Laken Tomlinson's achievements are not limited to his performance on the football field.
A round of applause filled a room at the Durham Rescue Mission Monday afternoon as Duke's starting right guard addressed a large audience on the topic of strength and perseverance. But the event had a surprise ending—Tomlinson was being set up to receive an award for his dedication to community service.
“I want to start this message off with one word. And that word is resilience,” Tomlinson said. “And the only person that I can think about when I think of this word is my mother. My mother, Audrey Wilson, raised me and three other siblings. I was born and raised in Jamaica. And the most resilient person I could ever meet is my mother.”
Tomlinson talked about his life growing up in Jamaica and his family’s migration to the United States. He touched on his involvement in his school’s football program beginning in the eighth grade and introduced another influential figure in his life—his mentor, Robert Sperling.
“He would talk to me how to be a man and how to appreciate what I had; it wasn’t much, but I had to appreciate it," Tomlinson said. "It’s truly amazing having a person who can impact your life so much and at such a young age that I truly thought that I was the luckiest person in the world.”
During his junior year of high school, Tomlinson started receiving multiple offers from Division I programs after just a handful of years playing football. Ultimately, the 6-foot-3, 330-pound offensive lineman bought into head coach David Cutcliffe's vision and committed to the Blue Devils.
“My mom cried the day I signed my letter of intent to go to Duke University," Tomlinson said. "I just remembered that I couldn’t have been in a better position in life, to make my mom truly proud of me in all the decisions I’ve made in my life to get to that point.”
Moments after Tomlinson discussed the trials and tribulations of life growing up in Jamaica, he stepped away from the microphone, thinking his afternoon at the Rescue Mission had concluded. But Colin Desouza, an Allstate representative, called him back to the podium to announce his selection to the 2014 Allstate AFCA Good Works Team.
Tomlinson is one of 22 football players from across the country to receive this honor, recognizing the redshirt senior for his commitment to community service and achievements off the field.
Aside from academics and football, Tomlinson volunteers at the Durham Rescue Mission, speaks regularly at the Durham School of the Arts on the importance of education and leadership and is a frequent visitor to the Ronald McDonald House of Durham. In May 2012, he participated in a well-digging project in Ethiopia to bring clean water to a local area.
In the moments following the surprise announcement, Tomlinson explained the importance of giving back to the community.
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“It means so much to me, and I’m sure my mom will be so proud of me right now," Tomlinson said. "She’s probably the first person I will go and tell. Coming from my background, I didn’t have a lot coming up, and in the position where you can give back I feel like that is something you need to do to live a quality life.”