Born: November 26, 1939 (Wichita Falls, Texas)
Died: October 11, 2013 (Burnaby, B.C.)
Dick Cohee’s explosive speed threatened to change the course of any football game in which he played. As a defensive back, he could intercept a pass. As an end, he pursued the quarterback with singleminded purpose. On the other side of the ball, his speed and deftness as a halfback were a challenge to contain. On special teams, he more than once shredded coverage for lengthy runs and touchdowns.
After football, Cohee tried several entrepreneurial ventures with mixed success. On his retirement in 2001, he found a new career in films and commercials, including a decade during which he acted as a stand-in for the actor Morgan Freeman.
Born to Caudie Mae (née Denson) and Melvin Cohee, who had African-American and Chickasaw heritage, young Richard earned notice for his athletic prowess in basketball and football with the Leopards of Booker T. Washington High School in Wichita Falls, Texas, a rigidly segregated city on the border with Oklahoma. He graduated in 1958, moving west to play for the New Mexico State Aggies at Las Cruces. “He runs with knifing speed,” the El Paso Herald Post noted. The freshman running back, who stood 6-foot, weighing 170 pounds, helped make a perennial conference doormat a worthy opponent. He was soon dubbed “A Train” for his “wild gallops.”
By the next season, Cohee was racing out of the backfield of tiny Reedley Junior College in California, having “flunked out” of his first term, according to an item in the Arizona Republic. Cohee ran roughshod over the small school’s competition, scoring 15 touchdowns, only to again fail to make the grade in the classroom. Ineligible for further college play for a season and not allowed to turn professional in the United States until his college class graduated, he was lured north to try out for the Montreal Alouettes. Ed Kotel, a scout for the Los Angeles Rams, told his friend Perry Moss, coach of the Alouettes, to look at the American kid.
Moss believed Cohee had a great future in the Canadian Football League. “Cohee is only 20 years old,” he said in 1960, “but the way he’s been improving I think he will be one of the outstanding footballers in the country in another two seasons. He’s one of the fastest runners I’ve ever seen on a football field. He’s strong and he has good desire.”
Moss used the rookie import as a defensive halfback at first. Soon enough, Cohee was playing on both sides of the ball. In a 63-27 thrashing at the hands of the Argonauts in Toronto, Cohee showed the league his great skill with two spectacular touchdowns. In the second quarter, he responded to an Argos major by running back the subsequent kickoff 102 yards for a matching score. In the fourth quarter, he snagged a pass from Sam (The Rifle) Etcheverry before scampering into the end zone for a 82-yard, pass-and-run major.
After the great George Dixon, a fellow American, suffered a badly pulled leg muscle in 1961, Cohee got the chance to be a fulltime addition to the Montreal backfield, only to suffer an injury himself.
The Als revamped their squad just three games into the 1963 season and Cohee was among those chopped. The Ottawa Rough Riders immediately grabbed him off waivers as a replacement for injured all-star defensive back George Brancato. His debut was a surprise. “It was our plan not to tell anyone,” coach Frank Clair said. “We didn’t want them to find out and sometimes you have to do it that way.” Cohee played five games for Ottawa that season.
The Saskatchewan Roughriders grabbed him off waivers, giving the 23-year-old Cohee his third CFL employer going into his fourth season.
He showed flashes of greatness. In a game against the B.C. Lions in Vancouver, he picked up a blocked field-goal attempt to race 88 yards across the turf at Empire Stadium for the Roughriders’ only score in a 26-6 loss.
More memorably, Cohee caught two touchdown passes from quarterback Ron Lancaster in the playoff game remembered as The Little Miracle of Taylor Field. On Nov. 11, 1963, Lancaster passed for 492 yards as the underdog Roughriders roared back to win a two-game, total-point playoff series from Calgary, 48-47. Cohee’s TD receptions included a blooper into the end zone from the one-yard line late in the second quarter, as well as a 10-yard strike in the third quarter.
Cohee was also involved in a controversial play near the end of the game. Calgary was pressing for a score late in the game when a passed ball bounced off the Calgary receiver to Cohee in his own end zone. He dropped the ball, then picked it up to run it out to his own six-yard line. The officials on the field ruled the play an intercepted pass, followed by a fumble, a recovery and a runback. Had the play been ruled an incomplete pass, as many in the press box and an audience watching on television thought, Calgary would have retained possession.
The Regina team waived Cohee eight games into the 1964 season. Once again, his versatility made him a desirable commodity and he was once again quickly snagged by a rival team, as the Hamilton Tiger-Cats would be his team for the nect four seasons.
Cohee won Grey Cup championships with the Ticats in 1965 and 1967. Cohee scored the first touchdown of the 1965 game when he took a pitchout from quarterback Frank Consentino before running over Winnipeg’s Henry Janzen to score on a seven-yard romp. Earlier in the first-quarter drive,
Cohee had a 32-yard run, also on a pitchout. Hamilton won, 22-16.
Injuries caused Cohee to miss all but six games of the 1967 season. He also managed to play only a single game the following season. The Ticats released him, and Cohee attempted a comeback with the Argos as a free agent in 1969, but he was cut during training camp, ending his football career.
Earlier, he said he planned to became a golf professional while also peddling automobiles and raising rodents for fur.
“Golf goes hand-in-hand with selling cars and the chinchinilla business as you can talk to clients,” Cohee told a reporter at the time. “I want to do something in sports, so I’ve got to get my game down. If I do well, I’ll take out a pro card.”
Cohee lived in the United States for several years. He returned to Canada, eventually settling in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, where he worked for the school board.
He appeared frequently in television commercials, including a spot for Axe deodorant that aired worldwide. His Canadian credits include pitches for Ford and for Pharmasave, while his American credits include Nabisco, Michelob, Radio Shack, Culligan Water and the Swifter Sweeper. He also acted with bit parts in movies and television series, most recently with a role as “black janitor” in the Halle Berry vehicle, “Frankie & Alice,” filmed in Vancouver.
Cohee was “a tall, nice-looking black man with grey hair,” a Massachusetts newspaper once noted, who more than once was mistaken for Freeman, the distinguished actor for whom he served as stand-in and photo double.
He leaves Allison, his wife of 35 years, and their two sons, as well as a daughter and three sons from previous relationships. He also leaves seven grandchildren and two sisters. He was predeceased by a sister.
In 1989, two of his sons, half brothers to each other, met for the first time at the Canadian university basketball championship tournament in Halifax.
A private memorial is to be held at Springer, Okla. Both of his parents are buried at Cobb Cemetery in the Oklahoma town.