Lane Tech product beats odds, drafted in first round of NFL Draft

WLS logo
Saturday, May 2, 2015
Laken Tomlinson stands on stage after being drafted 28th by the Detroit Lions during the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft, Thursday, April 30, 2015, in Chicago.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- The 2015 NFL Draft enters its second day in Chicago Friday after Thursday saw some surprise picks, including a local player who beat astronomical odds to become an unlikely first round choice.

Laken Tomlinson knew very little about American football after emigrating for Jamaica, but thanks to a Chicago mentor he's now made it to the top of the football world after being drafted by the Detroit Lions.

PHOTOS: NFL Draft First Picks

Tomlinson credits his family, a local mentoring program and a stranger who wanted to give back.

The Sperling family knew the boy they began to mentor would grow up to be a great man, but not even they anticipated what happened Thursday night, when he was selected by the Lions late in the first round.

The former Duke offensive lineman got his start on the field at Lane Tech, but it is how he got this far that is the real story.

"He is very industrious, but the parts of Laken that people don't understand - he is very caring, he is very sensitive, he is a wonderful human being first and a great athlete and student second and third," Bob Sperling said.

Tomlinson was born in Jamaica. His single mother raising four kids decided to come to Chicago, and the family settled in Rogers Park when he was 10. In grade school he was selected to be a part of a mentorship program and he was eventually matched with the Sperlings.

Sperling, who is also a Rogers Park native, saw something in Tomlinson - intelligence, respect, and the drive to succeed.

"I think that our relationship and the relationship he developed with our family assisted him in assimilating in the American culture in a positive way," Sperling said.

The Sperlings were there when it came time to go to high school and encouraged him to go to Lane Tech. He was an honor roll student and played on the football team. Lane Tech coach Rich Rio guided him through high school and made sure he stayed on track.

Years later, he was recruited by all of the Division 1 schools. He had plans to be a doctor, and choose Duke University for the academics and football program. And he was a star, all the while being guided by Sperlings.

Tomlinson acknowledged his longtime mentor Thursday night when he was picked.

"I wouldn't be the man I am today without him," Tomlinson said.

By his side was his mom and new extended family, the Sperlings, who now have a bond that is unbreakable.

"We loved having him," Andi Sperling said. "It's like someone you adore who comes and is open to you who's caring."

Coach Rio said Friday that he is so proud of Tomlinson and he never had any doubt he would be successful.

VIDEO: Fans to return to Draft Town on Day 2 of NFL Draft

Draft, Draft Town experience continue Friday

NFL Draft Town in Chicago's Grant Park opened to the public at 4 p.m. Friday, with marching bands, players and fans; everything but real football games.

VIDEO:NFL Draft Town tour with Ryan Chiaverini

Even fans who are paying little attention to the actual draft have plenty to do, like get autographs in the Bears tent from Big Cat Williams and Adrian Peterson.

The NFL wanted to turn the draft into a much bigger event, and they seem to have succeeded.

"I'm looking forward to today, just seeing who we are going to pick. I'm a football fan, just like everybody else. So I'm waiting for that clock to start ticking," Kyle Long, Chicago Bears offensive tackle, said. Long was at Draft Town early Friday as children attended a football clinic.

Long said he's happy with the Chicago Bears' first round draft pick of West Virginia's Kevin White.

"New playmaker on our offense. I'll be spending a lot of time with him. So I was very happy for him, that he got drafted."

Even ex-bears like former first-round pick Greg Olsen are getting a lot of attention from fans in Draft Town.

"It did nothing but amaze you, to get this much attention," Olsen said.

About 100,000 people are expected at NFL Draft Town, which is open to the public on Friday from 4 to 10 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

PHOTOS: NFL Draft comes to Chicago