<
>

Ride with Mike Tomlin through Virginia streets that shaped him

play
Tomlin goes back to his roots (3:34)

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin gives Jeremy Fowler a tour of his hometown of Hampton, Virginia. (3:34)

HAMPTON, Va. -- The full scope of Mike Tomlin's personality won't be found at Pittsburgh Steelers news conferences or on sidelines. On the job, Tomlin is unmoved by perception or circumstance, or at least that's what the stone-cold facial expressions indicate.

But this is Hampton, Virginia, in the summertime, and Hampton's prodigal coaching son eats noodles out of a brown paper bag and gives everyone he sees on the streets bear hugs.

Tomlin hops in the driver's seat of a Ford Edge rental car with the bulky brown bag, the contents of which can be found only at home -- "yock-a-mein," a concoction of noodles, beef and various hot sauces.

At first, Tomlin calls it "urban Chinese delicacy." Then he corrects himself.

"But what it is, is project food," he said. "You'd get a box of it when I was a kid, $2, and that's two meals. You eat half the box, put it in the fridge, and eat the other half."

Every July, Tomlin leaves the intensity in Pittsburgh for an absurdly hot Virginia weekend in support of the Hampton Roads Youth Foundation football camp. For an hour last week, Tomlin guided ESPN on a tour through the streets that shaped him.

As Tomlin whips through a slice of eastern Virginia, he's addressing cameras and also his teenage son, who's quietly along for the ride. Before crafting this distinctive career -- including a Super Bowl and 92 wins in nine seasons -- he lived the way most other kids he knew: raised by a single mother, minimal contact with his father, sharing one bathroom with several family members, clinging to the belief he would be "special."

Virginia is where the "loud and brash" Tomlin comes out, brother Ed Tomlin says, because of all those years with a sharp mouth as the smaller kid at the park. Here, he's an extension of a community before being a coach.

"They think they know the coach of the Steelers. That's just what I do. You know?" said Tomlin, 44, sporting black from hat to sneakers. "When I'm home, I'm home."

'We can ride around a little bit. I can show you guys a few things'

Tomlin openly acknowledges he doesn't do stuff like this. But once he commits, he drives as if he's controlling a practice, with thoughts and movements working together in scattered form. Tomlin will drive around until he sees something he likes, which usually cues an impromptu hop-out.

Each curb reveals a piece of Tomlin's history. Over there, that stretch of blue behind the trees, that was the segregated pool.

Well, the Mallory Pool wasn't technically segregated when Tomlin lived at his nearby grandmother's house in the late '70s. But in his mind it was. It was understood black kids weren't exactly welcome. Plus, the membership prices were outrageous.

"Every day we'd walk past it and we'd see other kids swimming and playing in that pool, but it wasn't us," Tomlin said. "It's funny for me to see black kids leaving this pool, it really is. ... I learned how to swim in college. That's just how it was."

To break up the summer months, Tomlin's mother, Julia, forced him to read all the classics: Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, "Gulliver's Travels." His friends thought that was weird and so did Tomlin, one of the only kids he knew with an encyclopedia set.

"If you wanted to hustle my mom, hustle her on some education," Tomlin said. "One [encyclopedia] came every month or so. Like, next month 'S' is coming -- that's going to be big!"

The books worked. Tomlin eventually became an honor-roll student, even if he wasn't crazy about his mom putting the bumper sticker acknowledgment on the car -- for street-cred reasons.

'C'mon, let's go. I have more to show you'

Tomlin's hunger for strategy was evident at an early age. When playing spades with Ed, who's almost four years older, Tomlin got his mom to help on the sly because she was good with numbers. Every day in the summer, the Tomlin boys got dropped off at the Peninsula Boys Club, where kids could earn "bargain bucks" for winning at foosball or basketball. Bucks equaled prizes, such as tennis balls or hot dogs. Reading books earned bucks, too. That's how Tomlin found his loophole.

"While we were outside competing, he'd be in the air-conditioned library collecting bargain bucks," Ed Tomlin said. "It was a win-win proposition for him."

Playing with older kids taught Mike Tomlin how to get creative, which he's reminded of as he pulls up to the rows of red-bricked buildings, his mom's first apartment complex. Tomlin's mother left her husband when Tomlin was a baby, and the family lived with grandma until they saved up enough to move out.

Tomlin wasn't allowed to venture past the muddy playground with a rusted slide and a greenish puddle underneath the uneven swings. Mom watched intently from the window while folding laundry. Tomlin learned to launch himself over the puddle for fun, and sometimes he got clearance to play in the neighborhood game of "kill-a-man" football, using shifty moves to avoid getting clobbered.

Through a pair of aviators, Tomlin surveys the land and savors the brick that hasn't aged, the rust that survived decades of summers without him.

"And, man, we were proud of this place. Man, it probably don't look like much now, but at the time, it was something," Tomlin said. "You always knew when people were short on food because they'd show up to your place at dinner time and wouldn't leave." He laughs. "You know what I mean? So it was a cooperative thing of families taking care of one another, a bunch of single mothers and things like that."

'Man, I've been waiting to meet you, bro'

Tomlin reminds his son he's recognized in Hampton because he has come here all his life, not for the Steelers cache. He received the same love while he was the defensive backs coach at the University of Cincinnati. And it's not as if Tomlin's the only famous football persona from the area. Hampton Roads, comprised of seven cities, including Virginia Beach, has produced serious talent, from Bruce Smith to Allen Iverson to Michael Vick.

Still, locals recognize Tomlin's gravitational pull. He rallies people. He's a pillar from a football leadership standpoint.

"When he walked in a room, even as a youngster, he had a way of making you feel special," said James "Poo" Johnson, who spent more than five decades helping run the Boys & Girls Clubs in the area. "He just has this energy to him. Now, he wants to make youngsters aware this is a community and you can uplift it."

That energy was on display for a stop at Philly Joe's, which apparently serves the "Best Cheese Steaks in VA." Philly Joe was like family. Most days, Joe would give a young Tomlin a bag of food with orders to take it back to Mom.

Tomlin never met today's Joe's employee, who goes by Johnny Trouble. But after two minutes, Tomlin has Trouble rapping for him. Asking him if he wanted to perform for the cameras did the trick.

"Let's hear it -- you better spit," said Tomlin, whose autographed picture rests in the corner, next to a picture of chicken wings.

Trouble grabs his microphone set in the corner and freestyles something varied but energetic. Tomlin keeps a slow head bob and an ear-to-ear smile rolling. Trouble gives him a business card.

"My dude! Much love! Y'all be easy!" Tomlin said.

'Hey, welcome to my life'

Over at Harland Court, where red-and-white shingles and a brown towel hang from his grandma's old house, Tomlin takes to the street as if he never left. He hugs a cousin, then debates with a neighbor about where home plate used to be in cul-de-sac baseball games.

Tomlin spends a private moment with Grandma at the front door. She calls him "My Michael."

"She always told me I was [special]," Tomlin later said. "She convinced me of it." These were the influences. Often, the closest his dad got was a city center. He died of heart failure about four years ago.

Tomlin turns and faces the cameras with his grandma, then blurts out: "They wonder why I'm so secretive, 'cause they just don't need to know me. They'll never get to know me unless they meet you guys! You know what I'm saying?"

Once back in the car, Tomlin separates Virginia Mike and Coach Mike.

"That's work. And I treat it as such -- that's more of my mentality than anything," Tomlin said about his job. "I appreciate the opportunity afforded to me and I take it very seriously. That's work. And I love it. I appreciate it and obviously I'd do it for a lot less. I just want to bring the same approach to it that I watched my parents and my grandparents bring to their work. My family members, they worked in the shipyard, that was work -- steel-toe boots on a daily basis."

Tomlin pulls up to the Hampton Convention Center, where a camp rep awaits. Trip is up. Tomlin is the key figure at the Youth Foundation's meet-and-greet event to celebrate the year's fundraising. The DJ plays Wiz Khalifa's "Black and Yellow" as Tomlin takes the mic.

"You know what it is," said Tomlin, pumping his fist to Khalifa's chorus.

The music stops, and Tomlin starts a short but timely message.

"It's a beautiful thing to come home and fellowship, to acknowledge the blessings bestowed upon us," Tomlin said. "We have a lot to talk about, don't we? In light of the recent events in our nation, we have a lot to talk about, don't we?"

Many "yes" approvals are audible after that last line.

Halfway through the event, the autograph line gets thick.

Time to be Coach again.

And to think he left the yock in the car.