CHICAGO — Laken Tomlinson said he doesn't have time to pinch himself, even though he's living every football player's fantasy.
The Detroit Lions' first-round pick and rookie starting left guard came from humble Jamaican roots, moved to Chicago's Far North Side when he was 10 and didn't play football until he was in eighth grade. And like "The Blind Side" inspiration Michael Oher, Tomlinson was mentored by a wealthy family who virtually adopted him.
"But I just try to focus on my reality and my work," said Tomlinson, a former star at Lane Tech and Duke who's returning to Chicago on Sunday to play the Bears. "It's crazy to think about where I am with my past, but that can be distracting. My past doesn't matter if I don't continue to work hard and be successful."
Tomlinson has had one of the more successful rookie seasons for any NFL offensive lineman. He's become a mainstay in the starting lineup, making 13 of 15 possible starts. Only five rookie offensive linemen have started more games, according to ESPN.
"He wants to be an All-Pro, and I think Laken is going to be one," said Bob Sperling, a partner at the Downtown Winston & Strawn law firm whose family has mentored Tomlinson since he was in eighth grade. Like Tomlinson, Sperling grew up in Rogers Park.
"Laken’s performances have really improved and he’s making his mark in Detroit," Sperling added. "He’s developed an understanding of what’s expected. We’re really very proud of him."
Sperling and his wife, Andrea, will be attending Sunday's game, as will Tomlinson's mother, Audrey Wilson, his two brothers, sister, fiancee and uncle. Tomlinson, who played in two games at Soldier Field while at Lane Tech, said "it should be a cool feeling going back and playing a game there."
But, otherwise, Tomlinson is looking at this weekend as a business trip. He has no dinner plans for Saturday night and nothing additional after the game other than chatting with his family and friends.
"I'm going to go there and expect to handle business," he said.
After Tomlinson was drafted 28th overall in April, he signed a four-year deal worth about $8.3 million in June. But when asked what's been the coolest item he's bought with his new wealth, Tomlinson quickly said the new mini-fridge for his home.
"It's the Christmas present to myself," he said excitedly. "You need to stay hydrated, and now hydration is just five feet away. ... Hey, I guess I'm just a pretty simple guy."
Tomlinson said he's learned this season that every play can mean the difference between a win and loss. That point was driven home in defeats at home against Green Bay, won on an Aaron Rodgers Hail Mary, and on the road against Seattle, where Johnson appeared to have a touchdown before the ball was battled out of his grasp and then illegally tapped out of bounds.
Victories in both those games could have placed the Lions in playoff contention, instead of their 6-9 record heading into the noon Sunday game (Fox) versus the also 6-9 Bears.
"I know now what it takes to win NFL games," Tomlinson said. "And I'm in a really good environment and have a good opportunity as a young player to establish myself."
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