When Duke coach David Cutcliffe boarded a plane to Chicago on a cold November bye week to watch offensive lineman Laken Tomlinson play high school football, two worlds collided.
Cutcliffe -- an Alabama man with football in his blood -- and Tomlinson, a kid from Jamaica who grew up playing cricket -- were an unlikely pair. Both of them, though, had something to give. Tomlinson, raised by his mother, Audrey, and holding on tight to her beliefs in the importance of education, was a raw talent who never played football until he got to high school. Cutcliffe, in need of help up front, could offer him both a chance to compete at a high level, and to get a college degree from Duke University.
“He just stole my heart early,” Cutcliffe said. “...To watch that big guy compete on a November Chicago night, that was one of my great memories in recruiting.”
That trip is still paying dividends for Duke’s offensive line.
Tomlinson, now a 320-pound redshirt sophomore who is entering his second season as a starter at guard, quickly bought in.
“I saw in looking at the Duke history that it wasn’t too pretty, but I saw what he was doing in the program and I trusted what he was doing,” Tomlinson said. “I believed in him. I wanted to be a part of that.”
He had to take the long road to get there.
Tomlinson moved to the United States with his mother when he was 10 years old. Tomlinson said he “gained like 80 pounds” during his first summer in the country. His uncle suggested he try football to get into shape. Once Tomlinson realized his uncle wasn't talking about soccer, he joined the football team at Lane Technical High School, and was named the team MVP as a senior. His Friday Night Lights were right next to Wrigley Field. In order to get there, though, he would get on a train at 5 a.m., ride downtown, and catch a bus to school. He’d sleep through the same routine on the way home after practice.
The long days have paid off.
Last year, Tomlinson started all 12 games at right guard and finished second on the team in total snaps (926). He was also an academic all-ACC selection. Tomlinson didn’t just come to Duke to get a degree, though.
He came to get two.
Tomlinson is a double major in evolutionary anthropology and psychology. He recently took a three-hour final exam to end the second summer session.
“My mom brought me up with the core value that education is the one thing no one can take away from you,” he said. “Education was one of my top priorities. I came here to make the most of it.”
And he’s not done yet.
Tomlinson still hasn’t reached his potential. Because of his limited background in football, he had to learn and understand concepts of draws and screen plays and when and why they are used. He had to learn to play with a sense of urgency and intensity Cutcliffe has demanded.
“He’s playing at an extremely high level right now in August,” Cutcliffe said. “I think he’s an All-American-caliber player. He’s 320 pounds, extremely quick, strong and talented.
“I don’t know what the ceiling is for Laken yet,” Cutcliffe said. “I don’t know if he knows yet what levels he’s going to reach.”
For Tomlinson, maybe the journey has just begun.