CHICAGO -- The project arrived at Richard Rio's doorstep eight years ago, a 6-foot-3, 270-pound raw package of smarts, skill and savvy. Laken Tomlinson looked as if he was on his way to college before he even made it to high school. Yet he still had trouble putting his pads on the right way; while he was big, he wasn't strong; and he had little understanding of the commitment required to play American football.
His mother had brought him to Lane Tech, a prestigious public school located on the north side of the city. Audrey Wilson wanted the second of her four children to get involved in sports. So she took Tomlinson to the Indians' campus when he was an eighth-grader, where he met the man who would hold the keys to his future.
"I said to one of my assistants, 'They probably need some directions to the junior college or a college or something,'" said Rio, then the head coach at Lane Tech. "But his mother came up and said, 'This is my son, Laken Tomlinson.' And I said, 'How can I help you? What school does he go to?' She said, 'He's going to come to Lane.' I said, 'What?'"
Wilson explained how her son's background in the sport was limited. Her brother, Chris, had suggested a few years earlier that Tomlinson should try his hand at football. Tomlinson, of course, immediately thought of the other kind of football, the one he grew up with in Jamaica before arriving in the United States at the age of 10. His first big growth spurt -- an "explosion," he said -- came during his first summer away from home, and he felt he was too big to keep playing soccer. Uncle Chris, in selling the new game to Tomlinson, said "you get to hit people for fun," and his nephew figured he would give it a try.
Two years later, Tomlinson's mother was getting a promise from Rio that her son would be in good hands.
"Mrs. Tomlinson, he will play," Rio said. "We'll go from Step 1."
The ACC title game slated for Saturday is the latest step in Tomlinson's development. His is perhaps the biggest rags-to-riches story on a Duke team that has risen from the depths of ACC irrelevance to get a shot at taking down vaunted Florida State for a BCS berth.
The redshirt junior and second-team all-conference right guard has aspirations for a career in the NFL and the medical field.
"He's a very caring young man, the epitome of a team player," Rio said. "The growth from that point on was enjoyable to watch, and probably that's what makes us most proud, is to see where he's at now and the future he possibly can have in front him."
At first, Tomlinson could not possibly understand what this new game entailed, not with his background. He and his immediate family had escaped the poverty of Westmoreland, Jamaica 10 years ago, following in the footsteps of his grandparents, who had come to the United States three years before Tomlinson was born.
He left behind a bleak environment, where his favorite sport was cricket, and where kicking around a soccer ball with friends constituted fun. Of course, the 10-year-old hardly viewed it that way, seeing only that he was being uprooted from the life he had known.
"To me it was just a complete life change," Tomlinson said. "And I didn't like it, obviously, because all my friends were home. I still have relatives that are there. But I trusted what my mom said, that we would have a better life here, and it's probably best for the family and it's been a process. It had probably been decided before I was born that we were going to move. It was just something that needed to be done for us to have the best opportunity we needed."
Tomlinson found that opportunity in football. He could hit. He could run. He could listen. He possessed a high intelligence, giving the Lane Tech staff hope that it could instill new things in him and speed up the learning curve.
"Our biggest concern was we knew how big he was, but was he going to be physical enough? Because it's a physical game," Rio said. "I always used the expression, 'Laken, you're a big young man, but sometimes we get guys that look like Tarzan and play like Jane.' So we were going to find out. And he became Tarzan."
Added Lou Munoz, then Lane Tech's offensive line coach: "We had to toughen him up. You've got to remember, he had never played organized football, and he was this big kid. And so myself and another coach that would go see him play, we started calling him 'Fluffy.' We'd say, 'You're a little bit soft for that big size of yours,' and he would get mad at that. And of course, he started picking it up. He was a gentle giant, that's for sure."
"'C'mon Fluffy, you're 6-feet-4, 250 pounds, come off the ball and hit somebody,'" Munoz continued, laughing. "That nickname lasted maybe less than two or three weeks, and then obviously he got the message, and he started rocking and rolling."
At first, though, Tomlinson was naive to the obligation he had undertaken as part of the team. He would show up late for practice, begetting a habit of late arrivals. By the time Lane Tech was ready to face Simeon Academy in Tomlinson's freshman year, Rio shuffled his star to a new position -- the bench. The tardiness immediately subsided and Tomlinson began to embrace life in his new home.
"I kind of became attached to it," Tomlinson said of American culture. "I just loved everything that was going on at the time and everything I was doing. I was going to school, I was doing all these sports. After I started playing football I just wanted to do something, I wanted to be something. I started on the track team, I did shot put and discus. I did wrestling in high school. I did basketball."
By the time he was a junior, he was named all-city in football. College recruiters started coming in hot and heavy, presenting a whole new adjustment.
Division I scholarships? Whatever you say, Tomlinson figured, just rolling with it.
"I was like, 'Sure, I'm not sure what that is,'" he said. "And then when they mentioned that your mom wouldn't have to pay for college, I was like, 'Oh wow, that's actually a big thing.' I went along with it. Loved the game. There's nothing that would stop me from playing the game. But being able to go to college for free is definitely a big thing."
In the moments after Duke's win over Miami on Nov. 16 -- the latest program-defining victory in a season full of them -- Rio and Munoz were among the small contingent awaiting Tomlinson outside the Blue Devils' locker room. The former Lane Tech coaches have made the annual trip to Durham, N.C., since Tomlinson left for college, and the trio went to a nearby Brazilian steakhouse for dinner.
They talked about Tomlinson's grades, which he insisted remained high. They talked about his potential draft stock down the road -- scouts love his size, speed, athleticism and, of course, upside -- and how each marquee Duke win would give the 6-foot-3, 320-pounder a bigger platform to make his mark on.
"Watching him in games, and then when we go one-on-one pass rush, he rarely loses a rep," left guard Dave Harding said. "He's able to get himself out of awkward situations. Sometimes the D-lineman will make a good first move and Laken is able to keep his feet moving and get back in good position to make the block. That's what sets him apart from other offensive linemen."
Tomlinson seems happier each visit, his former coaches said. He has come a long way from the whirlwind period when coaches all over the Midwest descended upon Lane Tech to recruit him.
Ohio State, Northwestern, Iowa and Illinois were among the programs that made the biggest push for Tomlinson, all eventually being funneled through Rio and Bob Sperling. As a volunteer at an area youth guidance program, Sperling had been paired with Tomlinson when the youngster was in junior high and has been heavily involved in his life ever since. There was no bluffing Sperling, a lawyer and former athletic committee chair on Illinois' board of trustees. And with Tomlinson expressing aspirations of possibly becoming a doctor, Sperling wanted to ensure that the prospect was not getting overwhelmed or discouraged.
Said Sperling: "I would always say to him, 'Laken, get that big head and clear it out, because you may most likely never play football again after you go to college, but you've got a brain and you've got a heart and you've got drive. I think you really can fulfill your dream. And if you make it, you'll help your family; if your family makes it, you'll help your whole neighborhood.'"
Duke coach David Cutcliffe and assistants Kurt Roper and Matt Luke -- the latter is now with Ole Miss -- did the majority of Duke's recruiting, with Sperling's wife making coconut cake during Cutcliffe's visit to the family's home in nearby Glencoe. Sperling had been around coaches enough to sense that Cutcliffe cared about Tomlinson the kid, and the feeling among both parties was mutual, with Cutcliffe going so far as to call Sperling one of the most unselfish people the coach had ever come across on the recruiting trail, especially since it would have been so easy to sway Tomlinson to Sperling's alma mater, Illinois.
"You know what? It was refreshing to have real conversations that were meaningful, that had nothing to do with sales, nothing to do with, 'Hey, we've got this, we've got that,'" Cutcliffe said. "It was about relationships with Laken, and I enjoyed that. He knew everything about what a real and a good relationship was, and that's why he got along so well with myself and Matt Luke and Kurt Roper. That recruiting process was built truly, solely, on a relationship."
Tomlinson has been back to Jamaica only once, for his grandfather's funeral six years ago. (His grandfather was living in Chicago but had chosen to be buried back home.) Tomlinson tells himself all the time that he will make another return on a much happier note soon, but one thing inevitably leads to another and, before he knows it, he finds himself immersed again in his life at Duke. Two summers ago, Harding, Tomlinson's linemate, orchestrated a service trip with nine teammates to Ethiopia to help construct freshwater wells for local communities. Tomlinson was among the group, and the 12-day visit offered him the chance to see his younger self.
"With the history that I have growing up in the poverty of my community in Jamaica, I looked at these kids that were running around having fun, and I thought about, man, when I was a kid I was exactly like these kids -- running around, having fun, not knowing what's out there in the world," Tomlinson said.
"It kind of brought me back, gave me a new visualization of what I left back in Jamaica, and I kind of found myself back when I was there. It was definitely good for me because it gave me that visualization back, and looking at these kids and thinking about not having this -- my grandparents could have decided to stay in Jamaica and not move to America, and I could still be there right now.
"But right now I have this wonderful opportunity. I'm going to a great college for free and getting a wonderful education, and I should just be thankful to my grandparents and most thankful to God for giving me this opportunity."