ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Laken Tomlinson looked around that June morning and memories came back fast. Memories from his childhood, living mere miles away as a child from where he was standing now, as a small-town kid in Jamaica, with the NFL not even a thought.
Since the Detroit Lions offensive lineman entered the league, one of his goals has been to help his homeland. So when his former teammate, Stephen Tulloch, reached out earlier this year asking Tomlinson if he would join a mission trip to help build a school in Jamaica, he jumped at the chance.
Then Tomlinson found out where it was: the town of Little London. His home. If the school they built over three days had existed when Tomlinson was a child living in Jamaica, he likely would have attended it. Now he was helping put up its windows and walls.
“Just seeing the kids there -- the kids were in school, and when they came out for lunch, just interacting with the kids, [I] kind of remembered how I grew up as a kid,” Tomlinson said. “They speak Patwa, the Jamaican language, dialect, and I was speaking Patwa to the kids. We were joking around, having fun, and it was just a really awesome thing.
"Just to be there and talk to the kids, and these kids are looking up at giant people, you know, and when I was a kid I never thought I’d be this big. Being there for those kids is just an awesome thing."
Tomlinson was one of three Lions who made the trip, along with cornerback Nevin Lawson and linebacker Tahir Whitehead, after being invited by Tulloch and his foundation. They helped build the school named after Tulloch’s mother, Mercedes, who grew up less than a mile away.
When Tomlinson entered the league in 2015, he connected with Tulloch and looked at him as a philanthropic mentor. Tulloch, who was born in Miami, embraced it and realized they had much in common. Tomlinson's and Tulloch’s extended families in Jamaica know each other.
“I wanted him to be there because he has the background in Jamaica, as I do, to be able to show him what I’m trying to build there, what I’m trying to do in the community,” Tulloch said. “So hopefully more guys can come on board in years to come. Hopefully we can build something around the area to give people hope, give people life.
“Having Laken and Nevin on the team in Detroit, it’s ironic we’re all from the same area, family-wise. Going in the future we can do more things together.”
This was the start. For Tomlinson and Lawson, Jamaica was their first home.
Tomlinson’s father still lives close to where the school was built, and the trip came as an extension of Tomlinson’s honeymoon. He and his wife, Rachel, were married June 17 in Michigan and had planned to go to Jamaica anyway. It was the first time he returned to the country since he attended his grandfather’s funeral in 2008. He wanted to show his bride where he grew up and where his father lives.
Lawson grew up on the other side of the island -- and the 26-year-old hadn’t been back since he was 13. He had already planned a trip to Jamaica with his wife and his father when Tulloch reached out. Lawson has family throughout Jamaica and had been searching for a way to give back to his home country. So this made sense.
Upon his return, he saw people he used to hang out with when he was young. He didn’t remember them. They remembered him.
“I can’t exactly say how much it changed, but I know how different it was from me being a kid to going back as an adult,” Lawson said. “Just seeing the neighborhood that I grew up in, the homes, the people that still stayed there -- the majority of them still live there even though I had seen them as a kid and now they are grown-ups.
“The only thing different for me was seeing people that I used to hang around with as a kid. That was different for me, how the neighborhood, how it evolved from when I used to live there.”
Tulloch made clear to his former teammates this would not be a luxury vacation. This was a work trip. By the time they were done, they helped build a five-classroom infant school -- the Jamaican term for pre-K to age 7 -- with a principal’s office, sick bay and kitchen, plus a playground. The school can hold 125 students. It is on the same site as the Little London Primary School, which is for older students.
The foundation had been laid prior to their arrival. Everything else was up to them. For three days, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., they put on hard hats, wore gloves, grabbed hammers, nails and paint brushes and went to work. They built the walls, installed the windows and painted the plywood. They spent time with the kids in the neighborhood, too, and took trips around the island in the afternoons.
“Actually got our hands dirty,” Whitehead said. “Had the hammers, the nails -- we were actually putting stuff together and actually doing the work. We were physically out there in the heat, doing the work.”
It was the first time Whitehead had put together anything more elaborate than a crib or something from IKEA. Tulloch said Lawson had to be moved to window installation because working with a hammer and nails wasn't going well.
The idea for the school came after Tulloch went with another former Lions teammate, Cliff Avril, to Haiti. They built homes and schools together on various trips. Tulloch, who retired after last season, has always been tied to Jamaica, where his mother was born, and the former linebacker has focused his international philanthropy on the country.
Even when he was in Detroit, Tulloch was one of the more active Lions in the community, often walking around the locker room trying to convince teammates to help him with various endeavors. This time, he reached out by text and by phone. Some players accepted. Others declined due to scheduling conflicts. Kyle Van Noy was planning to go, Tulloch said, until the Patriots linebacker got food poisoning and had to cancel.
Three days after they started, the Mercedes B. Tulloch building was standing. Tulloch is returning to Jamaica next month to make sure the floor tiling, power and water are in working order. He wants to see the final product one more time before it officially opens in September.
“You get out into the community, you move around, you realize that there are people in this world that don’t have the necessities that we have in the U.S., and it’s important to give back,” Whitehead said. “That really keeps me grounded, and it always makes me reflect on life, and [I] always go back to -- it is always so much bigger than football.”
Tulloch, meanwhile, is already planning his next building project in Jamaica -- whether it will be homes, another school or potentially teaming with Tomlinson to work on a medical facility. Tulloch wants to help others, in Jamaica and in Michigan.
“This is something I’m trying to do yearly. Working on a different idea, different concept,” Tulloch said. “Definitely going to do another one next year, whether it’s homes or schools. We’re going to do one next year and we’re working on some things in Detroit. Open up a tutoring center in Detroit. Trying to get some grants from the city to open up a tutoring center in the city of Detroit for the kids there.
“Just trying to do as much as I can with the opportunities I have.”