TUSCALOOSA — Melinda Tomlinson watched every one of her son Dalvin’s home high school football games through the window of the concession stand at Henry County High School in McDonough, Ga.
Other parents continually tried to convince her to go ahead and watch Dalvin and her other son Labronzo play from the stands. However, Melinda, a proud member of the Warhawks’ booster club, knew she had a job to do and wasn’t going to stop until it was done.
Melinda passed away in 2011 from heart disease and kidney failure, but her hard-working spirit lives on through her sons. Dalvin, now a redshirt senior defensive end for Alabama, will suit up for the Crimson Tide on Saturday like he does every other week — with his mother on his mind.
She won’t be among the other mothers and fathers who will flock to Bryant-Denny Stadium for Parents Weekend this week. Although, for Dalvin, her presence will be felt with every move.
One look at Dalvin and it’s obvious he is his mother’s boy — they share the same eyes and the same caring nature. At 6-foot-3, 305 pounds, Dalvin is no longer the little boy Melinda used to help with homework around the dinner table, but he’s grown up to be every bit the man she always wanted him to be.
Close to his heart
Roughly an inch long and cut into the shape of a lantern, a bronze pendant hangs from a silver chain around Dalvin’s neck. He wears it everywhere — to class, to interviews, to pregame warmups. He would wear it for games if he could. It’s small compared to his hulking frame, but to the defensive lineman, it means the world.
Melinda gave the necklace to Dalvin as a gift on their last night together. It’s almost identical to the ones his brother and cousin returned with after participating in a Nike 7-on-7 tournament during Dalvin’s freshman year of high school. Because he was still a freshman, Dalvin wasn’t able to attend the camp himself.
Knowing how much it meant to her son, Melinda set out to find a matching necklace for Dalvin.
“My brother and my cousin went, and they all got one, and I wanted one,” Dalvin said. “They had the tops that were bronze, and she found this one that’s black on the top. It’s a unique one. It just means a lot to me.”
Dalvin had no idea those moments would be some of the last he would spend with his mother. Visiting her in the hospital where she had been admitted a few days before, the two discussed a familiar topic.
“We talked about me going to college and where I wanted to go,” Dalvin said. “Alabama was one of my No. 1s, and I pretty much told her that night that I wanted to play here.”
The next morning he awoke to hysteria.
“My aunt came into my room crying,” Dalvin said. “She pretty much woke me up, and I didn’t know what she was crying for. All my cousins were at my house and I found out (my mom) was on life support.”
Push through it
Dalvin could hear his mother’s voice ringing from the concession box after every big hit he made on the football field. Now, he hears her voice in a different way.
Melinda’s passing came the summer heading into his senior year of high school. The following spring, more adversity struck when Dalvin tore his ACL in his left knee playing goalie for the soccer team.
The injury forced him to redshirt during his freshman year at Alabama.
Dalvin was a multi-sport athlete at Henry County. He was the first Georgia wrestler to win three heavyweight titles and also competed in track and field. Soccer was at the bottom of the list of sports he was known for.
Dalvin’s high school football coach Mike Rozier didn’t even know he was on the soccer team. He said he would have tried to convince the four-star defensive lineman not to risk his football career so close to his arrival at Alabama.
“My freshman year (at Alabama), I regretted it a lot,” Dalvin said. “I just felt like I should have been out there training like a normal person rather than playing soccer. As time went on, I don’t regret it, because everything happens for a reason. It helped me out in the long run.”
After playing in the Tide’s season opener against Virginia Tech the next year, Dalvin tore the ACL in his right knee during practice, once again sidelining him for the year. Facing one of the most trying times of his career, it was his mother’s words that helped him move forward.
“She would have told me, ‘Just keep pushing through it. You have to go through bad things before things get better,’” Dalvin said. “There have been plenty of times she told me that, and I kept pushing and pushing. Good things always happen at the end.”
The Tomlinson’s grew up on Tomlinson Street, named after Dalvin’s great grandfather. Surrounded by family members, there was always something to do. On top of playing several sports Dalvin and his brother were involved in choir, band and even chess club.
“It was either do that or do chores,” Labronzo said. “We chose to do sports. (Our mom) said as long as we didn’t get in trouble, we could do it.”
Melinda also made sure her boys stayed on top of their studies.
“After school when she would get off work and we were done with sports, we would sit in the kitchen for hours and do homework together,” Labronzo said. “She would ask us if we understood, and she would make it a little bit simpler if we didn’t. So she was a big help in that process of getting through school.”
Dalvin took those dinner-table sessions to heart. Seeing how much education meant to his mother, he worked to squeeze in every moment of study time in order to keep his grades up.
“We are coming out of the weight room, and I look over at the bleachers and see him all alone,” Rozier said. “While everybody else is socializing, he was into one of his books.”
Dalvin’s intellectual interests are not just tied to school. Rozier said Dalvin is one of the best artists he’s ever seen. The defensive lineman said he enjoys drawing anime, particularly his childhood favorite Dragon Ball Z.
Dalvin’s artistic passion began when Melinda showed him letters his father had written to her before he passed away when Dalvin was 5 years old.
“They were like love letters,” Dalvin said. “He used to draw animation characters on the letters, and I used to think that was cool. I always tried to draw cartoons and stuff like that.”
Dalvin’s well-rounded nature paid off, as he graduated Henry County with a GPA near 4.0 and even earned an offer to play football at Harvard.
Sweat and grind
“Summers were the worst.” Labronzo laughed, remembering the times he spent working with his brother at relatives’ houses under the hot Georgia sun. It seemed like there was always something that needed tending to. However, chores quickly turned into football workouts.
“We’d go to my uncle’s house and try to find a big tractor tire and start flipping tires,” Dalvin said. “Then we’d go to my other uncle’s house and he has a big field in his front yard where he grows fruit. We’d go out there with picks and just run drills in the field, working on ankle stability.”
Dalvin’s determination carried over into practice. Rozier said it is hard to remember an athlete so driven in both character and on the field.
“He was always doing more, Rozier said. “I’m walking up in summer wanting to go home, and as I’m leaving he’s out on the practice field trying to get faster.”
Alabama linebacker Ryan Anderson needed to see the scale for proof.
When talking to Dalvin last week, he didn’t believe the defensive lineman weighed more than 300 pounds. There was no way — Dalvin was too fast and too lean to be that big.
“I thought he was like 280, he like 310,” Anderson said. “So he got up on the scale and I was like dang, he don’t look like it. He don’t play like it. He’s one of the fastest D-linemen we have.”
By now, Dalvin is used to surprising people. While the defensive lineman is typically lost in the shuffle when discussing Alabama’s talented front seven, Anderson refers to Dalvin as an underrated part of the Tide’s defense.
Dalvin’s stats back that up.
So far this season, he is tied for fourth on the team with 11 tackles, one for a loss, while also batting down a pass. Dalvin credits much of his success to his wrestling days, which he says not only helped him get mentally ready but also master his hand technique as a pass rusher.
“Dalvin probably has the best hands on the team,” Anderson said. “I watch a lot of things he does with his hands, and I can’t really pick up on it. It’s just natural the stuff he does. I don’t know if he took jujitsu or something in the jungle. It’s just so quick”
Dalvin currently rates as the No. 12 defensive tackle in the nation according to nfldraftscout.com. A solid season might see him shoot up the draft boards and into the early rounds of next year’s NFL draft.
Regardless of where his football career takes him, Dalvin will have plenty to fall back on. After graduating Alabama in December of 2015 with a finance degree, Dalvin is currently working on a degree in financial planning.
Exactly the way Melinda drew it up.