SANTA CLARA — Laken Tomlinson loves the violence.
He loves the physicality, the chaos and the big hits that come packaged with football, despite its inherent dangers.
For Tomlinson, who serves as the 49ers starting left guard, the choice to put his body at risk is an intriguing one. Especially when you consider that the Duke graduate plans to pursue a career as a neurosurgeon when his playing career comes to an end.
“Once I got to the league, you can’t go to med school, so I switched my focus to football for now,” Tomlinson told the Examiner. “’But I’m still very interested in going back.”
Tomlinson began his professional football career in 2015 when the Detroit Lions selected the then-23-year-old with the No. 28 pick in the NFL Draft.
Over the course of his four-year career as a Blue Devil, Tomlinson started in 52 games and took 3,962 snaps as an offensive guard.
After being named a consensus All-American in 2014, Tomlinson was also awarded the Anthony J. McKelvin Award in 2015, which is given to the top men’s athlete in the ACC each year.
Despite the success Tomlinson experienced on the football field at Duke, the Jamaican-born bruiser says the ability to pursue his passion in medicine was even greater.
“Football was a tool that enabled me to pursue those dreams that I had as a young kid,” Tomlinsonsaid. “It happened to be football was a way to chase those dreams.”
Double majoring in psychology and evolutionary anthropology, Tomlinson was on the pre-med track before leaving school to enter the NFL draft. But the desire to contribute to the world of medicine originated years earlier when tragedy struck his life.
In the 1980s, Tomlinson’s grandparents immigrated from Jamaica to the United States, bringing his mother, Audrey Wilson, along with her nine other siblings to escape the extreme poverty they faced.
Transitioning from a career as an architect in Jamaica to a security guard in the US, Tomlinson’s grandfather, Ivan Wilson, provided an example of work ethic and mental fortitude for his grandchildren.
“I really looked up to him — he was the head of the household and everything,” Tomlinson said. “It really impacted me just how everything happened.”
In 2008, during a trip back to Jamaica, Ivan fell ill due to stomach ulcers which he had also dealt with in the United States. Unlike his previous episodes, Ivan was unable to recover due to the inadequacies of Jamaican health care.
“I was there when he had experiences with stomach ulcers in the States,” Tomlinson said. “He went to the hospital and was out fairly quickly. He has the same thing in Jamaica and I don’t know what happened, I wasn’t there, but he ended up passing away.”
In 2008, when Tomlinson was just 16 years old, Ivan died at the age of 86. The void he left sparked in Tomlinson a passion to improve modern medicine, using his mind to do so.
While at Duke, Tomlinson began to study the human body and mind. During his last two years at Duke, Tomlinson became fascinated by the world of neuroscience, shadowing Carlos Bagley — a former neurosurgeon at Duke University School of Medicine.
Bagley, a Blue Devils linebacker in the mid-90’s, now practices at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.
“That’s a pretty unique individual that has neurosurgeon as a fallback plan if the football thing doesn’t work out or if he blows out a knee,” Bagley said in an interview with USA Today.
Tomlinson shadowed Bagley roughly 25 times during rounds at Duke’s medical school, learning about the human brain and how to fix the multitude of things that affect it, including concussions.
According to an article published by the Washington Post in 2017, offensive linemen are the football players fourth-most susceptible to concussions, behind cornerbacks, wide receivers and linebackers.
In 2014, three years before Tomlinson arrived in San Francisco, Chris Boreland, a former 49ers linebacker, retired from the NFL because of concerns about mental health and the long-term effects of concussions, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which causes mood swings, depression and, in the cases of many former NFL players, suicide.
More recently, former Indianapolis Colts starting quarterback Andrew Luck called it quits as an NFL player due to similar injury concerns and the durability of his mind and body later in life.
“You know the risk of injury the longer you play,” said Tomlinson, who claims to have never suffered a concussion. “But you have great coaches teaching you great techniques. Yeah, it’s a game of football, but I mean, I love football.”
Tomlinson’s desire to pursue a career as a neurosurgeon doesn’t surprise his teammates, either. His knowledge of the 49ers offensive scheme and playbook is unrivaled.
Since coming to San Francisco via trade in 2017, Tomlinson has started in all but one game for the 49ers. According to ProFootballFocus, Tomlinson has earned at least a 70.0 pass blocking rating in each of his four seasons in the NFL.
“Laken is all of those things,” 49ers starting right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. “He’s a really, really smart guy. He’s very well-spoken, well-thought-out. He studies with football, so if his school studies are anything like that, he’ll probably be pretty good at that, too.”
Bagley also echoed this sentiment.
“He’s going to be one of those people who really makes a tremendous impact in medicine,” Bagley said. “I’m excited to someday have him as a colleague after he hangs up his cleats.”
For now, Tomlinson is focussed on helping the 49ers improve to 4-0 for the first time since 1990, when San Francisco advanced to the NFC title game. But he also knows that playing football won’t last forever.
And when that day comes, he has big plans for his future.
“At the end of the day, I mean, I want to build a hospital in Jamaica,” Tomlinson said. “I want to give something back to the country.”