Larry Orie watched Mike Tomlin grow up. Saw him play youth sports. Attended his football games at Denbigh High and later at William and Mary.
A close friend of Tomlin's parents since high school, Orie followed Tomlin's coaching career when he reached the National Football League. He attended games and visited Tomlin at professional coaching stops in Tampa, Minnesota and now as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"What I find about him is he's the same all the time," said Orie, a retired Newport News fire chief. "He's constant. He wants to give back to the community. He's a role model, even for older folks like me. ... He definitely wants to be a role model for the community, especially for where he came from."
That's why Orie, in his capacity as vice president for membership of the 100 Black Men of the Virginia Peninsula, recommended that the organization recognize Tomlin during its annual gala in April.
"Larry said, 'This is a great guy,'" chapter President Everett Browning said. "He's not just a football coach. This is a person we want our kids to know about and model their lives after."
Tomlin — who will attempt to become the youngest head coach to win a Super Bowl today, when the Steelers face the Arizona Cardinals — was the first sports figure selected as Role Model of the Year in the 16 years of the local chapter of 100 Black Men, the national organization dedicated to improving the lives and opportunities of young blacks.
The group usually honors business, political and community leaders, all of whom have longer resumes than the 36-year-old Tomlin. In the past, it has recognized such figures as former Gov. Doug Wilder, U.S. Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott Jr. and Hampton University President William Harvey.
After spending time around Tomlin on that April day, Browning was convinced that the group had chosen wisely. What sold Browning wasn't Tomlin's demeanor and message the night of the affair but an appearance that morning.
Tomlin spoke to more than 100 high school and middle school students at the Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center in downtown Newport News, where Browning said the coach was sincere, humble and inspirational.
"He said, 'Twenty years ago, I was you guys, sitting down in the audience,'" Browning remembered. "A high school student, listening to people trying to tell me about life and the things you need to do to be successful. Let me tell you, what people are telling you is the truth."
Browning said of Tomlin, "He said he lived his life by the code of being a hard worker, of being true to one's self and realizing if you want to get ahead, you have to make sacrifices. I was just elated to hear him say those things to the students."
Tomlin doesn't need a black-tie gala or a proclamation in his honor to return to the Peninsula, either.
He took a couple of days' vacation time this past summer and drove from Pittsburgh to attend the Peninsula All-Star Football Camp, the annual affair staged by Hampton native and NFL Players Association communications director Carl Francis.
"I was shocked, but I wasn't shocked," Francis said, "if you know what I mean."
Tomlin didn't simply put in an appearance and stand in the shade, sipping Gatorade. He was on the field at Christopher Newport University, bouncing around, working up a sweat, coaching kids and chattering endlessly.
"You could see he was excited to be around kids and talk football," said Bethel High coach Jeff Nelson, who also worked the camp. "Sometimes you see a head coach of a big-time program or an NFL team in a setting like that, and you get the feeling that they're above everybody. With him, he was like one of the kids, running around and coaching. Kids feed off that."
Francis said, "I am tremendously grateful to Mike for what he's done for me and our camp. His humility and generosity are genuine. He's a caring person. There is no armor on Mike."
Francis' football camp is part of his work with the Hampton Roads Youth Foundation. He remembered that almost two years ago, he had a conversation with Tomlin — shortly after Tomlin became Steelers head coach — about the camp and about lining up speakers for the foundation's annual pre-camp banquet.
"I was using him as a sounding board," Francis said. "I didn't ask him to do anything, and he said, 'Carl, why don't I just do it?'
"I was like, 'Mike, look, you're a new head coach. You've got a million things on your plate. He said, 'No, no, no. Let's get it done. Just tell me when and where, and I'll be there.' "
Tomlin makes an impression, whether it's speaking to kids in a community center or in the NFL, where he has led the Steelers to the playoffs in both his years as a head coach.
"I think he's very important," Francis said.
"I don't know that our area really understands the magnitude of what he's doing and how he's perceived.
"If you listen to people around the National Football League, all the way up to the commissioner's office, they'll tell you that he's made a tremendous impact around the league. His maturity and his ability to communicate with people is remarkable."
Tomlin, a father of three, has expanded his charitable work to the Pittsburgh area.
He has participated in charity events there and is a member of the group All Pro Dad, an organization with deep NFL ties that helps men become better fathers.
"Most of the kids looking up to athletes think that there's a possibility that they can get there," Orie said, "but there's a lot more that don't get there than do. But having Mike as another alternative — it's just like Mr. Obama being the president now — a kid can look up and say, 'I can do that.'
"He's a good role model because everyone that aspires to be an athlete is not going to be one, and he's an example that you don't have to be one to have a good life and have an impact on people."
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