In football the conventional wisdom has always been you need some bad dudes to win. But is there room for good guys too? Because Laken Tomlinson is an All-American guard taken 28th by the Lions, and his bucket list would make Walter Mitty blush.
We’ve lionized the most blood-thirsty of gladiators throughout the NFL’s history. Dick Butkus, Deacon Jones, Lawrence Taylor, Jack Lambert. All Hall of Famers. All considered bedrocks of their teams. Blood, guts, and an instinct to inflict damage on opponents. Football teams need those guys.
The American sports psyche glorifies the ruthless competitor. Maybe it’s in our national DNA. Andrew Carnegie. Henry Ford. Steve Jobs. Imperfect men who were capitalistic heroes for unmercfically chasing down success. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant are spoken about in hushed tones for their insatiable desire to dominate. “Cold-blooded” used as a compliment. Meanwhile, players that have the athletic ability but seem satisfied in whatever success may come, we mock and deride. Wilt? Shaq? Namath? Yeah, they won titles, but…
Tomlinson grew up in poverty in Jamaica. He emigrated to the Chicago at 11. His test scores were so high he was accepted by Lane Tech, a selective magnet school. So instead of going to a nearby public school, he traveled by train and bus 90 minutes each way, every day. Tomlinson could’ve gone to any of the football powers in the Big 10. Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin. He was huge, and he was smart. But he chose Duke, the most academically difficult school he had an offer from. Mail-it-in major? Yeah, right. Dude double-majored… at Duke… in evolutionary anthropology and psychology.
Most of the rest of the first-round picks couldn’t even spell that. He was four-time academic All-ACC. He finished degrees in both majors. After football he wants to become a neurosurgeon, and return to Jamaica to help overhaul their health care system. His fellow draftees will be busy selling off their five Porsches. He’s flexible, intelligent, and called “the model of consistency.” Yet, he still waited until five offensive lineman were taken before him.
The NFL has built a reputation on needing some dirt under the fingernails. Look at how the Giants gushed about their first-round pick, OT Ereck Flowers. GM Jerry Reese: “This guy doesn’t take any crap from anybody. We like that. We like some big, tough guys with a little bit of a nasty streak.” He reiterated, “He’s young, powerful, big, tough, he’s got a nasty streak. All of those things we like about him.”
Marc Ross, New York’s VP of Player Evaluation: “Ereck is, as you have probably heard, a physical, nasty, tough football player and you just don’t see that too often anymore in college football.”
There’s not enough nasty on the college football field? Well, they’re certainly making up for that off of it. How about Marcus Mariota? All the guy did was become one of the most prolific quarterbacks of the era. He threw for almost 11,000 yards in three seasons. He won the Heisman, and led his team to the national championship game. He threw for 105 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. Which means he had a totally absurd 8:1 touchdown to turnover ratio. He was a coaches dream, committed on the field, in the classroom and in meetings. He has been called a natural leader since high school. But the knock? He may be too nice.
Clearly that label didn’t account for much since Mariota was the second player taken. But in a league where teams fight over signing Greg Hardy while knowing he will be suspended because of domestic violence issues, sometimes it feels like bad guys finish first. The NFL has attempted to remake its image after a calamitous 2014. We will no longer tolerate criminal behavior! But talk is cheap.
It’s a bizarre, upside-down NFL world where bad guys won’t ever stop getting chances as long as they can play. While good guys need to somehow prove they’re not that good. In a world of Hardy’s, I’m glad we have Tomlinson and Mariota. Because sometimes our list of pros and cons get mixed up while celebrating our Pros and Cons.
D.A. hosts 6-10pm ET on the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10.” D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and began looking for ways to make a sports radio show into a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and check out the show’s Facebook page. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY.