As the Alabama defensive linemen killed time watching television and playing video games on a road trip a few years ago, A’Shawn Robinson got bored and decided he should attempt what so many of his teammates had already failed to do. He wanted to wrestle fellow defensive end Dalvin Tomlinson.
Given a list of recent Alabama players, the 6' 4", 320-pound Robinson—who currently plays for the Lions—is the guy most outsiders would select as the person with whom one should absolutely not trifle. But inside the Alabama program, the players knew the correct answer was the guy Robinson challenged in that hotel room.
“Nah,” Tomlinson said at first. “I’m good.”
But this was the match the other Crimson Tide players had waited for. Robinson might finally be the guy who had the strength and quickness to subdue Tomlinson, who won three Georgia heavyweight state titles for Henry County High. (He probably would have won four, but his coach chose to let a senior wrestle in the heavyweight class when Tomlinson was a freshman.) It didn’t take long for the others to goad the 6' 3", 310-pound Tomlinson into facing off with Robinson.
It didn’t take much longer for Robinson to tap out.
“He didn’t expect for me to do the stuff I did,” Tomlinson says. “I put him in a crossface. Then he said, ‘Let’s start over.’ The second one was quicker than the first one.”
One day late last season, teammate Jonathan Allen ticked off a list of linemen either pinned or forced to tap out by Tomlinson, whose best move is a double-leg takedown but who still loves to experiment with more exotic moves favored by smaller wrestlers. (Allen also is on that list.) One of the last before Tomlinson finished his Alabama career was Raekwon Davis, a 6' 7", 315-pound freshman who looks as if he was chiseled rather than born. “Normally we have a couple big freshmen come in who think they’re big and bad,” Allen says. “After a while, they realize he’s not the one.” In a locker room full of badasses, Tomlinson might have been the baddest of them all. Former Alabama linebacker Denzel Devall recognized this quickly and skipped the pain and embarrassment. “Dalvin grabbed me one time,” Devall said in a 2015 interview. “I’m like ‘You win.’”
Had Tomlinson grown up in Des Moines or Indianapolis instead of suburban Atlanta, he might be training for the Olympics instead of waiting to learn which NFL team will employ him. Marty Hutsell, the decorated high school wrestling coach who coached Tomlinson in high school, firmly believes Tomlinson could have been America’s best heavyweight wrestler. Indiana, where Hutsell and his brother wrestled, tried to pitch Tomlinson on a football-wrestling combo. Had Tomlinson taken that route, he might have a red, white and blue singlet in his closet. “I’ve always said if he couldn’t make it the NFL, he could take up wrestling and be the best kid in the U.S.A.,” says Hutsell, who has mentored 38 high school state champions and calls Tomlinson “the most athletic kid I ever coached.” His senior year, he pinned his opponent in the state finals in just nine seconds.
But Tomlinson is a child of the South. He’s also a pragmatist. He had a better chance at a pro football career than he had to be a world-class wrestler. So when Alabama coach Nick Saban came with a scholarship offer, Tomlinson grabbed it. Tomlinson wonders sometimes what might have happened had he gone to a Big Ten or Big 12 school as a wrestler, but he’s sure playing both sports wouldn’t have worked. “The wrestling is pretty tough on your body,” he says. “I just feel like it would be too much on my plate. My shoulders might have given out.”
So Tomlinson settled for devoting his athletic energy to football. Whipping his teammates in hotel rooms, in their apartments and in the locker room was a hobby he squeezed between football, earning a finance degree and working toward a second bachelor’s in financial planning. Now, he’ll wait to learn his next destination. He projects as a mid-round pick, but Tomlinson’s teammates insist he’ll outplay his draft position. He could be a three-technique in a 4–3 defensive front or an end in a 3–4, but no matter how he is deployed, Tomlinson’s fellow Crimson Tide defenders believe he’ll do exactly what he did in Tuscaloosa: Clog whatever gap needs clogging and free up linebackers to make plays. “You have to be selfless to take on double teams,” Allen says of Tomlinson. “You know you’re not going to get the numbers you want, but you’re helping the team more than anyone.”
Tomlinson didn’t post huge numbers at Alabama, but he always did his job. In ’16, Tomlinson made 62 tackles with 5.5 tackles for loss. His specialty, though, was using the leverage advantage he honed as a wrestler to occupy two blockers at once. That helped Allen and linebackers such as Reuben Foster make the plays that turned them into potential first-round picks.
That’s the kind of effort Melinda Tomlinson would have loved. Back at Henry County High, Melinda rarely watched her younger son play in games. She was the president of the booster club, and someone had to sell the hot dogs and candy so the football program could reap the profits. “Every time she heard my name,” Dalvin says, “you could just hear her yelling from the concession stand.”
Melinda demanded her son keep his grades high in addition to playing saxophone and trumpet (in middle school) and excelling at football, wrestling, track and soccer* in high school. She also ran the most welcoming household in McDonough, Ga. When Dalvin and his fellow linemen finished their summer workouts in high school, she’d feed all the biggest boys at the school.
* Yes, Tomlinson played on his high school soccer team. Sometimes he played goalkeeper. Sometimes he played striker. “The biggest one you’ve ever seen,” he said with a laugh.
When Dalvin was a high school freshman, his mother took his older brother and cousin to a Nike football camp. While at the camp, the boys bought necklaces. Dalvin wanted one badly, but there were no more to be found. Melinda didn’t forget, though. More than two years later, during the summer before Dalvin’s senior year in high school, she handed Dalvin one of those necklaces. This exchange took place in the hospital. Melinda had issues with her heart and kidneys, but Dalvin thought she’d emerge O.K. That night, she took a turn. She died the next day.
Hutsell took Tomlinson to lunch that day. “He couldn’t quit crying,” Hutsell says. Tomlinson, who lost his father to cancer when he was five, wondered at first how he could keep going after losing the person who loved him the most. But he quickly decided he’d let down Melinda if he let his grief slow him. “My mom pretty much gave me all the drive I have,” Tomlinson says. “Still, she’s my motivation for everything.” Now, when Tomlinson needs a boost, he touches the necklace she gave him the night before she passed.
Melinda would have been so proud of the way Tomlinson handled what came next. “He wrapped himself around his sports and his academics,” Hutsell said. And even when an ACL tear suffered playing soccer his senior year kept him off the field, Tomlinson kept grinding. He had recovered in time to possibly contribute as a freshman at Alabama, but then he tore the other ACL in practice. He’d have to redshirt, but he emerged stronger for the experience.
Over the next four years, Tomlinson mastered his role in Saban’s defense. “You never have to worry about Dalvin not being in his gap,” Allen says. “He’s always doing his job.” In five seasons at Alabama, Tomlinson collected two national titles and four SEC championship rings. He also will leave with an imaginary championship belt that none of his Crimson Tide teammates could wrestle away from him.
The player who came the closest was actually the first to challenge Tomlinson. Defensive lineman Dakota Ball, a fellow Georgian who also came to Alabama in ’12, was the only teammate who could push Tomlinson past a few minutes. “Whenever we wrestle,” Ball said, “we end up just quitting.” Why? Tomlinson and Ball have an idea. “Dakota has that country strength,” Tomlinson said. Said Ball: “I’m not really weight strong, but I’m country strong.”
NFL teams had better have two country strong offensive linemen who know how to get low and use their hands effectively if they hope to move Tomlinson out of his assigned gap. Otherwise, he’ll do what he always does—his assigned task—and like Tomlinson’s Alabama teammates, they’ll be begging to tap out.