HAMPTON, Va. — The line to the VIP room snaked through two hallways. Mike Tomlin, the centerpiece of the Hampton (Va.) Roads Youth Foundation’s “Casino Night,” was positioned in the back of the room as fans entered for pictures and autographs.
Each July, the Pittsburgh Steelers coach returns to his hometown of Hampton to shake hands, hug old friends and help the HRYF with whatever it needs, from fundraising to coaching in the football camp. One local pointed out the same people attend the events each year because Tomlin — who calls the appearance “hectic,” in the best possible way — is friendly to everyone.
“I want to get around and see as many people as I can see, make myself as available as I can make myself,” Tomlin told ESPN from the event. “I want them to get close to me, touch me, get over all those things young people have to get over in terms of seeing people on TV and things of that nature.”
Tomlin found a road map of sorts about 35 years ago, when a 12-year-old boy saw NFL star and Hampton Roads native Lawrence Taylor walk into a 7-Eleven back home. Tomlin was playing a pinball machine and needed a few minutes to gather himself.
He tries to remember how that felt when greeting locals for the fundraiser.
“He inspired me. That’s just what this area is about,” he said. “Athletics is a vehicle for betterment. It’s a means to improve yourself and your present circumstances. … We all feel that and wear that and understand the mentality of the young people here.”
Tomlin gets something back for his work — reconnecting with friends and family who influenced his development as a man and coach.
They poured into him, so he pours back.
“We all feel extremely obligated to do so because we realize people in this community have put us in the positions we’re in,” Tomlin said. “Although we don’t live here anymore, I always want to be ingrained in this community. I want the kids and the young people in this community to know me. I want them to know I’m no different than them, and I’m in the position I’m in because I worked hard and had people in this community who cared about me and nurtured my growth and development. We want to do the same for them.”
Tomlin could overwhelm his youthful audiences with chalk talk and messages of locker room chemistry, but instead he stresses good decision-making, “how we push goals and dreams toward reality.”
He believes home roots shape people, which is why Pittsburgh’s blue-collar ways remind him of Hampton.
“Football is just simply the hook, the vehicle that I rode,” Tomlin said. “It doesn’t matter what their passions are, it’s about galvanizing those passions and hopes and dreams into action.”