Tomlinson's journey to NFL, medical school just beginning as Duke career ends

Redshirt senior Laken Tomlinson has started 51 consecutive games for Duke and is set to be a first-round draft pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.
Redshirt senior Laken Tomlinson has started 51 consecutive games for Duke and is set to be a first-round draft pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.

By the time many American boys his age were already Pop Warner veterans, Laken Tomlinson would not have been able to tell you the difference between a fourth down and a touchdown. A little more than a decade later, the Savanna-la-Mar, Jamaica native is busy preparing for careers in both the NFL and medicine.

Tomlinson, who will graduate later this month with a double major in evolutionary anthropology and psychology, was named an all-ACC offensive lineman in 2013 and Associated Press and Walter Camp first-team All-American this season. Now a redshirt senior and captain preparing for his final game as a Blue Devil, Tomlinson took a unique route to his current position as a Duke student on the verge of professional football.

Born and raised in a small, simple town in Jamaica, Tomlinson and his mother left Savanna-la-Mar when he was 10 to join his mother's father in Chicago. The transition from spending his free time playing barefoot outside with friends to bundling up against the Chicago winter required an adjustment, but Tomlinson found the language barrier to be the biggest obstacle he faced in his new home. Having been taught British English back home in Jamaica, the young Tomlinson faced a steep learning curve when learning American slang. Overall, though, he was able to handle the move to the United States with a level of maturity beyond his years.

"It was really hard communicating with people," Tomlinson said. "But I was a pretty smart kid when I was younger so it took me no time kind of get the flow of things.”

In fact, Tomlinson found the American education system to be easier than the strict Jamaican schooling he received as a young boy, and he excelled in the classroom from the beginning. But an eight-inch growth spurt and a remarkable weight gain a year after Tomlinson’s arrival attracted the attention of his mother, who encouraged him to commit himself to a physical activity outside the classroom. Despite being almost completely unfamiliar with the sport, the middle schooler joined a local Pop Warner team at the suggestion of his uncle.

“I didn’t even really know what football was until I actually started playing. I hardly knew who the Bears were,” Tomlinson said. “What really excited me about football was that I could go out there and run around and hit people. I thought that was pretty fun at the time.”

After learning the basics, Tomlinson soon proved to be an exceptional talent, and was asked to join his high school’s varsity team as a freshman. He started receiving letters from college coaches the following year, and was heavily recruited his final two years of high school by prominent Division I teams such as Ohio State and Michigan.

Duke also threw its hat into the mix, but did not make a lasting impression on Tomlinson until head coach David Cutcliffe himself made the trip up north to watch the young lineman play.

“[Cutcliffe] seemed like a guy I could trust,” Tomlinson said. “I just thought he was a genuinely good person. He wasn’t someone that was just trying to sell himself or use me.”

Meeting with Duke’s coach caught Tomlinson’s attention and compelled him to take a longer look at the school. Once he discovered Duke’s academic reputation, the strength of its premed program, and the quality of its opponents on the football field, Tomlinson was sold. After discussing the decision at length with those close to him, he decided that the pros of becoming a Blue Devil outweighed the downside of joining a struggling program.

"Coming here was pretty much like a fantasy for me—especially to play football," Tomlinson said. "If I had to do it again, I would pick Duke probably a hundred, or a thousand, or a million times over.”

Four years later, it is clear the six-foot-three, 330-pound lineman has left him mark on Duke both on and off the field. Tomlinson has started 51 consecutive games, has been an Academic All-ACC selection the past three years, and was selected as a team captain in August.

“In all phases, every time you turn around and look at him you see him excelling, wherever he is,” offensive line coach John Latina. “Off the field he is a great student, in the weight room he is as good as we have, [and] on the field his come-to-work mentality every day is really incredible.”

Tomlinson will graduate later this month, after which he plans to continue his promising football career at the next level. The lineman is ranked as the No. 7 offensive guard in the country by, which projects he will be taken in the middle rounds of this spring's professional draft.

"I think he could be a starter in the NFL very quick," Latina said. "I've had first- and second- rounders, and he looks like a guy that fits just like those guys.... He's going to have an outstanding pro career."

Tomlinson's plans do not end with football, though, as he will pursue his dream of becoming a doctor once his playing days are over. He intends to take the MCAT in the spring of 2016 and enroll to in medical school as soon as he decides his body can no longer handle the daily wear and tear of football.

But before his journey to the NFL and medical school can begin, Tomlinson will look to leave Duke by checking off the only goal that has yet to be accomplished by the prolific guard—win a bowl game. The Blue Devils will face No. 15 Arizona State in the Sun Bowl Saturday at 2 p.m., giving Tomlinson the chance to cap his illustrious career with Duke's first bowl victory in 54 years.


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