Strength from grandfather helps Tomlinson achieve dreams

Dave Birkett
Detroit Free Press
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Laken Tomlinson recounts life in Jamaica as a young boy and running freely outside during a press conference where he is introduced as the Detroit Lions 2015 first-round draft pick during a press conference at the Detroit Lions practice facility in Allen Park on Thursday, April 30, 2015.

CHICAGO – Long before he wanted to be a professional football player or even grasped that was a possibility, Laken Tomlinson dreamed of being a doctor.

His middle school principal, Dr. Maurice Harvey, remembers an academically driven Tomlinson clinging to that goal as he walked the halls of Jordan Elementary Community School years ago, checking on his younger brother's progress with his teachers, starring at the school science fair and generally showing more maturity than kids twice his age.

Tomlinson said his medical aspirations, which are on hold as the newest first-round pick of the Lions, came into focus his sophomore year of high school, when his grandfather, Ivan Wilson, died of a stomach ulcer while visiting his native Jamaica.

Tomlinson had found Wilson unconscious in his Chicago apartment a few years earlier. He called 911, paramedics came, and after a short stay in the hospital, Wilson was back home.

But when Wilson had a similar health scare in Jamaica, Tomlinson returned home one day to find his mother in tears and his brother grieving over news the patriarch of the family had died in a Jamaican hospital.

"I just got so angry," Tomlinson said Friday morning as he signed autographs in a private room at Chicago's Roosevelt University. "I ended up writing my senior paper (in high school) about the Jamaican health-care system and how poor it was, and it just really got to me, and at that point I decided I wanted to get into medicine and to do something about that, and I wanted to, at the end of the day, go back to Jamaica and help the Jamaican community there."

Tomlinson moved to America when he was 11, where was raised by his single mother in the Rogers Park section of Chicago.

Wilson left Jamaica two decades earlier and saved as a security guard for years to help his kids, Tomlinson's mother included, leave their island nation for more opportunity in America.

To this day, he remains one of the biggest influences in Tomlinson's life.

"He wanted to make the move to the United States to open up the opportunities for his family," Tomlinson said. "And honestly, I feel like I'm continuing his footsteps today."

Humble beginnings

Tomlinson still wants to be a doctor. A neurosurgeon, actually.

But for now, football is the unlikely path he's following to continue his grandfather's work.

As a child growing up in the small brick home his architect grandfather built in Savanna-la-Mar on Jamaica's southwest coast, Tomlinson was blissfully unaware of American football. He lived a simple life in cramped quarters, sharing the house at times with his mother's nine siblings and their kids and playing soccer barefoot in the neighborhood while his mom worked at one of the island's tourist resorts.

One by one, Wilson helped his children move to America, and when Tomlinson's family arrived in March 2003, they landed in a lower-middle class neighborhood on Chicago's northwest side dotted with Section 9 public housing.

Confined to a small apartment by his protective mother and with changing eating habits, Tomlinson gained about 80 pounds in his first year in his new country, and soon after stumbled into football.

"I came to the United States, started eating American food, got a little big-boned and my mom was like, 'Look, you've got to get out of the house and do something,' " Tomlinson said. "And my uncle at the time, Chris Wilson, he told me, 'Why don't you play football?'

"And at the time I thought he was talking about soccer, because in Jamaica we call soccer football, so I was like, 'Look at me, I'm 250 pounds, I can't play soccer anymore.' He was like, 'No, American football.' And I was just like, 'I'm not sure what that is, but I'll do it if it'll please my mom.' "

Tomlinson said he fell in love with football the first time he strapped on shoulder pads because he was outside "hitting other kids and not getting in trouble" for it, and it was about the same time that Harvey introduced him to the man who would become his mentor in the sport and life.

Bob Sperling was a member of the University of Illinois board of trustees 10 years ago when he asked fellow board member Dr. Frances Carroll how he could join the Youth Guidance program she helped facilitate for Chicago area public schools. Sperling, a partner at the Chicago law firm Winston and Strawn LLP, was looking for a teen from the Rogers Park area that he grew up in and around the same age as his son, Jared, to mentor.

Harvey set up interviews with five seventh-grade boys and recommended Tomlinson from the group because of his background as a new immigrant, his academic prowess and the fact he was so driven to succeed.

Sperling found Tomlinson warm, sensitive and engaging — "He was what he is today, just a younger version," Sperling said — and agreed they should work together, but Tomlinson's mother initially was opposed to the idea.

Audrey Wilson, who declined comment for this story, eventually relented, and Tomlinson, Sperling and the rest of the Sperling family immediately hit it off.

"Laken Tomlinson is a unique individual," Sperling said. "He is unique having nothing to do with what we've done for him. He is bright, athletic, sensitive, caring. He's got the highest moral fiber and fabric.

"One of the things we wanted to do in mentoring a young person from the city was also to have our son experience and benefit from someone from a different background, and I think he certainly has. Their relationship has blossomed, and vice versa. We wanted Laken to benefit. And I think Laken has given a number of interviews (where) he talks about that. He participated with my son, my son's friends and vice versa. That's important, because I think our family benefitted from Laken, it's not just that Laken benefitted from us."

Laken called Sperling a "father figure" Friday and acknowledged the doors Sperling opened for him.

"He really just gave me the tools to navigate through my environment and what to stay away from and what to surround myself with," he said.

Because he was a standout student, Tomlinson qualified to attend the Chicago magnet school Lane Tech for high school.

When attendance problems put his enrollment at risk — Tomlinson occasionally had to stay home from school to take care of his younger siblings when his mother worked — Sperling helped Tomlinson gain a principal's exception to stay at Lane.

Sperling helped introduce Tomlinson to football, though it was Tomlinson's mother who walked him out to practice at the start of two-a-days as a freshman and asked coach Rich Rio about joining the team.

And Lane, a 60- to 90-minute trip by foot, bus and train away from his gang-invested neighborhood, gave Tomlinson the educational and athletic foundation he needed to get into and succeed at Duke.

Tomlinson picked the Blue Devils, where Sperling's two daughters attended school, over Illinois, Northwestern and Ohio State, and he graduated in December with a double major in evolutionary anthropology and psychology after an All-America season at right guard.

"He's just a very self-directed young man with high expectations for himself and works very hard at everything he does," Rio said. "He did back in high school in the classroom and developed it on the football field because he came from Jamaica and had never played the game, so it took a lot of hard work on his part and diligence to achieve what he's achieved, and that's why we're so proud of him."

Loyalty runs deep

When the Lions drafted Tomlinson 28th overall, he celebrated in the green room with his mother, girlfriend and Duke coach David Cutcliffe, among others.

Sperling was there, too.

The two have developed a father-son-like bond over the years, and Laken and Jared consider each other brothers.

Growing up, Tomlinson would go to the Sperling house in affluent Glencoe, Ill., every Sunday he could, and the boys would spend their days playing video games or basketball or going to the beach.

They grilled out together, ate Tomlinson's favorite dessert, Andi Sperling's homemade coconut cake, and had sushi-eating contests at a local all-you-can-eat sushi place. When Tomlinson was home from school recently, he even surprised the Sperlings by making omelets for breakfast.

"He's so loyal to the people that he loves," Andi Sperling said.

Despite questions about his love for football, understandable considering his other career options, Tomlinson said he's intensely loyal to the sport, too.

He's expected to start at left guard as a rookie, where he'll replace nine-year veteran Rob Sims on a revamped offensive line, and he said he wants to have a long NFL career before going to medical school to pursue his dream of changing the Jamaican health-care system.

In a weird way, football might be able to help the people of Jamaica, too. Tomlinson, after all, will earn plenty of notoriety for playing in the NFL, and he expects people back home to take notice.

"It means anything's possible," he said. "You can have a better life if you choose to leave Jamaica and come to the United States. That's what my family did to live a better life, and I feel like I'm following in my grandfather's footsteps right now and laying the foundation for generations to come."

Contact Dave Birkett: Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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