GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The pro football life was starting to take a toll on former Gators defensive lineman Joe Cohen.
Since he finished his career at Florida in the 2007 BCS national championship win over Ohio State, Cohen had fought off injuries and bounced around the NFL and CFL. He played for Detroit in 2009 and spent last season with the Toronto Argonauts.
With a wife and four kids, Cohen sat down last November to talk to his wife about their future.
“It’s just time for me to move on from football,’’ Cohen told her. “It’s time for me to put on my big-boy pants and see if I can do something.”
One of the first calls he made was to UF, where Tony Meacham, assistant director of academic services in the Office of Student Life, set up a plan for Cohen to return to school and finish his Anthropology degree.
“He was there every step of the way,’’ Cohen said.
Cohen enrolled in classes in January, 25 hours short of his degree. He took his final test on Thursday and on Saturday afternoon received his degree at the O’Connell Center during the summer commencement ceremony.
The 29-year-old Cohen has a much different perspective on what that means than the 18-year-old who showed up from Palm Bay 11 years ago as one of the state’s top football recruits.
“I worked so hard between working a regular job, coming up here for school, pulling doubles on the weekend, leaving my family back at home, between all that, I’m going to celebrate this to the max,’’ Cohen said. “I want everybody to know that I graduated. Everyone knew I got drafted, which was cool, but I really didn’t celebrate that. But this I’m celebrating.”
Cohen played in 48 games for the Gators from 2002 to 2006, starting out at fullback and then later developing into a starting defensive tackle. He was drafted by San Francisco in the fourth round of the 2007 NFL Draft.
As he tried to scratch out a career in professional football, Cohen’s family grew and his goals did, too.
In his final game for Toronto, Cohen made five tackles. He got injured and was cut soon afterward and made the life-altering decision to leave the game that had been his primary outlet since he was a kid in Brevard County.
“It’s better late than never,’’ he said.
He knows he made the right decision. Cohen has spent the past seven months driving back and forth from Palm Bay to Gainesville on Tuesdays and Thursdays to finish school. He also had a full-time job back home.
“I knew if I put all my energy into my school and business endeavors, everything would work out just fine and as of right now the ball is rolling,’’ Cohen said. “I have been so focused on trying to stay healthy, trying to get healthy, trying to get back to the NFL – all my energy was on getting back to the NFL.
“I was neglecting the little things that I need to really focus on, which was school and becoming a business man outside of football because everybody knows football doesn’t last long. I’m trying to become dependent on myself instead of depending on football.”
Cohen and his wife want to start their own business and he plans to stay involved in working with kids. He currently works at Devereux, a nonprofit behavioral health organization that provides support to underserved and vulnerable people in communities across the country.
There is work ahead to reach some of his new goals outside of football. Cohen is looking forward to the challenges.
But on Saturday, it was time to celebrate with a large group of family and friends who made the trip to Gainesville for his graduation.
“I told everybody it’s an open invite,’’ he said. “It’s just been so cool to get as much love as I’ve gotten from the University of Florida. It’s one of the best places I’ve been and I’m just so glad I chose to go to school there when I was 18 years old. It’s time to make adults moves instead of playing football in the backyard.”