Lane Tech Star Rises to Top of College Football, With Chicago Lawyer's Help
ROGERS PARK — If a sequel to the "The Blind Side" is ever made, Rogers Park's Laken Tomlinson would be a worthy star.
Like Michael Oher, whose path from poverty to the NFL was aided by a well-to-do family, Tomlinson's rise to the ranks of college football's elite offensive linemen was bolstered by a legion of key supporters, including a prominent Chicago attorney and his family.
Tomlinson, a starting right guard for Duke University, even shares a link with Oher, who starred at Ole Miss before becoming a right tackle for the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. The huge linemen were recruited by the same man.
"I think you can draw some comparisons for sure," said Ole Miss offensive line coach Matt Luke, who helped bring Oher to Oxford, Miss., and later Tomlinson to Durham, N.C., while he was Duke's O-line coach. "Laken is obviously a great story because of his situation and what he's trying to accomplish."
A likely career in the NFL awaits Tomlinson, 21, a native of Jamaica who moved to Chicago and then dominated while playing football for Lane Tech College Prep. He also has hopes of becoming a doctor.
But first the redshirt junior is focused on this Saturday night, when the Blue Devils face the No. 1 team in the country, Florida State, in the ACC Championship game in Charlotte, N.C.
"I'm happy with the progress of my life right now, but there's still so much I need to do," the 6-foot-3-inch, 320-pound Tomlinson said Wednesday.
'Leaving Behind Everything You Know'
Tomlinson was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and spent his childhood in Westmoreland on the country's western coast.
His mother, Audrey Wilson, was employed at a resort, but decided to move with Tomlinson, his two brothers and sister to Rogers Park when Tomlinson was 10. Wilson chose Chicago because her parents had earlier moved to the Far North Side neighborhood, and the city offered her several options in her new career working in home health care for the elderly.
The transition from the beaches of Jamaica to life in the big city wasn't easy at first for Tomlinson, who also had to say goodbye to his father, Donovan, a small-business owner who remained in the impoverished Caribbean country.
"Leaving behind everything you know is a scary experience," Tomlinson said. "Just moving to a completely new environment, not knowing anything about it, it's scary."
It helped that Tomlinson was always a stellar student, including when he started eighth grade at Jordan Community School in Rogers Park. Jordan's principal then, Maurice Harvey, described Tomlinson as someone who "was never in trouble, got along with others extremely well and was respectful to his teachers."
Each year, Harvey recommended five students for the Youth Guidance Program, which pairs disadvantaged children throughout 60 Chicago Public Schools with families who mentor them, help them stay on track in school and gain social skills, according to former Youth Guidance executive director Vivian Loseth.
Of the five pupils selected during Tomlinson's eighth-grade year at Jordan, Harvey said Tomlinson was "his top choice for the program, without a doubt.
"He exemplified what a good student should be to me," said Harvey, of River North. "In our school, there are a lot of gangs and different things that kids can get into, but he never entered into anything negative. He was always positive in whatever he did. I think that's the thing that sold me."
Loseth coordinated the family selection process, and she paired Tomlinson with Bob Sperling, a partner at the prestigious Downtown Winston & Strawn law firm who also was a member of the Board of Trustees at the University of Illinois.
But Sperling also was a former Rogers Park resident, graduating from Sullivan High School, and he had a son, Jared, who was about the same age as Tomlinson, and who is now a senior at Yale.
"Bob and his family helped Laken develop even better study habits as well as ensuring he had the necessary tools, like computers, books and financial resources that he needed," said Loseth, of Hyde Park.
Tomlinson became a de facto member of the Sperling family. He would make frequent weekly trips to their nearly 5,000-square-foot home just steps from Lake Michigan in Glencoe. Sperling said they became Tomlinson's "biggest cheerleaders."
During an IHSA football playoff game in 2008 between Lane Tech and New Trier, Jared Sperling's alma mater, Jared sat in the Lane fan section "because that's the feelings we had for Laken," Bob Sperling said.
"Having people like the Sperlings in my life, it's an amazing experience for me," Tomlinson said. "Being a Jamaican citizen and not knowing how things would go here, I didn’t really have that background knowledge to move forward in whatever endeavors I wanted to do. Bob, his family and Jared, we’re like brothers."
In middle school, Sperling told Tomlinson he would pay for him to go to any college he wanted, as long as he continued to progress academically.
It turns out Sperling didn't need to write a check.
'We Had To Start From Scratch'
The first time Lane Tech football coach Rich Rio saw Tomlinson, he was awestruck.
Standing before him with Wilson during a summer practice was a 6-foot-3-inch, 275-pound kid who was only in eighth grade.
"He was a gigantic young man," said Rio, who retired from coaching in 2009. "I thought they were looking for a junior college in the area. To see somebody like that and to see a parent saying he's in eighth grade, oh my God."
There was just one major issue: Tomlinson had almost no football background.
"He didn't even know how to put on a helmet or any of his equipment," Rio said. "We had to start from scratch."
Tomlinson learned quickly. With his sheer size and mobility, Tomlinson was a dominant lineman on the freshman team, Rio said. Tomlinson was promoted to the varsity squad as a sophomore, and for the next three years earned numerous awards, including all-state honors as a senior.
Full-ride offers from more than 20 Division I schools — including Illinois, Iowa, Ohio State, Michigan State and Northwestern — poured in. Rio and Sperling became Tomlinson's advisers because, in part, Wilson "had no idea what a college offer meant financially for her."
"No one in my family really knew how to handle the pressure of all the recruiters coming at me," Tomlinson said. "Bob and Coach Rio were really helpful."
Tomlinson whittled down his choices to Northwestern and Duke, which Sperling supported because those institutions featured "environments of academics quite different than a big public university."
Sperling said it was extremely tough telling Illinois' coach at the time, Ron Zook — whom Sperling had helped hire when he was chairman of the U. of I. Committee on Athletics — that Tomlinson wasn't going to compete for the Fighting Illini.
"He couldn't believe it," said Sperling, whose two daughters attended Duke.
When Tomlinson signed his letter of intent to attend Duke in February 2010, Wilson told the National Collegiate Scouting Association: "You know what, I'm excited. From all the choices he had, it was the best choice for him because he wanted to do medicine."
Wilson could not be reached for comment.
"It was a thing that was kind of meant to be," said Luke, who has since left Duke to again coach at Ole Miss. "It came down to us and Northwestern at the end, and I think he wanted to be away from the city."
The move has paid off in every way. Tomlinson, a double major in evolutionary anthropology and psychology, has a 3.3 grade point average. He's not sure of his exact career path, but Tomlinson said he could work as a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist.
Last year, he was able to join nine Blue Devils football players on a mission trip to Langano, Ethiopia, for a water well-digging project. To get on the plane, Tomlinson first had to borrow a car to drive some 250 miles to Washington, D.C., and renew his Jamaican passport.
"That's the kind of determination he has," Sperling said of Tomlinson, a two-time Academic All-ACC selection.
That effort has been displayed on the gridiron, too. He was a first-team Freshman All-America selection, started all 13 games as a sophomore, and this week was named to the all-conference second team.
"Without question, Laken has evolved into one of the top linemen in the ACC," Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. "Everyone sees the size and power, but Laken's work ethic and dedication in the weight room have been so instrumental in his development. And he's been so diligent about coming to practice each and every day with a desire to get better."
Tomlinson has a great chance to play on the game's biggest stage. Sperling said "a lot of agents call me" and suggest if Tomlinson left school a year early, he could be picked in the second to fourth rounds of the NFL draft. Unlike Oher, Tomlinson likely won't be a first-round pick, but Luke said he still "definitely" is an NFL player because "he's got a rare combination of flexibility for his size.
"He's got an NFL body, and he is raw," Luke said. "He kind of soaks things up like a sponge, and he has a lot of potential."
Regardless, Sperling said his advice to Tomlinson will be to stay in school.
"There's more to life than just playing football," he said.
Responded Tomlinson: "Yeah, that sounds like him. And he's right."
Tomlinson stressed the individual football honors or his potential pro ball future don't compare with the team accomplishments. That's especially the case this season, when No. 20 Duke (10-2) shockingly won the ACC Coastal Division title.
The reward is a matchup with No. 1 Florida State (12-0), a 29-point favorite Saturday and a program that has an 18-0 all-time record against Duke, outscoring the Blue Devils 901-279 in those games.
But Tomlinson doesn't care about his squad's underdog status and is pumped that Duke is a win away from playing in a BCS bowl game.
His life, he said, is proof that incredible odds against you can be overcome.
"I'm doing well in school. I'm doing well in football," Tomlinson said. "I'm really happy."