Laken Tomlinson was angry when he learned his grandfather had died.
Years earlier, when he was a kid, Tomlinson had called 9-1-1 to help his grandfather, Ivan Wilson, who had collapsed in the bathroom at his Chicago home. He recovered in a week. A few years later, while visiting family relatives in his native Jamaica, Wilson collapsed again; this time, he died.
In Jamaica, where Tomlinson spent his childhood racing around playing cricket and soccer, he and his relatives went to the funeral and agreed on what they saw as a harsh reality: This wouldn’t have happened in the U.S. Tomlinson, now Duke’s starting right guard, is convinced inadequate medical resources turned his grandfather’s treatable condition (Wilson died from complications from stomach ulcers) into a fatal one. The loss has become a source of motivation.
“I actually wrote a paper about the Jamaican healthcare system and how bad it was compared to the United States and Europe. That’s just something I was really passionate about,” Tomlinson says. “When I came [to Duke], I decided I wanted to be pre-medicine because I wanted to do something about the health-care system in Jamaica.”
Tomlinson’s mother, Audrey Wilson, stressed the importance of education, and a scholarship to a college like Duke seemed too good to pass up. They had come to the U.S. from Savanna-la-Mar, Westmoreland, Jamaica, when Tomlinson was ten, joining his grandparents in Chicago’s Rogers Park area. After overcoming the culture shock— and adjusting to the frigid temperatures—he stayed active, playing soccer with his brother and uncle. But Tomlinson began to grow, and his weight gain made playing soccer challenging. He spent more and more time inside, consuming food at a rate that frustrated his mother.
“One day I was inside, eating something, and my mom’s like, ‘You eat so much, you keep eating everything in the house,’” Tomlinson says. “My uncle was like, ‘Let him eat, let him have whatever he wants. He’ll get big, and he can play football.’ He’s the one who personally brought me out to my first football practice and pretty much got me playing.”
At nearly six feet tall and around 200 pounds, the preteen Tomlinson towered over the other kids at his first junior-league practice. Defense came easily to him, but playing offense was a struggle at first; with no prior football experience, Tomlinson had to learn the technique and physicality needed to protect the quarterback.
He played on both sides of the ball at Lane Tech College Prep in Chicago and eventually was sucked into the inescapable recruiting whirlwind for someone of his size and potential. Scholarship offers slowly began trickling in, and soon the three-star recruit had an enticing offer from Big Ten powerhouse Ohio State.
Tomlinson, now 330 pounds of strength packed into a 6-foot-3 frame, was thinking that a school like Ohio State might provide the preamble to an NFL career. When Duke head coach David Cutcliffe met with him, Tomlinson said, “He was a really honest guy when he was here, and after he left, I decided I had to see what this guy was about. I went home, did some more research on Duke, and was like, ‘Wow—this is a really prestigious school for academics.’”
After consulting with his family, his high-school coach, and his youth mentor, Tomlinson committed to the Blue Devils. Since then, his performance on the gridiron has been impressive—the redshirt senior was named a captain for the 2014 season and has made forty-seven consecutive starts as of November 1—and his off-field accomplishments are equally notable. He will graduate in December with a double-major in psychology and evolutionary anthropology, and he was named to the Allstate AFCA Good Works team for his service in the Durham community.
Last summer, Tomlinson also invested time in his potential post-football career: He shadowed Carlos Bagley ’96, M.D. ’00 at Duke Hospital, learning the ins and outs of life as a neurosurgeon, a specialty Tomlinson could see himself pursuing one day. Bagley played inside linebacker for the Blue Devils before switching out his helmet and shoulder pads for scrubs and a stethoscope.
Bagley and Claude Moorman III ’83 of Duke Sports Medicine—another former Blue Devil football player— have become role models for Tomlinson as he balances his football commitments with his premed requirements.
“It shows that even though you play football you can still be a doctor,” Tomlinson says. “They’re kind of living proof of my ultimate dream. Just having those people around me has been a motivator.”
Unlike Moorman and Bagley, though, Tomlinson will have a more immediate calling—professional football. He’s considered a top-10 offensive guard prospect for the 2015 NFL draft by CBS Sports and could be Duke’s highest-drafted selection in years. He wants to enjoy playing football as long as he can, while he’s young and healthy, and then pursue other options. He always has medical school as a fallback.