San Francisco Chronicle

Timely visit to barber aids 49ers’ Tomlinson

- By Eric Branch

The transforma­tive moment of Laken Tomlinson’s NFL career didn’t take place in a game, practice, coach’s office or locker room.

Instead, the 49ers left guard says the seeds for his shift from alleged draft bust to flourishin­g first-rounder were planted in an unexpected spot: Creations Salon & Barbershop in Irvine.

In the spring of 2017, Tomlinson, then 25 and coming off a season in which he’d been benched with the Lions, offhandedl­y mentioned to his barber that he was looking for a private coach to enhance his offseason training in Orange County. His barber didn’t hesitate. He knew the perfect guy. A barbershop regular. Used to play in the NFL. Lived just down the road. Tomlinson, who grew up in Jamaica and wasn’t well versed in NFL history, was intrigued by the chance to work with this guy, Jackie Slater.

“I looked him up that night and did my research,” Tomlinson said. “I was like, ‘My god.’ ”

Call it an answer to prayer. Tomlinson, 29, will return to Detroit on Sunday and play at Ford Field for the first time since Jan. 1, 2017, when he was eight months away from being jettisoned from the Lions to the 49ers for a fifth-round pick. After two trying seasons in Detroit, Tomlinson, the No. 28

“I think meeting him, and training with him that first time, it definitely set me on a path in my career.” Laken Tomlinson, right, 49ers guard, on Hall of Fame tackle Jackie Slater

pick in the 2015 draft, has since signed a three-year, $16.5 million extension and realized his vast potential while making 63

straight starts with the 49ers.

How did he get from there to here? It began when he connected with Slater, 67, a Hall of Fame right tackle who played 20 seasons with the Rams and has since trained many of the NFL’s top offensive linemen.

“I think meeting him, and training with him that first time, it definitely set me on a path in my career,” Tomlinson said. “Looking at where I am right now versus where I was, I wasn’t half the player I am today. It all starts with the foundation. And Jackie provided a solid foundation for me to work on my game. I enjoyed it so much that I literally begged him to let me come back.”

He didn’t have to beg. Slater welcomed him back the next year. And the next. In fact, Tomlinson, who spends most of his offseason at his home in Detroit, and Slater have become friends who spent at least a week together for every offseason since 2017. They train twice daily at a park in Orange and also spend time discussing the minutiae of line play.

“Of all the guys that I’ve ever trained, this is one of the most rewarding stories that I’ve ever been around,” Slater said. “I know that whoever it was that was working with him, they just didn’t know what they were doing. There’s no other way around it. They didn’t know what they had.”

Slater, who interviews players before training them, knew he had someone he wanted to work with moments after he and Tomlinson first met at a Starbucks in 2017. He was struck by Tomlinson’s earnestnes­s and intellect. Tomlinson was a pre-med double major (psychology, evolutiona­ry anthropolo­gy) at Duke, where he was a four-time All-Academic ACC selection.

And there was his physique: Tomlinson, 6-foot-3 and 315 pounds, is among the 49ers’ strongest players and can squat more than 600 pounds.

“The good Lord said, ‘Let there be offensive guard,’ ” Slater said. “It’s as simple as that. In my opinion, right now, there is no better physical prototype for the offensive guard position in the National Football League than Laken Tomlinson. He’s big. He’s strong. He’s thick. He’s got range in his arms. He’s got power in his legs. He’s got power in his upper body that he can put on people at just the right time to create an advantage. And he’s really smart, on top of all that.”

Slater, a self-described football junkie, has coached at nearly every level since he retired. After spending a season with the Raiders (2006), he coached at a community college (Saddleback) and high school (El Modena in Orange) before serving as the offensive line coach at Azusa Pacific University from 2011-2018.

He’s also trained a group of linemen that includes Washington rookie tackle Sam Cosmi, a second-round pick, and Leonard Davis, his first pupil, who was the No. 2 pick in 2001. Slater’s current list includes Pro Bowl guard Trai Turner (Steelers), All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell ( Jaguars) and Panthers tackle Taylor Moton, who signed a four-year, $72 million contract in March.

Tomlinson isn’t his most decorated student, but he might be his most exacting. Slater, who is passionate about offensive-line theory, leverage and technique, quickly found the Duke graduate was thorough and inquisitiv­e.

“Laken had a strong determinat­ion to get whatever it was that I was offering, but he wanted to decipher whether it was meaningful or not enough for him to waste his time,” Slater said. “He asked a lot of questions. He was observant to everything I did and said. He was looking for the flaws, but he was also looking for the knowledge. And somewhere along the way, I think I might have convinced him that there was a lot more knowledge than flaws.”

Tomlinson values the knowledge Slater has passed along. In fact, he guards it obsessivel­y. This became particular­ly obvious Thursday when Tomlinson, who had only discussed his training in vague terms, was asked for specific ways in which Slater assisted him.

“I can’t give you everything,” Tomlinson said, laughing.

OK, but how about something? Perhaps something general about hand placement? Tomlinson offered a nervous laugh and began a 30-second answer filled with long stretches of silence.

“I’ll try not to get too detailed about ...” Tomlinson said, “… you know … maybe it would be … It’s really that everything is so specific that I really don’t feel comfortabl­e giving you that much informatio­n.”

He was smiling. He wasn’t going to answer the question because he considers the informatio­n sacred. It was, after all, part of an answer to a prayer.

 ?? Courtesy Jackie Slater ??
Courtesy Jackie Slater
 ?? Tony Avelar / Associated Press ?? Niners guard Laken Tomlinson is among the team’s strongest players and can squat more than 600 pounds.
Tony Avelar / Associated Press Niners guard Laken Tomlinson is among the team’s strongest players and can squat more than 600 pounds.

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