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June 6, 2011

Joe Cohen: Then and Now

MORE FLORIDA SPORTS: For UF athletes, positives of Twitter outweigh the negatives | Macklin prepping for the draft | SEC Spring Meetings: 25 man limit | Gators secure a spot in five-star's final five | Signee Academic Update: Waiting on one to clear | Coach Speak with Noah Brindise

It's been a long ride for former Florida Gators defensive lineman Joe Cohen to get to where he is now - happily married with a loving wife, three young daughters and plenty of football playing years ahead of him. From losing a best friend at an early age and going through the trials and tribulations of college to being surrounded by family and looking ahead while the NFL tries to settle a lockout that seemingly has no end in sight, Cohen reflected about the path he took to get to where he is as well as his hopes for the future. Celebrating his 26th birthday on Monday, Cohen is trying to get in the best shape of his life and continue his NFL career while supporting his family and doing plenty of good for the community.

Inside the Gators: Before deciding to enroll at Florida, you grew up with and were teammates with Reggie Nelson at Palm Bay High School. Did you two always plan to go to college together or was it something that just worked out that way?

Joe Cohen: "Me and Reggie, back in like the 10th grade, we made a pact together. We ripped a dollar bill in half and made a pact that we'd stick together through all the hard times. We both ended up deciding to go to Florida together. Florida was always an option, but it wasn't always our leader. We took our visits. One weekend it was LSU, one weekend it was Florida State, one weekend it was Miami, and one weekend it was Florida. We really had to sit down and make a decision after all the recruiting was done, after we could sit down and think ourselves. Florida felt more like home. Miami was too big of a city, LSU was unfamiliar, and FSU was rebuilding with the school and football team. Florida just felt more like home. I felt like that was a place I could call home for four-to-five years, and it was close enough to both of our kids where we could visit every weekend if need be. That played a big part in the decision making, too, because both of us had daughters coming out of high school."

Inside the Gators: Are you and Reggie still close friends?

Cohen: "As a matter of fact, I just spoke with him this morning actually. He's in Jacksonville working out at The Hit Center and, like me, waiting for the lockout to be lifted and see what the next move is."

Inside the Gators: Since you brought up the lockout, what is your mindset right now? How are you approaching the NFL lockout and, of course, making sure you are employed somewhere next year.

Cohen: "Right now my mindset is back to college mode, getting back hungry, like a rebuilding process. I'm trying to get back to the athletic ability, size and speed I had in college with the technique I possess now from being in the league. Right now I'm training with my brother-in-law, a younger guy who just turned 20. He's in there kicking my butt, and I'm trying to keep up with him. But it's really helping me a lot getting that hunger back. Where he's at now is where I was five years ago - trying to get to the NFL. He's really helping me out a lot."

Inside the Gators: Have you given any consideration to playing in another league if the lockout lasts too long or part of the season it cut-off?

Cohen: "You want to stay around the game or in the game as much as possible. If the season's lost, I still don't know what I want to do. I really want to go and finish school. Me and my agent would sit down and take a look at what's the next move. The one thing I've learned with this game is that you don't want football to be your only option. If the season's lost, I'll sit down and talk to my agent and see what the best move is for me."

Inside the Gators: Are you close to graduating?

Cohen: "[Laughing] Yeah, I guess I'm kind of close. Close enough, I guess. I definitely plan to go back and finish…I owe that to myself for all the work I put in at UF, and I owe it to my family and my daughter. It's kind of hard to preach to your kids about going to school when you haven't finished school yourself. I definitely plan on going back and finishing as soon as possible."

Inside the Gators: I spoke with Jemalle Cornelius a few weeks ago about the whole coaching transition during his time with the Gators. What were those years like playing for Ron Zook? He could obviously recruit with the best of them but obviously fans were none too pleased with how the team performed.

Cohen: "Zook was a player's coach, to be honest. If Zook probably had a little help here in some areas of coaching on the staff, he would have been A-OK. He was a great guy and a heck of a coach, a heck of a motivator. As you can see, he's actually doing pretty good up at Illinois. I think he needed more than two-to-three years, but it's the Gators. You have to come in and make it happen or it's time to go. And you have to respect that. It's a top-tier Division I program. You have to respect that. But he didn't have enough time if you ask me."

Inside the Gators: So the coach who everyone seems to love gets fired and this guy out of Utah named Urban Meyer comes in with a ton of hype surrounding him. What was your initial impression of him?

Cohen: "Oh man, if you ask Urb, we didn't even get along when he first got there. It was something new. To be honest, yeah I loved Zook and I loved Meyer, but I needed Meyer. He turned a lot of boys into men. It was a smack in the face when he first got there - the attitude he possessed, the way he carried himself in the locker room, all of that. It was really a big-time change for us. It was something a lot of us kind of needed. To this day, I appreciate both coaches. They both opened my eyes to new things, were great coaches and both helped me out."

Inside the Gators: Do you think the team bought in to Meyer's methods right away? If not, when do you think the switch was flicked and things started coming together?

Cohen: To me, the team did not buy in all the way the first year. The way we did things, it seemed that there was a method behind his insanity. When we caught on to that, everything got that much easier. Practice ran smoother; workouts ran smoother. There was no need for unnecessary things - that extra stuff. It made us the team that we were. That played a big role. We really started seeing the change in that first season; we saw that insanity that he possessed. The defensive line got together going into that senior year and we realized this off-season program, this style of working out, this style of coaching was really what we needed as a team. We bought into it going into that second year with him.

"Everything Coach Meyer told us came true. He told us the record we was going to have. The year that we won the National Championship, he told us what kind of record we was going to have. He said, 'You guys are going to lose one game, and then you're going to go on to win the national championship.' When he said that - no coach tells you that you're going to lose one game. Every coach tries to tell you that you're going to win every game. He knew the schedule; we knew the schedule. It wasn't the fact that a team was better than us, it was just that we had four or five teams back-to-back that were in the top-10 at one point in the season. We had a tough schedule in '06 but, like he said, we went on to win the national championship."

Inside the Gators: He told you guys you were going to win but obviously that's tough to believe. At what point did the team notice how well it was playing and actually believe they had a chance to win the whole thing?

Cohen: "Going into our senior season, after buying into the off-season program with Coach Mick [Marotti] and all the strength and conditioning coaches, then as the first game went on, the fourth quarter came around and we weren't tired. We were like, 'Man, this is ridiculous.' We're definitely in shape. We definitely had the skill players, defensive line, offensive line. From the first game on, we were like, 'We can definitely win the national championship.' [The coaches] knew it, but we had to see it for ourselves. It was pretty cool."

Inside the Gators: Looking back on your amateur career, you went out of high school a champion and left college with a national championship. That has to feel pretty special.

Cohen: "Yeah…and hopefully I'll leave the NFL a champion, too. Reggie and I won the state championship in 2002 and obviously we won the national championship in 2006 with the Gators. You actually brought that to my attention, but it was pretty cool."

Inside the Gators: You're kind of the opposite spectrum of Jemalle, who told me that he went to three state title games his sophomore-through-senior seasons and lost all of them…

Cohen: "[Laughing] I wish I had known that at Florida, I would have probably laughed at him. We went to the final four my freshman year, and we had to play Andre Caldwell in 2002 and he was the fastest thing we had ever seen out there on the field playing quarterback, receiver and everything else. "

Inside the Gators: Something else I spoke with Jemalle about was the team's reaction when Ted Ginn ran back the opening kickoff in the national championship game for Ohio State. He had said it didn't faze the offense much, but how did the defense handle it?

Cohen: "To be honest, Coach Meyer told us all week, 'Don't say nothing negative about the other team. You know what time it is when you touch the field.' We had to listen to it all week: 'Florida's too slow, they're too small, they're too this, they're too that.' At the end of the day, nobody had seen what we saw expect for Lou Holtz. Lou Holtz was the only announcer that said the Gators were going to win the game hands-down. 'They're too fast and too good for Ohio State.' He's the only one that stood up for us, but we knew what time it was. When they ran back the kick, if you take a look at the sideline, you'll see that the D-line was laughing at Reggie because it looked like he got burnt. We didn't know Ted Ginn was actually that fast. We had a lot of confidence. You might call it cocky; we called it confidence. That's how we played, and that's another thing that made us a great team."

Inside the Gators: One of the things I forgot to discuss with you about was someone who was brought over from Zook's regime by Meyer, and that is Charlie Strong. How important do you think it was for the team's success that Meyer kept him on the staff, and how did he help you develop?

Cohen: "I have a personal relationship with Strong. I think a lot of guys that played under Coach Strong and a lot of guys that got to coach with him know he's one of those guys you really want a personal relationship with. I went to the Kentucky Derby and I was supposed to meet up with him. He's one of those guys that you always want on your team. He's one of those coaches that cares for you as a player but cares for you as an individual even more. You can't say that about too many coaches, and I've been through my share. He's definitely one of those guys. He helped with Coach Meyer's crowd control because Coach Strong backed up everything he said. When he had Coach Strong backing up his method, you knew it was for the good in the long run. I think he really helped a lot."

Inside the Gators: In April you hosted the 1st Annual James McGriff Football Camp in Melbourne, FL honoring your childhood friend who passed away back in 1998. [McGriff was an All-American football player from Palm Bay who committed to Steve Spurrier and Florida before his senior year. He later lost his life in a drowning accident before enrolling in college.] When did you decide to put the event together and how did it turn out?

Cohen: "As the story goes, Nick McGriff is James McGriff's brother, the guy who passed. Nick and I have been close since the fourth grade, so I knew his family really well. My first visit to Florida on the campus was as a seventh grader when I went to visit with James, Nick and his mother. I was pretty close with the family.

"The James McGriff Camp is really for the James McGriff Foundation and the inner city Youth [Police Athletic League] that they have. It's to raise money for both foundations. I always told his mom, 'One day I'm going to do the James McGriff Camp.' I had a buddy of mine that came to me wanting to do a camp and he wanted to know if he could put it in my name. I said, 'How about you work with me on a camp I want to do for James McGriff.' That's basically how it went. I've always wanted to do something in the memory of him, keep his memory alive. Don't ask me why it took me four years to do it - it should have been done my rookie year - but I'm glad I got it up and going.

"It's going to be an annual thing, and next year I know it's going to be even bigger. I had a couple of former players, a couple of NFL players - obviously I had Reggie Nelson. We had a great time. There were a lot of kids out there having a great time, and next year we're going to make it even bigger. Next year whoever's going to sign up better sign up soon!"

Inside the Gators: Did James's decision to commit to the Gators play any role in your choice?

Cohen: "When James was going to go to Florida, I really wasn't a college fan. But when I took my trip to Florida, I became a Florida Gators fan for a few years and then it kind of faded off and I went neutral again. When I took a visit to Florida [in high school], it sparked the love that I had for it. James kind of played a little role in it, but me just going to see that campus again was definitely the reason I went."

Inside the Gators: Are you planning to do anything else for the foundation aside from the camp?

Cohen: "Me and his brother have been brainstorming on other things that we can do for the community like backpack drives, turkey drives and things like that. We want to put a few things in his name to kind of keep his memory alive. Just so people will always remember him."

Inside the Gators: Do you have any thoughts about new head coach Will Muschamp or the team going into next season?

Cohen: "I like how he's taking a stand and not dealing with all of the nonsense. College ball is not about nonsense, and that's what you're reading about now - so many people breaking so many rules. At the end of the day, it's just about playing football. That's what he's trying to keep at Florida - the real tradition of football. He's trying to keep that team that coach Meyer helped build and go from there. I like where he's headed, and I just really wish him the best of luck."

Inside the Gators: Since you mentioned the "nonsense," were you ever faced with any temptations that may have put your eligibility at risk either before or during your time at UF? Did or do you think it is a problem with the Gators like it is with so many other schools across the country?

Cohen: "I didn't have a problem with it. I can't sit here and say I know what goes on at Florida, because I really don't. Maybe it was because I was a no-name guy that I didn't ever get offered special treatment. [Laughing] I'm just joking. It really isn't a topic I can say much about because it's nothing that has been an issue with me. I guess you could say I'm a lucky one. I wasn't really tempted with nothing. You can see why younger guys who come from nothing can fall into traps, but I was luckily blessed with two hard-working parents and lived in a middle-class type neighborhood, so I didn't have the need for anything.

"You can see how those guys can fall in those kind of traps, and it's a sad story because some of them actually need help, need that kind of financial help. Their parents can't do ii for them. The school is free, but you've got other bills outside of school. You've got other things you want to eat outside of the cafeteria. Going to the movies, buying some new tennis shoes, something like that. You got guys that need that kind of help - financial help - but we don't get financial help outside of football. We get the basics - food, football. Trust me, I'm not complaining. I'm happy I got a free scholarship and all, but there are other guys that need a little bit more financial support. Some guys come from broken homes, very poverty-stricken areas and they need that kind of help."

Inside the Gators: If it was up to you, would you pay college football players?

Cohen: "That's a lose-lose answer for me. If I say 'Yes,' then people look at you as ungrateful. The reality is that there are players who need financial help. They should get them a certain allowance. Am I talking $1,000 a month? No. Maybe $100/week. Something that can help them get something outside of what they already get. Let them be normal students. Let them go to the movies, get something to eat. There are kids and their parents who don't have a dime to their name. If you have study hall until 8:00 p.m. and the dining areas close at 8:00 p.m. and you can't make it in time, you have to find something to eat and you don't have a dime to name. You can't even afford the Five Star Pizza. What do you expect them to do?

"I don't blame some kids for taking money. People don't know their situation. Some of those times the family probably tells them to take the money and send them some to help with this month's bills. For people to sit there and judge them for taking money is wrong. Taking $1,000/week is ridiculous. Needing help with $100 here and $100 there is another story. When these guys take $50,000-100,000, that's crossing the line. But $400/month for a kid on scholarship…I don't think is ridiculous. The school definitely makes more than that, and they can afford to help kids who need help."

Inside the Gators: When you played in college, did you and the other players ever discuss how much money the school was made and how you didn't see any of it?

Cohen: "At the National Championship game they had a question like that. They asked me if players should get money. It was like a joking session, and I answered that we should get money. I was joking to a certain extent, but I think the answer is, 'Yes.' I had a child and a girlfriend in college, and sometimes I struggled with money. Everybody got their own opinion. People that were college students and student-athletes at one point see where I'm coming from. Student-athletes need help, too. We're thankful that school is paid for and that we get help with room and board and all that good stuff, but $50-100 a week is not a big deal for a school."

Inside the Gators: I wanted to try to end our conversation on a lighter note, so...

Cohen: "Are you going to ask me about Disney movies?"

Inside the Gators: I was...

Cohen: "People ask me about that all the time. I couldn't even tell you the last one I actually watched. [Joe asks his wife.] It was Despicable Me. I got three girls now, so I've kept a lot of them. I kind of get tired of them now. Now that I'm 26, I can say I'm almost grown out of it - almost."


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