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LaDainian Tomlinson ran to glory on the football field. Off the field, he ran from his family’s history for years.
Tomlinson heard bits and pieces of his family’s roots growing up in Central Texas. He knew he was a descendant of slaves but that was about it. He didn’t ask many questions.
But almost a decade ago Tomlinson confronted his family’s past when the book, Tomlinson Hill, was published by journalist Chris Tomlinson on the history of the two sides of the families — the white slave owners and the Black slaves. LaDainian wrote the forward for the book and the revelations made provided a new understanding of his family’s history.
“It’s funny, you can know something about your history and not understand it,” Tomlinson said. “At the same time, you can run from it because that’s what I did for a long time. I knew it was something that was missing from my personal identity of who I was. Once you know your truth, it teaches a lot about yourself and why I am so passionate about certain things. It trickled down from who my great-great grandfather was to who my grandfather was to who my dad was.
“I never got a chance to meet my paternal grandfather, so hearing that story from my dad and hearing the story from the white side, Chris Tomlinson, was powerful. It was revealing. It was enlightening because they both had the same story of what my grandfather was like. It set me free.”
It’s through that lens that Tomlinson will address the importance for his alma mater, TCU, doing a similar thing in revisiting and assessing its past. Tomlinson will give a virtual presentation titled “Acknowledging Our Past, Defining Our Future” at 5 p.m. tonight available via Facebook and YouTube.
It’s part of the university’s “Race & Reconciliation Initiative Week” during Black History Month.
“LaDainian is emerging as an incredible leader in this space,” said TCU athletic director Jeremiah Donati. “When he talks, people listen. It’s exciting for us to have him involved in this initiative and for us to have the opportunity to participate alongside him. You probably couldn’t have a better person to speak on this given his platform and his family’s history.”
Tomlinson hopes to use his personal story as a way to guide TCU’s community in what “we all must grapple with as we go forward as we learn the history of TCU.
“The main thing that I want to say is it’s going to take all of us to change our community — to change the way we think, to change the way we behave,” Tomlinson said. “It’s not just Black people. It’s not just white people. It’s going to take all of us to search within ourselves and go to those hidden places, those nasty thoughts we get. It’s going to take all of us soul searching to really become a better community.”
Pushing for diversity at TCU
Tomlinson didn’t have any racially-charged incidents during his time at TCU more than 20 years ago. He has remained active in university affairs, from being an advocate for greater diversity to serving as a member of the school’s Board of Trustees. He praised Chancellor Victor J. Boschini, Jr.’s efforts on the diversity front in recent years, but contends there is always more that can be done. Looking back on the school’s history will amplify that.
The football program, for instance, didn’t have a Black player until 1968 when Linzy Cole broke the barrier. Tomlinson, who played at the school from 1997-2000, is the first Black player listed as an “All-Time Legend” in the media guide. Tomlinson played more than 100 years after the program had its first football game in 1896.
Just this past offseason, coach Gary Patterson found himself embroiled in controversy for repeating a racial slur to a player as a way to emphasize the importance of not saying it. That incident became a teachable moment on top of a teachable moment.
Patterson issued an apology and the university handled its corrective actions internally. Tomlinson, whose nephew Tre Tomlinson is a cornerback on the team, felt the school handled the situation properly. As the former player said, nobody is immune from saying something regrettable during a heated exchange and Patterson’s track record tells a different story.
“That was a tough situation,” LaDainian Tomlinson said. “Knowing Gary, I do believe it was a teaching point for the student athletes, but it was also a teaching point for Gary and understanding that there’s never a time that you can use that type of language. But this hasn’t been a repeated thing for Gary. He doesn’t have a history of this type of behavior. So, as a university, there are things you can do in-house to correct what a coaching staff is doing and the way they communicate.
“At the same time, if you talk to Gary, he knows he made a mistake. Sometimes, hey, being totally honest, we all might get caught up and for a second we misspeak. I think that’s the case with Gary.”
For Tomlinson, it’s all part of the process of growing and becoming a better community. Everyone, from a high-profile coach to an administrator to a student, can improve. He raved about Boschini taking steps such as RRI Week for the university to become “better” with regards to social issues.
“We need to do this to become a more fair institution and to understand our history,” Tomlinson said. “I go back to my own personal journey of race and reconciliation in my own family and what I went through. The ugliness and the nastiness of finding out the truth is hard. It’s tough. At the same time, it’s necessary.”
That’s the message Tomlinson plans to deliver tonight. He has become known for delivering powerful speeches, like the one he delivered during the Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony in 2017. He urged people to look beyond what divides them and to come together on “Team America.” It’s a message that still resonates today.
The NFL used part of that speech during an ad to “Inspire Change” during the Super Bowl earlier this month.
For TCU, it couldn’t ask for a better spokesman than Tomlinson.
“We are honored that LaDainian Tomlinson is serving as a member of our Board of Trustees, and are grateful for his willingness to participate in TCU’s ongoing discussions about race and reconciliation,” Boschini said. “His leadership and commitment to social justice aligns with TCU’s focus and sense of urgency to better support diversity, equity and inclusion efforts on our campus.”
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