The Grind, presented by Bank of Clarendon: Lee Academy's Tomlinson splits time between football and the family farm


Success on the football field requires hard work. Lee Academy's Eli Tomlinson is a perfect example.

The senior lineman has only known winning with the Cavaliers. Lee has played for the last two SCISA 1A state championships and they're out to a perfect 6-0 start this season.

But that work ethic wasn't born on the gridiron. Eli's roots are planted at home, where he represents the fourth generation of farmers that are working to build a legacy out in Lynchburg.


In 1944, Eli's grandfather, Alfred, bought 211 acres of land. Seventy-eight years later, the Tomlinson family farms on roughly 4,000 acres, some of which is rented, while managing 16 turkey houses and 50 cattle. The farm currently focuses on three crops: corn, soy beans and wheat.

Over the years, the Tomlinson family has built a name for itself largely behind four generations of men. Alfred and his son, Billy, worked together on the farm until Alfred's death. Eli's father, Zan, then came into the picture and the pair continued to expand production.

"I've grown up going with him. I was probably 3 or 4 years old when I was going with him all day, just doing whatever he was doing," Eli said of his father. "As I've gotten older, he's allowed me to do more. Being out there from a young age really helps you learn how to do stuff a lot easier."

For several years, three generations of Tomlinsons worked together. Until his death just over a year ago, one of Billy's dreams was a reality.

"Probably the most pride my daddy had in anything was seeing my son out there running equipment," Zan said. "The year COVID hit, we were running the two planters - I was running one and Eli was running the other one - and Daddy was in his late 70s at the time. He'd call to figure out where we were and park it at the edge of the field and watch us."

Those two men instilled in Eli the importance of hard work and taking pride in everything you do.

"Everybody's dad is their hero, and I would also say that about my dad," Eli said. "Being able to spend that much time with him has been very great for me. I think a lot of people's dads go off to work, and they don't see them until the end of the day. That is true some days when I go off to school and practice, but over the summer when I can be out there working 11-12 hours a day with him, that's really big. It's built a strong relationship.

"My grandpa was a very big role model in my life. If there was anyone that I wished I could be like, it would be him," Eli continued. "He was a very good man, in my eyes, and I strive to be like him. He farmed here pretty much his whole life. If daddy was busy, he would take me out to ride with and just show me what was going on when I was very young. I appreciate those experiences that I have with him."


As Eli was growing up, Zan wanted to make sure his son had the chance to experience life outside of the farm.

"Eli's love of farming is special, no doubt, but - and this was taught to me by my daddy - they have to be kids, too," Zan said. "We've been very supportive of him. If he wants to play a sport, we allow him that opportunity. He's very instrumental in what we do here, but we want him to have those teenage years and enjoy those sports."

Eli grew up playing football, baseball and basketball. Those sporting events were always family affairs.

"I encouraged him to play any and everything because that was my time to get away from the farm," Zan said. "Daddy was always wonderful. If me or my sister had a game, he would shut the tractor down and go to the game. I've tried to do the same thing."

As Eli grew up, baseball and basketball fell by the wayside. He wanted to spend as much time on the farm as possible, but he couldn't quit football.

The senior lineman has a passion for the team aspect of the sport. If one thing goes wrong, everything falls apart. Sharing one goal, especially with 14 other seniors this fall, made him come back every year.

"I love the boys on our team. I think we've got 15 seniors, and probably 10 of them have played together since sixth grade on JV," Eli said. "We've known each other our whole lives, and we get along very well. I think that plays a role in me wanting to be there. If I know these guys have my back, then I'm going to want to be there working just as hard as they are."


Summer is the most difficult season. As the Cavaliers ramp up offseason workouts in the spring, the Tomlinsons plant crops.

"After school, we lift for about an hour and then I come home and get on the tractor somewhere or take seed to someone, just depends what's going on that day," Tomlinson said. "During the summer, we start cutting and we're still planting a little bit. We do a little bit of everything every day. That's what I like about it; it keeps you on your toes."

Early in his high school career, Eli struggled to split his time between the farm and football.

"In ninth grade, I missed more days than the coach allowed. I ended up running some extra sprints that year, so I had to figure it out," Eli said. "In 10th, I might've gone a little over, but in 11th and 12th, I've been at just about everything over the summer, so I've gotten it figured out. It's a whole lot easier now that I have that process down."

Many people saw their lives change in the spring of 2020 when COVID-19 hit, and Eli was no different. That was he transitioned from a son who helped on the farm to being a full member of the team.

"When we went out on spring break, we didn't come back until the next year, so I was doing my schoolwork at night when I'd get home, and I'd get up at 7 in the morning to go to work," Eli said. "Sports and school both kinda took a backseat at that point, and I went full-fledged into working."

After that spring, Eli had to reshape his schedule. With school and football back in the picture, he learned to manage his time, but it wasn't easy. During the summer, Eli regularly woke up early to get a couple of hours of work in on the farm before leaving for 9 a.m. practice. When he got home, he went right back out on the farm. A typical day over the summer saw the senior working as many as 12 hours between the two activities. During the school year, the farm isn't quite as busy, but schoolwork is thrown into the mix.

Timing is also key.

Football practices have set times, and the Cavaliers can't build their schedule around one player. The same can be said for farming.

"It's not like construction. We can't put it off another week and it'll still be there," Zan said. "He understood at an early age that if the farm is depending on me, I've got to make it work."


Lee played Thomas Heyward Academy for two straight state championship games but came out on the wrong end of each contest. This year, the Cavs are out to a 6-0 start and plan to make a run at a third straight championship appearance.

But there have been lows. Outside of COVID, things haven't always been smooth sailing. After playing for a state title in 2020, Lee Academy faced a brutal early season slate last year and got out to a 1-4 start.

"I think it was a reality check," Eli said. "Coming off a high and then getting humbled the next year really helped us to put our heads down and grind for the rest of the year and what was to come."

Two weeks ago, the Cavaliers were set to face Williamsburg Academy for their biggest regular season game of the year. Hurricane Ian moved the game up to Thursday before an illness at Williamburg erased the game entirely.

"From the experiences that we've had in high school, it really shows that you have to stay on your toes because you don't know what will be thrown at you," Eli said. "It helps you realize that nothing is set in stone."

Throughout those ups and downs, Eli has developed into a star player for the Cavaliers. He's been a steady force on the offensive line and shown the ability to take over a game on the defensive side, whether he's playing linebacker or he has a hand in the dirt on the defensive line.

Head coach David Rankin values having an experienced, consistent leader like Eli.

"He's worn the weight room out, and he leads by example," Rankin said. "He doesn't say a whole lot, though every now and then he gets fired up. He's our best offensive lineman and done a great job for us the last couple of years. He's exactly what you want. He's going to work hard and always does everything the right way."

Zan thinks that leadership is something he picked up during his time on the farm.

"Teamwork is important to what we're doing here. Not only our employees, but the people we do business with as far as getting the supplies we need. You have to work together," Zan said. "Him seeing that at this level, he's taken that on and I feel like he's a very good team player in football. Two really go hand in hand."


Eli is focused on finishing his final season of football as the Cavaliers enter Week 8.

While his eyes are set on another championship appearance, that isn't his only measure of success.

"If we don't win them all, as long as we can say we gave it our all, I'll be happy," Eli said.

Eli plans to study agriculture in college. After that, he intends to take over his family farm. Zan is looking forward to the opportunity to hand the reigns to his son one day.

"It's been a real blessing to see him grow up and love to do the same thing I love to do, the same way my daddy did with me," Zan said. "I was able to be not only a business partner and a best friend with my daddy, I was able to work with him every day. It seems like it will continue with Eli. I've not tried to force it on him. By his choice, he wants to come back and continue it on."

There is some pressure that comes with running a farm that bears your family's name, but Eli is excited to be a part of it.

"It's definitely a lot to live up to when you've got three generations who have worked their butt off their whole life to build what you've got going here. It's a lot of pressure, but it also shows what work ethic can get you," Eli said. "It's been a really big part of my life just understanding if you work hard, no matter what your circumstances are, something good can come from that."