Tomlinson, a 6-3, 330-pound senior from Chicago (Lane Tech), has started 51 consecutive games and has helped the Blue Devils (9-3) score 390 points this season, the third-most in program history. Duke's offensive line leads the country in fewest tackles-for-loss per game allowed with just 3.33 and has surrendered just 13.0 sacks, tied for the 13th fewest in the nation.
But Tomlinson just making a college roster and winding up in Durham was a challenge. Duke's current football captain offers a slightly different version of the "The Blind Side," the famous story of Michael Oher, who came from a broken family in Memphis, lived in numerous foster homes, and eventually became a star offensive tackle at Ole Miss and then on to the NFL.
"I am both grateful and humbled to be honored by the Football Writers Association of America and the Orange Bowl with this award," said Tomlinson, who will finish his Duke career against Arizona State in the Hyundai Sun Bowl on Dec. 27. "My mother has been the greatest influence on my life, and none of this recognition would be possible without her sacrifice, love and support.
"It means the world to me to make her proud. If not for her, I could still be in Jamaica, living a life of poverty. Every time I go home or have an opportunity to talk to my mother, she always tells me before she hangs up, 'Laken, I love you and I'm extremely proud of you and everything that you do for our family. Keep doing what you are doing. The Lord has a plan for you, Laken.'"
Tomlinson grew up in Jamaica and came to this country when he was 10. He gained about 80 pounds and grew seven inches within his first year in the United States and could have passed for a person much older. Eventually, because of his intelligence, Tomlinson wound up in a mentoring program and, despite early concerns of his mother, lived with the family of Bob Sperling, a Chicago-based attorney.
When Tomlinson first was introduced to football because his sister believed his size offered him the opportunity, he thought they were referring to soccer. His abilities grew on the football field and he eventually was recruited by Big Ten Schools. But Duke and head coach David Cutcliffe, caught his eye. Tomlinson wanted to be a doctor and someday may fulfill that goal.
"First and foremost, congratulations to Laken on this incredible honor," Cutcliffe said. "Laken is a very gifted student-athlete in all senses of the phrase, and we are fortunate and proud to have him in our program. Obviously, he is an outstanding player on the field, and his journey to Duke is something of a storybook tale. I know he is humbled to receive this honor. And certainly not to be forgotten, thank you to the Football Writers Association of America as well as the Orange Bowl for sponsoring this award."
A first team All-ACC choice in each of the last two seasons, Tomlinson has been selected to participate in the Reese's Senior Bowl and also is one of 11 student-athletes named to the 2014 Allstate AFCA Good Works Team.
The Courage Award was first presented by the FWAA in 2002. A select group of writers from the FWAA vote on the winner each year. The requirements for nomination include displaying courage on or off the field, including overcoming an injury or physical handicap, preventing a disaster or living through hardship. The winner of the award will be included in festivities during Orange Bowl week and receive his trophy at an on-field presentation.
Previous winners of the FWAA's Courage Award are San José State defensive lineman Anthony Larceval (2013), Clemson wide receiver Daniel Rodriguez (2012), Michigan State offensive lineman Arthur Ray Jr. (2011), Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand (2010), the University of Connecticut football team (2009), Tulsa's Wilson Holloway (2008), Navy's Zerbin Singleton (2007), Clemson's Ray Ray McElrathbey (2006), the Tulane football team (2005), Memphis' Haracio Colen (2004), San José State's Neil Parry (2003) and Toledo's William Bratton (2002).
The Orange Bowl is a 360-member, primarily-volunteer non-profit sports organization that promotes and serves the South Florida community. The Orange Bowl features a year-round schedule of events culminating with the Capital One Orange Bowl on December 31, 2014. Other Orange Bowl core events include the MetroPCS Orange Bowl Basketball Classic, Orange Bowl Youth Football Alliance presented by Sports Authority, Orange Bowl International Tennis Championships, Orange Bowl International Youth Regatta, Orange Bowl Swim Classic and Orange Bowl Paddle Championships. For more information on the 2014-15 Orange Bowl events, including promotional and volunteer opportunities through the Ambassador Program presented by Panera Bread, log on to www.orangebowl.org.
The Football Writers Association of America, a non-profit organization founded in 1941, consists of 1,400 men and women who cover college football. The membership includes journalists, broadcasters and publicists, as well as key executives in all the areas that involve the game. The FWAA works to govern areas that include gameday operations, major awards and its annual All-America team.
2014 Orange Bowl Courage Award Nominees
• Sept. 17: Deon Hill, Georgia Tech
• Sept. 24: Ian Frye, Virginia
• Oct. 1: Zack Golditch, Colorado State
• Oct. 8: Josh Clemons, Kentucky
• Oct. 15: Shon Coleman, Auburn
• Oct. 22: Rori Blair, Pittsburgh
• Oct. 29: Lorenzo Mauldin, Louisville
• Nov. 5: Laken Tomlinson, Duke
• Nov. 12: Kyle McCarthy, Notre Dame
• Nov. 19: Jarvis Byrd, N.C. State