There were plenty of times when Melinda Tomlinson couldn’t watch her son Dalvin play football at Henry County High School in Georgia. She was a “concession mom,” so her game days were spent hawking hot dogs and pushing pretzels in a booster club stand that did not provide a very good view of the field.
But she would hear the games. Hear the crowd cheer. And then hear the public address announcer say Dalvin Tomlinson’s name over the loudspeakers after he made another impressive play.
“That’s my baby!’ she would yell. “That’s my baby!”
Mukeshia Tomlinson, Melinda’s niece and Dalvin’s cousin, thinks that’s what she would be saying today . . . if she still were alive.
Melinda died from heart disease and kidney failure brought on by diabetes in June 2011, just weeks before Dalvin began his senior year of high school. When Dalvin was drafted by the Giants in the second round last month after a stellar career as a defensive tackle at the University of Alabama, the entire family was there with him to celebrate the moment.
Joy was not the only sentiment in the room, though.
“Everybody got emotional,” Mukeshia said. “I know I did because I just wished my aunt was here.”
Melinda wasn’t able to see Dalvin get drafted and complete the goal he set for himself as a 5-year-old, the course he described for her while she was on life support in a hospital room the night before she passed away.
But not seeing never stopped her from cheering before. And it doesn’t now.
“She would be ecstatic,” Mukeshia said in a phone interview with Newsday from her home in McDonough, Georgia. “The personality she had, she would be very ecstatic and bragging. She’d be telling the world that’s her baby. She always made sure she acknowledged her boys.”
‘Always there for me’
There were a lot of challenges and obstacles in Dalvin Tomlinson’s life. His father died when he was very young. He tore both of his ACLs before emerging as a star at Alabama, one while playing soccer in high school in the spring of his senior year (he was a 270-pound striker!) and the other after one game in his redshirt freshman season for the Crimson Tide.
But the loss of his mother was the biggest one.
“It was tough on me,” he told Newsday. “I was only 5 years old when my father passed away, so I didn’t really understand it too much. I was still young. But going into my senior year of high school was when my mom passed away, and that’s when I really felt it. It was tough.”
He still had a very bright future, both in sports and academics. But all of a sudden he was a 17-year-old orphan. That’s when his family came together to support him.
His aunt, Mary Tomlinson, and his uncle, Eddie Tomlinson, siblings of his mother, became guiding forces for him (Mary already was living with the immediate family when Melinda passed away, so Dalvin did not have to move). His older brother LaBronzo, who was studying automotive mechanics in Nashville, helped as much as he could, but he was only two years older and dealing with the same loss.
It was Mukeshia who stepped in and helped him finish what he and his mother had started.
“We are a close-knit family and we’ve rallied around each other all our lives,” said Mukeshia, now 38. “But we really grew stronger with the passing of my aunt and him going into his senior year [of high school]. I became very vital in his life at that moment. We all were trying to figure out how we could continue to allow him to be successful and continue the journey that he had planned for himself. I took the initiative to help him get enrolled in schools, made sure he finished his senior year strong.”
“She was one of the people who made sure I had all my SATs done, all my applications to college,” Dalvin said of Mukeshia. “She was always there for me.”
It wasn’t a very difficult job.
“If anything, I would say the passing of my aunt made him stronger in making sure that he did continue toward his goal of where he wanted to be, which was the NFL,” Mukeshia said. “That’s why I took on the journey of making sure I could do what I could to make sure he got there.”
Dalvin was always a self-starter, the kind of kid who did his homework without having to be prodded. And he was very bright. He was accepted to Harvard, in fact, but turned down the Ivy League school because Alabama provided a clearer route to pro football.
As far as athletics, he also was a budding star. Besides his football dominance, he was a three-time state champ in wrestling and played striker and goalkeeper on the soccer team. His high school coaches in those sports played big roles in his development as an athlete and a man.
But he still was just a kid and needed someone to help shepherd him through things such as official college visits, keeping track of offers and offering general guidance. That was where Mukeshia came in. It was the least she could do.
“I grew up with my aunt; she was like the big aunt to us, making sure we got to school and things like that,” Mukeshia said. “There were four of us, four female cousins, and she made sure that we grew up on the straight and narrow. We were always under her watch.”
Now it was her turn to do that for Dalvin.
“Sometimes I do think about that as far as returning the favor, paying it forward, things of that nature,” she said. “I feel like everything he’s getting he deserves.”
A Towel for tears
What he’s getting now is a crash course in the NFL. Tomlinson participated in Giants rookie minicamp this weekend, a somewhat appropriately timed arrival for him on Mother’s Day weekend.
“It’s special for me,” he said of the timing. “I used to tell her as a kid that I wanted to play in the NFL. It was always a dream of mine. To be here now is a blessing.”
The Giants have big plans for Dalvin Tomlinson. He was drafted with a second-round pick, which makes him valuable, but he also plays one of the few defensive positions in which there is no clear-cut starter. He likely will compete for the job at defensive tackle next to All-Pro Damon Harrison, lined up between defensive ends Olivier Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul.
“I think that he is more athletic than he gets credit for and I think it is an advantage for guys coming out that have played different sports and haven’t just been a one-sport guy,” Giants coach Ben McAdoo said.
“We are excited about Dalvin,” defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. “All the things that you read and heard and I know that Jerry [Reese] and Ben addressed it. He was a very impressive young man at the Combine. He has a great story, like you said, and I think that he is a pretty good football player.”
As for who will start, Spagnuolo said he will let the competition between Tomlinson and veterans Jay Bromley and Robert Thomas “unwind.”
The Tomlinsons have big plans, too. As a send-off party for Dalvin in Georgia last weekend, the talk among family members was that they would try to attend the Giants-Buccaneers game in Tampa on Oct. 1. That’s about a six-hour drive from McDonough.
Mukeshia will be there for that game. But she also plans to be at the opener in Dallas on Sept. 10.
“I just want to see his first official NFL game,” she said. “It’ll be emotional, I know that. It’ll be exciting, but it will be emotional.”
Mukeshia was there for Tomlinson’s first game at Alabama, too, just over a year after Melinda passed away. That was tough, too, she said.
When she gets to Dallas, she’ll be carrying a towel — like a Terrible Towel from Pittsburgh — which was made by another one of her cousins. It features a picture of Melinda with her two boys on it, Dalvin and LaBronzo. Mukeshia intends to wave the towel to cheer on Dalvin and the Giants, and maybe use it to wipe away a tear or two if necessary.
In that way, Melinda will get to be there for the start of Dalvin’s career.
“Most important, I know she’s in spirit with every move he makes,” Mukeshia said.
And if Tomlinson makes a big play in front of 90,000 fans at AT&T Stadium and in front of the millions who will be watching the Sunday Night Football broadcast, Melinda will know.
That, after all, is her baby.
DT, No. 94
Born: Feb. 28, 1994, in McDonough, Georgia (age 23)
Vitals: 6-3, 312
Drafted by Giants: 2017, Round2