Renaissance Man

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Dalvin Tomlinson, Defensive Lineman / Alabama - The Players' Tribune

Anyone who has ever wondered how football players get so big has clearly never tried my mom’s cooking.

Back when I was playing in high school, all of us defensive and offensive linemen would head back to my place after we finished up our morning workouts in the summer. These were some really big guys, and we’d all be completely exhausted and covered in grass stains and sweat — but by the time we got to my street there was always a little giddyup in our steps. That’s because of what was waiting for us: the biggest Southern-style breakfast you’ve ever seen.

Just about every day my mom would prepare this huge meal for us. I’m talking stacks on stacks of pancakes, huge piles of bacon (of course), mounds of eggs and my uncle’s homemade sausage. I wish I could bottle the smell.

Those were the best mornings. Me and my friends just sitting around laughing and stuffing our faces, while my mom looked on with a big smile. People who know me tell me I take a lot from her, including her smile.

This was back in McDonough, Georgia, which is about 30 minutes outside of Atlanta. McDonough has been home to my family for several generations. You could say that we’re pretty country. Me, my mom, my brother, my aunt and my grandma all lived in the house my grandparents had built. Up the street a bit, my cousin and his family also have a house. And a little further up is where my other cousin and his family live. We’re all next to each other on Tomlinson Street, which was named after my great grandfather.

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Most of my childhood involved playing sports somewhere along that street with my older brother and cousins. I was the youngest, so even though I had always been big for my age, whenever I was around them I was the runt. So, as a result, I was always just trying to keep up with them. They were my sports idols while I was growing up. Some of my earliest memories are of my mom taking me to watch them play football. Of course, watching them made me want to play too. So when I was four, my mom signed me up.

When I first started playing football, I was worried. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to get hit or anything like that. In fact, it was the complete opposite. Like I said, I was big for my age, so when I first put on pads, whenever I tackled the other four-year-olds they’d start crying. I didn’t want to make anybody feel sad, so I tried not to hit anybody — not necessarily the best quality in a football player, but fortunately I grew out of that.

Eventually, I found that I had a pretty natural talent for the sport, and I kept up with it.

But while football has always been an important thing in my life, it’s never been the only thing. Not even close, really.

In high school, my nickname was “the Renaissance Man” because I ran track, played soccer, drew pictures and was pretty good at playing a few instruments. All that time, my mom was my biggest cheerleader, always trying to motivate me and making sure I never got complacent. She understood that you don’t become a better person by only practicing the things you’re really good at. Instead, what’s important is learning how to push yourself to be your best at whatever you’re doing.

For me, that was especially true when it came to wrestling. I’m in my fifth year at Alabama. That’s five years of Nick Saban practices. Those are brutal, but honestly, I’ve never been part of a football practice that could compare to “42 minutes of hell” in Henry County High’s wrestling room.

If you’ve ever been in a high school wrestling room, you can probably kinda picture it. The ceiling is around seven feet tall. The school’s colors wrap around the walls. For some reason the heat is always on. The air is heavy. Straight up, it stinks.

Early on in high school, I didn’t have much confidence in my abilities as a wrestler. My relatives had left a pretty big legacy at that program, so I had a whole lot to live up to. And even though I was dominating my opponents on the mat, I didn’t think I was any good, mostly because some people had gotten into my head. I once overheard somebody saying I was a fluke even though I had made the state championship tournament as a sophomore, which hurt me probably more than it should’ve.

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My coach was pretty perceptive and knew my mental makeup needed some help. One day, he came up to me and said, “Dalvin, we’re gonna push you to the next level. We’re gonna make you believe you’re good. You’re gonna wrestle for 42 straight minutes.”

Huh? Forty-two minutes of wrestling in our small, hot, sweaty room?

Each match was six minutes long. Once one ended, another teammate would rotate in and the next six minutes started.

Two opponents and 12 minutes in, I was dead tired. Like I could barely breathe. But that didn’t matter. I still had 30 minutes left. And I didn’t want my teammates to think I was a quitter. So I kept going.

And I got stronger. Mentally stronger.

No lie, that was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But I know being pushed to my limits as a wrestler in high school paid off in the long run. See, wrestling did a lot to prep me for football — it taught me how to use my weight as leverage and the value of proper technique to control my opponent’s body. Most importantly, though, wrestling taught me how to push myself when all I wanted to do was give up.

Say it’s the fourth quarter of a brutal SEC battle and everyone’s absolutely gassed. Well, I know that I’m mentally stronger than anyone I line up across from because I’ve trained myself to succeed at times when others fail. When it’s your will against mine, that’s when I know I can push harder than anyone else.

By the time I graduated from high school, I had won three state wrestling titles. But what I also had was the confidence in myself to pursue whatever I was passionate about.

It’s funny, my mom was the president of the booster club when I was on the team (of course). She was always working at the concession stand in the hallway outside the gym during my matches, but I still knew she was there because I could hear her. Everybody could. As soon as they announced my name over the intercom, she’d just start screaming and cheering for me, no matter where she was.

“GOOOO DALVIN!”

“THAT’S MY BABY!”

I’ll admit, it was embarrassing at first. It was like, Moooom, my friends are here. But when I look back on it, I always smile. I could have been out there playing solitaire and she would have been cheering just as loudly.

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Before I got to my senior year of high school, my mom got sick.

It happened pretty quickly. She had complications related to her diabetes that led to issues with her heart and kidneys. Suddenly, it became clear that I didn’t have much time left with her.

Part of what made her illness so difficult was that it happened during a time when I really needed her. A lot of colleges were contacting me and I was torn trying to decide between schools all over the country — from Georgia to Bama, even to Harvard. (I know she was proud that I had the opportunity to attend Harvard.) I had a lot of questions, and she had always been the person with the answers.

Near the end, I got to spend an entire day with her at the hospital, just talking, laughing and trying to soak in every minute. We went through all of my options, and that was when I decided I was going to attend Alabama and promised her that I’d earn my degree. It was important to me to let her know that I was going to do her proud.

The next day, she was gone.

That was five years ago, and I’m proud to say that, I’ve not only earned a degree in finance, but I’m also well on my way to earning a second bachelor’s in financial planning. It hasn’t always been easy. There have been so many times when I wished I had her to talk through something I’m going through. But at the same time, I’m extremely grateful for what she left me with.

She gave me a big, loving family that cheers for me just as loudly as she did. She gave me a friendly disposition that allows me to meet new people and to make meaningful connections with them. And finally, she gave me an incredible belief in myself, a belief that has allowed me to reach for my wildest dreams.

I had a knee injury when I first enrolled at Bama (from playing soccer — like I said, Renaissance Man) and that was scary. The very best players in the country come here, and I was worried if I could even compete. But what I realized shortly after I got here was that the work ethic my mom instilled in me was what made me good enough. She had spent my whole life training me to excel at a place like this.

I wish she could have come to a game while I was in college. I know how much she would have loved game day in Tuscaloosa. But even if she wasn’t in the crowd, I could always feel her presence. Whenever I run out of the tunnel to take the field, and I hear all those people screaming, it’s easy to imagine her watching over me with a big smile, making all sorts of noise up in heaven.

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What distinguishes us is not our expectation to win, but rather it’s our refusal to lose.

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