EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – As a student at Henry County High School just south of Atlanta, Dalvin Tomlinson was called the renaissance man. He was an outstanding student who could have attended Harvard. Tomlinson was an all-state football player, three-time heavyweight wrestling champion and a goalie and striker on the school's soccer team. He was an artist who excelled at drawing with pencils. Tomlinson is also a talented musician who can play the drums, trumpets and xylophones.
But Tomlinson's most impressive skill was clearing the hurdles life kept placing in front of him and thriving on the other side. His father, Willie, died when he was just five years old. Tomlinson was very close to his mother, Melinda, but she passed away suddenly just prior to his senior year of high school. That year, he tore his ACL playing soccer. After enrolling at the University of Alabama and sitting out a season, Tomlinson's other ACL ripped apart, forcing this active young man to spend another year as a spectator.
"Everything was back to back to back," Tomlinson said. "At one point, I lost a lot of hope. I didn't know if anything was going to go well for me. But I knew that my mom would never want me to quit or give up, and just keep working hard day in and day out. That's what I did."
So many have benefitted because of it. Tomlinson is one of the most productive, consistent and respected players on the Giants. Off the field, he is a tireless doer of good deeds, someone always willing to make an appearance, lift a spirit or offer a helping hand.
Fittingly, Tomlinson is the Giants' nominee for the 2020 NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. Presented by Nationwide, the Man of the Year Award is named for former Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton, a Pro Football Hall of Famer who died in 1999. The award recognizes an NFL player for outstanding community service activities off the field as well as excellence on the field.
Each of the 32 teams has a Man of the Year who is eligible to win the league award. Last year, defensive end Calais Campbell, then with Jacksonville, received the award. In 2016, Giants quarterback Eli Manning was named a co-winner – with Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald - of the Man of the Year Award. Manning is the only Giants player to receive the award in its 50-year history.
The Giants' nominee last year was tackle Nate Solder.
"It's an honor," said Tomlinson, a fourth-year defensive tackle. "When Eli won it, I was still in college. Knowing the players that are nominated for it, it doesn't feel real. I still feel like I'm one of the young guys. I still have to earn that. I guess I've been doing enough to get the nomination. It's a blessing.
"Being from the south, being from Georgia, you always want to give back and help as many people as possible. My mom raised me to help out as much as you can, when you can."
Coach Joe Judge believes Tomlinson is more than worthy of the nomination.
"Dalvin's a guy who he really puts the team first and he puts his priorities outside of this building in the right order," said Judge. "Again, he's another guy who comes from a very strong background in terms of making the right decisions, doing the right things and who he surrounds himself with. He really rubs the right way on the guys in the locker room. He's a leader, he knows how to put his arm around a guy and pull him aside and talk to him. He's also not afraid to tell a guy directly in front of someone when they have to go ahead and pick it up. He's able to do that because of the way he works on a day in and day out basis, and because of the kind of strong character he possesses, guys trust him."
Tomlinson played on two national championship teams for the Crimson Tide before the Giants selected him on the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft, the 55th overall pick. He was selected to the Pro Football Writers All-Rookie Team. Tomlinson has started all 60 games in his first four pro seasons. His career totals include 195 tackles (99 solo), including 6.0 sacks. This year, his teammates voted him as one of the Giants' captains.
Off the field, Tomlinson generously donates his time and energy to a long list of charitable and community organizations. He chose to work with two organizations specifically to honor his parents. For Melinda, Tomlinson has served for years as a member of American Diabetes Association's "Team Tackle Initiative," a group of current and retired NFL players who raise support for diabetes funding. He also supports the American Cancer Society as a "Crucial Catch Ambassador" in memory of Willie. Tomlinson encourages Giants fans to get screened regularly and has worked to address the unequal burden of cancer in low-income communities.
Tomlinson serves as a Fuel Up to Play 60 ambassador, helping to bring the youth wellness program to schools by encouraging students to eat a healthy diet while getting at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day. In 2019, he gave his time to numerous worthwhile initiatives: he celebrated Salute to Service month by playing video games at the training facility against military veterans through the Wounded Warrior Project and led the veterans on a tour of the facility. Tomlinson attended the opening celebration of The Project; a gaming and streaming education program for youth from Bayonne Public Housing. He joined several teammates and the Newark Bronze Shields, the African-American police officers association within the Newark Police Department, to host a discussion with local high school student athletes about the importance of academics, selecting college majors, academic demands of a college athlete, sports related occupations, and life after sports. Tomlinson joined with his fellow defensive linemen to make a financial donation to host a holiday pizza party at the team's facility for youth from local YCS (Youth Consultation Service) group homes with every attendee receiving presents. He attended the Muscle Team Gala to support the fundraising efforts of the Muscular Dystrophy Association of New York City.
The list could continue for several more paragraphs, as it does for every Man of the Year nominee. What separates Tomlinson is his eagerness to help those who have endured the extreme pain of losing a parent at a young age. He has chosen to reach out when it would have easy and understandable to turn inward.
Tomlinson works closely with two organizations – Kate's Club in Atlanta and Good Grief in New Jersey – that provide support and programs to children and families after the death of a parent or sibling. He didn't have an outside group to help him deal with his grief, but he did have a strong support system.
"When my dad passed away, I had my mom, my brother and my aunts and uncles," Tomlinson said. "We have a big family back home. I really didn't understand death at the time. Then my mom passed away when I was 17 and that had a huge impact. My mom was my best friend. I had my brother, my whole family. Everyone in my family helped me and my girlfriend. It was tough. It was not an easy journey."
Kate Atwood knows. She was 12 when her mother, Audrey, passed away.
"I grew up not having any community of support, not knowing any of my peers who had a loss or knew what they were going through," Atwood said. "When I got older, I saw that was a big void in the support services in our society. I wanted to build a place where kids could come and, first and foremost, know they were not alone, that other kids just like them had lost a parent or a loved one. But then I also wanted to build a place that wasn't just about the loss itself but was really about the development of a young life in spite of this loss."
In 2003, Atwood founded Kate's Club, which has since helped more than 5,500 children and families deal with loss, grief and healing.
Good Grief was founded in New Jersey a year later and supports more than 850 participants a month who are actively grieving the loss of a parent or sibling.
"I wish I knew about Good Grief when I was going through the grieving process of losing my parents," Tomlinson said. "I wish I could have gone to one of the Kate's Club's camps when I was just a little kid and I lost my dad, or 17-year-old going into my senior year losing my mom, to help with the grieving process. I felt like those are two programs I know I needed to be behind because I personally went through the pain and the grieving process, and I know how tough it can be. You close down, you don't want to talk to anyone, and those programs connect you with people who are going through the same thing you're going through. That just helps you bridge and make new friendships to help you get through the grieving process in a positive way."
Dalvin Tomlinson has been named Giants' nominee for 2020 NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.
Tomlinson has met with children individually and in groups small and large. He has hosted them at training camp practices. And Tomlinson has continued to connect with youngsters virtually during the pandemic.
"Dalvin, having lost his dad when he was five and his mom before 18, has a real mission affinity because he can relate to the importance of our work as someone who didn't have at the time any support to address his grief," said Good Grief CEO Joe Primo. "In our interviews, the kids, online, have been able to ask questions, and he's been able to speak with them directly in that way, and some adults, too. We've done some Facebook live segments with him, and that's how he's been speaking to the kids."
One of them was a seven-year-old named Andrew.
"He just barraged me with questions about how do you get through this?" Primo said. "'My dad's death hurts so much, I don't know what to do with all of this hurt. What do you do with it?' (After Tomlinson spoke to Andrew), his mom wrote me this email that said, 'Andrew is truly struggling. This small window into the life of someone else that has weathered the pain and sorrow and come through the other side as a role model is so very special and makes an impression on Andrew, who is struggling to find his own way.'"
Tanya Sam, a Kate's Club board member, also lost her mother when she was 12.
"Once you're touched by Kate's Club and you realize there's a community of people who have lost a parent at a young age, you can't help but be magnetically connected to this organization," Sam said. "That was Dalvin's first touch, coming to the fundraiser at my home, mixing with other people at Kate's Club. From there, his involvement was so beautiful. It was authentic and organic. He started getting involved by hosting therapeutic programs, whether they were virtual or with the kids. He started coming to our clubhouse and attending programs as a volunteer. Dalvin also offered a lot of our children and teams to go to his summer football camp, which is incredible. I remember seeing these kids come back and be like, 'I met a real life football player, and he's like me. He lost his mom or he lost his dad.' The impact of that just is immeasurable to these children."
Which is exactly why Tomlinson is so dedicated to helping Kate's Club and Good Grief.
"When you see a program doing so good for people, you always want to put your foot behind it and push it and get the word spread out about it, and just help as much as you can," Tomlinson said. "Good Grief is a great program to help kids, as well as older people, through the grieving process of losing a loved one. Kate's Club, two years now I've been helping them. The first time I heard about it, I just knew I had to be involved simply because being a kid and losing your parents is not an easy task at all to go through in life.
"You instantly develop a bond because no matter where you're from, what race you are, pain is pain. We all feel pain together. Just knowing a kid lost a parent, you feel sorry for the kid. You want to help them put a smile on their face. I've been through the process, so I know exactly where they're coming from with the pain. I slightly re-live the moment. It's hard to imagine that kid going through the same pain I was going through at 17, and they're eight-years-old. You might end up just starting to cry with them and things like that. You just develop that bond instantly. You just want to help them feel better. Helping them helps you with your grieving process because you begin to share your story more, they share their story, then you share the ways that you got through the grieving process. That's how you end up building lifelong friendships throughout Kate's Club and the Good Grief programs."
And that's how Dalvin Tomlinson became one of the most giving Giants and an outstanding nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.
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