There's a bit of 'Blind Side' in Duke's Laken Tomlinson

lkeeley@newsobserver.comAugust 25, 2014 

It’s cold, the 10-year-old Jamaican immigrant thought. He had never seen snow, never needed a sweater and now there he was, in Chicago in March. Football was still soccer in his mind. He hadn’t yet set his heart on becoming a doctor. And no one had read or seen “The Blind Side,” let alone compared his story to it. More than a decade would pass before he became a preseason All-American offensive lineman at Duke with an NFL future waiting for him.

But a few weeks before his senior season will begin, Laken Tomlinson remembered that first blast of bitter Chicago cold.

“It was a really salient memory,” the 6-foot-3, 330-pound Tomlinson said. “I definitely went through culture shock.”

Now, Tomlinson is a senior captain for the Blue Devils and ranked as one of the top four offensive guard prospects for the 2015 NFL draft by all major outlets. Duke hasn’t had a player drafted in the first three rounds since 1999 – Tomlinson has the potential to go that high.

But before he could even dream of college football, Tomlinson had to find his way in Chicago. The acclimation process took years and more work than anyone could have imagined.

Nothing was handed to Tomlinson. Not even a ride to school.

His days in high school began before the sun’s. Tomlinson would walk from his house to the train station, from the train to the bus and then, finally, from the bus stop to Lane Technical. Then he could start his day.

“I remember thinking, man, my mom and dad dropped me off at school every morning,” said Matt Luke, then Duke’s offensive line coach. “This kid, what a kid, he is special.”

When sitting around the kitchen table on a final in-home visit with Tomlinson, his mentor, Bob Sperling, and his wife, and Duke coach David Cutcliffe, Luke brought up parallels with one of his previous offensive line recruits: Ole Miss’s Michael Oher, whose life story led to the book and the movie, “The Blind Side. “

“They’re both great stories,” said Luke, who is now back at Ole Miss. “Because it shows what happens when young men get the opportunity and then when a young man does something with the opportunity and makes the best of it.”

Mentor reaches out

Ivan Wilson, Thompson’s grandfather, had built the house Tomlinson lived in with his mother, two brothers and one sister in Savanna-la-Mar, Jamaica. But Wilson had already left for the United States about 20 years before Tomlinson would arrive, attempting to lay the foundation for a better life for his family in Chicago.

For Tomlinson, leaving everything he knew behind and transitioning from a rural town full of cul-de-sacs to the confinement of a Rogers Park apartment as a 10-year old wasn’t easy.

“We weren’t allowed to go out and do our thing, run around barefoot anymore,” Tomlinson said. “Those kinds of things that I thought were fun were not supposed to be any more.”

Within that first year, Tomlinson estimated he gained about 80 pounds and grew about seven inches. He had size that could intimidate middle school teachers working in a school with a sizable gang population. But that’s not the lasting impression he left at Jordan Community School.

“He was smart, quiet and well behaved – not the norm,” said Elyse Martin, his art teacher. She used to kid him that he could pass easily for 25 as an eighth-grader.

He stood out for his size, but Tomlinson’s focus and drive drew others toward him and made them want to help.

He caught the attention of the school’s principal, Maurice Harvey. The longtime educator recognized Tomlinson’s intelligence and recommended him for a mentorship program that was run through Youth Guidance of Chicago.

The perfect match was about 10 miles north, in Glencoe, Ill.

Bob Sperling, a partner in a downtown law firm and then a trustee at the University of Illinois, grew up in Rogers Park. He had a son in middle school, and Sperling decided that he wanted to mentor a boy similar in age to his son, and from his old neighborhood. Through contacts, Sperling was put in touch with Harvey, and everything appeared to be a go – until Tomlinson’s mother balked.

The idea of sending her son to spend time with an unfamiliar man didn’t sit well with Tomlinson’s mother, who was still adjusting to the United States. She didn’t trust what she didn’t know, and Sperling was ready to pick another boy. But Harvey didn’t give up.

“Laken really stood out as a very positive kid in the school,” Harvey said. “He was focused. Most kids that age are not as focused.”

With the help of Vivian Loseth, the head of Youth Guidance, Tomlinson’s mother was convinced, and mother and son headed to meet Sperling and his family at his home for dinner.

“It was a cold night, and Laken bent down and took off his mom’s shoes,” Sperling said. “It says something about him, this large, little boy in a man’s body. He was so respectful, so kind.”

About Sperling, Tomlinson said, “We just created this relationship that was inseparable. He pretty much taught me how to be a man.”

‘Fluffy’ quickly finds his form

The first time Rich Rio, the football coach at Lane Tech, saw Tomlinson, he was with his mother, and Rio assumed the two were lost.

“I thought he was looking for a university that might have been in the area,” Rio said. “And the mother said, ‘No, he is in eighth grade.’ And I was just shocked, because of the size of him.

Audrey Wilson, Tomlinson’s mother, explained that he was enrolling at Lane that fall, and her brother thought he should play football.

“And I looked at her,” Rio said, “And I said, ‘I can guarantee that he is going to play football.’”

Tomlinson was as raw as uncooked meat – when his uncle first mentioned football to him, Tomlinson assumed he was talking about soccer, football in Jamaica.

Not quite.

Tomlinson had size, but lacked aggression. Rio and his staff quickly found a way to bring it out – every time Tomlinson failed to play aggressively, they called him Fluffy.

When reminded of his old nickname, Tomlinson put his head back, and scrunched his eyes and mouth shut. He took a deep breath.

“It motivated me to be a better player,” he said. “I made sure it only lasted a week. There was no way that nickname was going to stick.”

With Fluffy a thing of the past, Tomlinson took to the game quickly.

“He was like a fish in water,” Rio said.

Football creates opportunities

When the offers started rolling in Tomlinson’s junior year, with schools like Ohio State, Northwestern, Michigan, Michigan State and Sperling’s Illinois in hot pursuit, neither Tomlinson nor his mother realized the full value of the opportunity.

“And when I explained it to her about these scholarships, she said I want him to go to college, it’s about education,” Rio said of his conversations with Tomlinson’s mother. “And I told her, I understand that. But understand what football will do for him, it will allow him to go get that education that you definitely want him to have and he wants to have.

“Laken didn’t realize the ramifications of recruiting until he got in the middle of it. He realized all his hard work learning how to play this game of football and getting to this point really does have a reward on the back end.”

The education aspect wasn’t insignificant to Tomlinson. During his sophomore year in high school, motivated by his grandfather’s death, Tomlinson decided he wanted to be a doctor.

Tomlinson has only been back to Jamaica once, and that was for his grandfather’s funeral. Ivan Wilson had returned to Jamaica on vacation, but complications from stomach ulcers led to his death. He had flare-ups in the States, including once when Tomlinson was around to call an ambulance. In Jamaica, though, the health care system has limits.

“I felt like he would still be alive if he hadn’t gone,” Tomlinson said of his grandfather. “Here, he would have had the proper health-care resources to take care of him. That really got to me deep, because I loved my grandfather; he had done so much for not only me, but my family, his sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters.

“That’s when I felt like something should be done. That’s when I decided I want to be a doctor.”

Duke, Tomlinson believed in each other

Not only was Sterling on the Board of Trustees with Illinois, but he had been heavily involved in the hiring of Ron Zook as the chairman of the committee of athletics.

“Everyone in the city of Chicago thought that he would go to Illinois because he was with us,” Sperling said. “And Ron Zook probably thought he was coming there. That was probably the hardest call we had to make. That was not an easy call. It was very, very difficult.”

Sperling, who referred to Tomlinson as “our son” during an interview and sat his family in the Lane Tech section at a playoff game against his biological son’s school, made it clear to Tomlinson that he alone would decide his future. Sitting in his downtown office, Sperling told Tomlinson his first learning lesson was now. Only he could make the decision.

Tomlinson visited Duke, coming off of 4-8 and 5-7 seasons, right after Ohio State.

“I remember sitting in Coach Cutcliffe’s office talking to him. I don’t know what it was, but I just remember I had this big smile on my face and was like, wow, this person is amazing,” Tomlinson said. “I remember walking out of his office and thinking, I can trust this guy.

“On my visit, I saw how the people around Coach, all the staff members and the players, how they went about doing their business. I was like, I just can’t believe this isn’t a football powerhouse. They were acting so first class.”

Tomlinson surprised everyone when he committed to Duke the summer before his senior year. It was a huge pick-up for the fledgling program.

“What it did was it reassured that we were doing things right,” Cutcliffe said. “He knew after he was around us that we were going to be good. We knew it, too. Nobody else did. You are always very appreciative of young people that give you their trust like that.”

NFL, medical school await

“I’ve seen a lot of students that come through and they, quote unquote, want to be doctors,” said Carlos Bagley, a neurosurgeon at Duke who focuses on the spine. “But they truly don’t want to be doctors. The want the end product, but they don’t want the journey and the work and the effort that goes into getting that.”

Tomlinson, though, didn’t strike Bagley as that type as he shadowed him this summer in the operating room and during clinical rounds.

“Very unassuming, very humble guy,” said Bagley, a former Duke linebacker from 1992-95. “It’s funny, we actually talked very little about football. It was more about him getting ready to take the MCAT and about medicine, things like that.”

Tomlinson might be the only football player in the country thinking about preparing for the NFL Combine and the MCAT this spring. But those who have watched him work don’t doubt that he can do it.

Cutcliffe remembered Tomlinson’s first year, when some questioned his ability to leave home and thrive at Duke. Cutcliffe laughs at the memory now.

“I remember thinking, you don’t know who you are talking about,” Cuctliffe said. “The answer is yes, that’s Laken Tomlinson, and he is going to be better than good. He came just like he did in Chicago, he found his way.”

The season ahead

2013: 10-4, 6-2 ACC

Coach: David Cutcliffe, 7th season

(75-73 overall, 31-44 at Duke)

Offensive coordinator: Scottie Montgomery

(First season, 6th overall at Duke)

Defensive coordinator: Jim Knowles, 5th season

Returning starters: Offense 7, Defense 6, Specialists 3

Key returners: QB Anthony Boone (2,260 yards, 13TDs, .640 completion percentage), WR Jamison Crowder (108 catches, 1,360 yards), S Jeremy Cash (121 total tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss)

Key losses: LB Kelby Brown (114 tackles, 11 tackles for loss), QB Brandon Connette (27 touchdowns), TE Braxton Deaver (46 catches)

Key number: 4, games Duke won when tied or behind heading into the fourth quarter last year

Best-case scenario: Improved depth allows Duke to compensate for the losses of Brown, Deaver, Connette and Jela Duncan. Boone cuts down on his interceptions, Thomas Sirk is a taller, faster Connette, Crowder catches 100 passes again and Cash anchors the defense as the Blue Devils win 10 games and the Coastal Division again.

Worst-case scenario: Boone is still prone to big, untimely mistakes, Duke has no good options on short-yardage runs, and the defense gets ravaged without Brown in the middle. But have you seen the schedule? Duke’s floor is still 7-5.

Bottom line: Everyone who has suggested Duke’s shine will fade just as Wake Forest’s did forgets that the Deacons went 9-4 the year after they won the ACC. The Blue Devils would take nine wins this year.

Duke’s offense still has the capability to average 426.1 yards and 32.8 points per game. It remains to be seen what kind of pressure the front six in Duke’s 4-2-5 defense can generate on opposing offenses, but the young secondary, which was solid last year, should be even better . Vegas set the over/under for Duke wins at 8.5 this summer, and that’s still about right. Eight or nine more wins are well within Duke’s reach, thanks to a favorable schedule.

2014 Schedule

Aug. 30 vs. Elon

Sept. 6 at Troy

Sept. 13 vs. Kansas

Sept. 20 vs. Tulane

Sept. 27 at Miami

Oct. 4 Open

Oct. 11 at Georgia Tech

Oct. 18 vs. Virginia

Oct. 25 Open

Nov. 1 at Pitt

Nov. 8 at Syracuse

Nov. 15 vs. Virginia Tech

Nov. 20 vs. UNC

Nov. 29 vs. Wake Forest

Twitter: @laurakeeley

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