collegiate conference and to black college culture at large.
Cohen is successful and it makes the Chicago Bears look great for drafting him high, scouts look smart for rating him as a mid-to-top prospect, and the Aggies a solid program for maximizing his talent throughout his entire career. But it doesn’t make A&T or the MEAC a gold mine conference for football talent – it just makes Cohen a kid who flew under the radar of most college scouts, landed in Aggieland and worked himself into a potential NFL Rookie of the Year candidate.
Cohen’s story is the classic HBCU tale of undiscovered or disrespected talent being refined and raised at an HBCU, a story that goes far beyond fields or courts and plays out in labs, classrooms, battlefields and boardrooms across this country. When you graduate from an HBCU and are a world-class talent in any profession, it’s because you were a late bloomer, or from a small town which doesn’t get recruited heavily, or some other obstacle which kept you from a better opportunity at a larger, better-resourced, whiter institution.
In the eyes of most white people and far too many black people in positions of talent evaluation and hiring, HBCU excellence is an anomaly worthy of wonder and curiosity; not investment or cultivation. To them, HBCUs are places you check for after seeing some unbelievable play on YouTube, or when a stat line makes SportsCenter for being too good to be true.
Cohen couldn’t have earned scouts attention just by being a 5,000-yard career rusher for a Division I football program; he had to be a guy who was the all-time leading rusher in his conference, made electric plays in the Celebration Bowl, and had to become a viral sensation for catching footballs while doing backflips – just to get the attention a running back with half of his talent or production would get at a larger school. 

The same is true for our scientists, social workers, nurses, lawyers, educators, journalists, soldiers and any other profession you can think of – to make your time at an HBCU seem worthwhile, exceptionalism is the only acceptable outcome. Mediocrity or fairly middlin’ at a PWI or an elite Ivy League institution carries the day and the starting salary for black graduates, but for black grads from HBCUs, the margin between anonymity and opportunity is measured not just by achievement, but extraordinary achievement.
And that reality is okay for a lot of people – including stakeholders at HBCUs. It’s the reason why we promote dangerous sayings like “HBCUs do more with less,” and “HBCUs are a best-kept secret,” or “we expect you to be excellent in everything you do.” In truth, everyone will not be excellent. And because of stereotypes, excellence at an HBCU means “hardworking and willing to overcome long odds” while anything less than brilliance is a “black maybe.”

It is true that HBCUs yield academic casualties, and graduate some alumni who are not ready for career-level employment. Ideally, black colleges would be choice academic destinations where students of all interests, talents, and abilities could enter and be trusted to serve as quality workers when they left school. Some HBCU programs have earned this respect and some private elite HBCUs have this luxury, but too many of our schools bear this burden despite so many names and successes suggesting otherwise.
Mediocre graduates are a reality for most schools, just like the occasional shooting star. HBCUs deserve far more credit from the worlds outside of our gates, and far more support from advocates reared within them to help in reducing stereotype threats against our schools for doing the heavy cultural lifting of affording access and opportunity to all willing students.
Even 5’6″ running backs from Bunn, NC.