Dalvin Tomlinson opens with icebreakers — "What grade are you in?" "What's your favorite subject in school?" — as he logs onto a Zoom call with the kids from Kate's Club in Atlanta. A young boy's T-shirt sparks a conversation about their shared love of video games; Tomlinson has built three PCs, and has his own streaming channel. Kids ask him what it's like in the NFL; the Vikings defensive tackle tells stories from his five years in the league.
Over time, the questions shift. Tomlinson asks, "Who died in your life? How does it make you feel?" The kids ask him about the inscription on the tape over his left glove every Sunday, with "R.I.P. Mom" in the center.
Many of them logged on to the call unable to do anything but stare at the floor. Slowly, the kids' eyes start to rise.
"The biggest thing you always hear is, 'Man, I can't even imagine what you're going through,'" Tomlinson said. "I don't want younger kids and young adults to feel like they're alone — just let them know that there's other people going through the same thing, and we can get through this together."
Tomlinson is 27, in the first season of a two-year, $21 million deal with the Vikings after the Giants drafted him in the second round in 2017. He chose to play football at Alabama over going to Harvard; he graduated with degrees in finance and financial planning while playing in two national championship games. He proposed to Giselle Devot, his girlfriend since high school, on a Manhattan rooftop this summer, with his best friend Jonathan Jean-Bart there for the occasion.
It seems like the world has opened up for Tomlinson, but for the fact he's unable to celebrate with the two people who brought him into it.
His father, Willie Gleaton, died from cancer and sickle cell disease when Tomlinson was 5. Then, the summer before his senior year at Henry County (Ga.) High School, he lost his mother, Melinda Tomlinson — the woman who played "Call of Duty" with him, made his favorite dessert (strawberry shortcake) for his birthday each February, pushed him to keep his grade-point average above a 4.0 and was always there with refreshments after practice — to heart disease and kidney failure.
Every Friday night, her voice would ring out from the concession stand she worked for Henry County football games. The first game of Tomlinson's senior year, his mother's voice was silent.
"Dalvin would come into the gym, open his computer and just be there," said Jean-Bart, Tomlinson's best friend since fourth grade. "It was a slow-motion time. I mean, he lost his mom. His mom was supposed to be there for him signing with [Alabama]. He was quiet about it. I would sit there next to him or call him, and say, 'Let's walk through it together. That's my mom, too.'"
Tomlinson leaned on friends like Jean-Bart and a close-knit family whose legacy in his hometown of McDonough, Ga., stretches back to the end of the Civil War. His older brother Labronzo left automotive school in Tennessee and moved back home, while his aunt Mary became Dalvin's legal guardian and several cousins were also there to help.
What if the support hadn't been there? Tomlinson knows all too well what could have happened.
About one in 14 children nationwide loses a loved one before age 18. In Georgia, it happens to about one in 13 kids. In some Georgia counties, it happens to as many as one in nine, said Kate's Club marketing and development director Jamie Duncan.
To the kids at Kate's Club, which serves Georgia children and young adults who've lost a loved one, or at Good Grief in New Jersey, where Tomlinson volunteered during his time with the Giants, he isn't just a celebrity stopping in for a visit. He shows up with what he knows they need most: hope.
"They realize their grief's not going to hold them back in life," Duncan said. "He's able to just talk to them about that, to not let it affect their dreams, and that it's OK to talk about it. It's important to talk about it. He's a confidence booster for a lot of our kids, especially our teen boys."
'Part of a great family'
The Tomlinson family's legacy is so intertwined with the history of McDonough, a town of about 29,000 people 30 miles southeast of Atlanta, it's hard to tell where one begins and the other ends.
Their family founded one of the first churches in Georgia built by formerly enslaved people after the Civil War. Henry County High School was on Tomlinson Street, as was the house where Tomlinson grew up with extended family within shouting distance in every direction.
Much of the family is still nearby. Some are preachers or teachers; some work as mechanics, in warehouses or at day care centers.
"Pretty much everybody in the area knows somebody in your family," Tomlinson said. "I might just go home to 'Oh yeah, I saw your uncle last week.' I'm just passionate to be part of a great family like that: just a great name, I guess you could say."
Look at Tomlinson's Renaissance man résumé: a defensive tackle good enough to get personal visits from Nick Saban, a three-time state wrestling champion who won his final match with a pin in nine seconds, a soccer player in spring and summer, a student with a 4.4 GPA, a musician who plays three instruments, an avid gamer and an artist who discovered he had a love for drawing. Nearly all of it ties back to a different family member.
He followed Labronzo, two years his senior, into football, wrestling and track and field. After his father died, he discovered letters Willie had written to Melinda; on the envelopes were little cartoons Willie had drawn.
"I really got my drawing from my dad," he said. "I never knew it until I was in middle school."
When his father died, he reacted mostly with confusion. "It was the grieving process of a kid: 'What's going on? What's different?'" he said.
His mother's death was different. They did everything together: drawing, cooking, playing video games, spending Friday nights at the football stadium. When Tomlinson and Jean-Bart were called up to practice with the high school football team in eighth grade, Melinda drove them each day from the middle school to the high school on Tomlinson Street, with Powerade bottles often in the back seat. Then she'd pick them up and drive them to get food after practice.
"That was probably one of my biggest memories," Jean-Bart said. "She was like the ultimate super-mascot. Everybody knew Dalvin's mom."
Melinda was in the hospital the night Dalvin told her he wanted to play at Alabama instead of going to Harvard. All along, she'd told him, "When you pick a school, make sure you don't regret it." He told her he was sure about Alabama; she said, "Then it's a good fit for you."
She was scheduled to be released from the hospital the next morning. In the middle of the night, Dalvin was woken to the news his mom was on life support.
Hers was the first voice he heard every day, waking him up for school. Now, he would have to face each day without her.
"I was about to graduate," he said. "I was about to go to college. You don't know how to talk about it. You don't want to talk about it, because of the pain it brings up."
Even in the silence, he was not alone.
Jean-Bart took him to "every movie that was out," to help clear his head. Labronzo stepped in to assist their aunt Mary with the grocery bill — no small task with a 17-year-old football player and wrestler.
"But if I knew somebody was getting a full ride to Alabama," he joked, "I might have stayed in Tennessee."
Labronzo was there for the final steps of the recruiting process. Georgia made a hard push for Dalvin, and Labronzo said he drove his brother 66 miles from McDonough to visit the campus in Athens "at least eight or nine times."
"And then, all of a sudden, Nick Saban showed up at the house," Labronzo said.
In Dalvin's first visit to Tuscaloosa, Saban drove him on a golf cart to the business school so he could meet with professors before touring the football building. To seal the deal, though, he'd have to convince Labronzo.
"People don't understand: It's like Nick Saban's got this power. You can't tell him no," Labronzo said. "Everything he fed me, it sounded good."
The support system got Dalvin through two torn ACLs, one while playing soccer his senior year and the other at Alabama. He'd talk to his brother and Jean-Bart, who played football at Georgia State, almost daily. All along, he thought: What about the people who don't have this kind of support?
'Dalvin was there for me'
The Giants made Tomlinson the 55th pick in 2017 and gave him a four-year deal worth $4.572 million, providing him the platform and the money to make a difference.
He visited cancer hospitals in New Jersey, meeting with patients going through chemotherapy. He connected with Good Grief to start visiting with kids who'd lost loved ones, and learned about Kate's Club at a 2019 Super Bowl party in Atlanta.
Tomlinson's first visit stretched past 2 a.m., as he and Devot sat on a couch talking with grieving teenagers. He was honored at the organization's Mourning Glory gala in May 2019, helping raise more than $420,000. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced Kate's Club to cancel the free football camp Tomlinson had planned, he continued to visit with the kids virtually.
“I don't want younger kids and young adults to feel like they're alone — just let them know that there's other people going through the same thing, and we can get through this together.”
Many who come to Kate's Club lost loved ones through traumatic deaths, Duncan said. For those kids, Tomlinson's presence might mean even more.
"He understood the risk of unaddressed grief in children, and the path it can take them down, if they don't develop healthy coping skills," Duncan said. "You kind of feel othered until you meet people going through exactly what you're going through, and then you feel comfortable talking about it."
When Jean-Bart lost his mother, Mirtha, to pancreatic cancer in October 2020, he knew where to turn.
"I called Dalvin when I was in the hospital room," Jean-Bart said. "Dalvin knows what to say, but Dalvin also knows when to just be there and not talk. He was like, 'Bro, I already know it. You don't even have to express it to me.'"
Next to the "R.I.P. Mom" on Tomlinson's glove, he'd always written the number 22 — Jean-Bart's number in college — as a way of bringing his best friend to the NFL with him. He now writes "J-B" near the thumb of his glove.
"You know how when you go through something, you wish someone would be there for you in those areas?" Jean-Bart said. "Dalvin was there for me."
Tomlinson, the Giants' 2020 nominee for the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, is there as much as he can be for kids whose struggle resembles his own.
"There's a lot of people out there who've lost hope," Tomlinson said. "I've had a lot of people come up to me and say, 'You really gave me hope.' It meant the world to me, because if I can help somebody who's going through those tough times, put a smile on their face and give them hope, it's worth it for me."
Tomlinson uses that word — hope — a lot. That comes from his mom.
He might not be able to get her pasta with baked chicken recipe right (it always comes out a little dry, he said), and he might not be able to hear her voice booming from the sideline.
But she's why he has hope.
"She always used to say the word 'hope.' If you don't have hope and faith, who does?" Tomlinson said. "When I tore my ACLs and lost my mom, and it was all backfiring, I used to sit in my room sometimes, and be like, 'I can't lose hope. Because if I lose hope, who has hope in me?'
"My mom probably is my biggest 'why.' She wouldn't want me to give up on myself or my dreams. She wouldn't want me to give up on anything. That's probably why I say 'hope' a lot."