The last time that running back LaDainian Tomlinson held his No. 21 Chargers jersey in his hand, the prize ball carrier was filled with mixed emotions of gratefulness and anger.
Gratefulness because of the opportunities given by the San Diego Chargers to perform on a high level in the NFL and anger due to not being able to finish his football playing in San Diego.
Tomlinson retired from the NFL Monday and despite spending the past two seasons with the New York Jets, he returned to his former team to sign a one-day contract with all smiles, as he will be forever remembered as a Charger, especially in Canton.
“This is a special, special day for me, just as it is for all Chargers fans,” said Chargers President Dean Spanos. ”Few players, if any, have meant more to this franchise than LT. He was the heart and soul of this team through one of the most successful decades in our history.”
“I couldn’t wait to watch him play because I knew I would see something special every week,” he added. “And that’s what he gave all of us: special memories we’ll carry with us forever. And being here with him on the day he came into this league and the day retired is extra special.”
L.T. leaves the game as the NFL’s ifth all-time leading rusher with 13,684 career yards and the game’s third-most prolific scorer with 162 career touchdowns (second-most rushing touchdowns in NFL history with 145, behind Emmitt Smith’s 164).
The Texas native was the face of the Chargers’ organization during nine seasons in San Diego (2001-09). Tomlinson either set or tied a total of 28 team records, including marks for career rushing yards, rushing touchdowns in a single-season and total touchdowns.
For great professional athletes, walking away from the game they love is never an easy decision. Tomlinson was no exception as he struggled with his decision this offseason.
Nevertheless, the once most versatile back in the NFL made his best move on a high note with no significant injury.
“I feel really good about this,” said Tomlinson. “Obviously for months I went back and forth on retiring. When I finally made the decision to retire, I knew it was the right thing to do. I came to realize that I’ve been very fortunate. I’m going to be 33 years old and never had a serious concussion or anything like that. At this point, I’m taking a big risk going back out there at 33 years old, possibly blowing my knee out or something like that. Now, I’m walking around good and will be for the rest of my life.”
Slide over Lance Alworth, Dan Fouts, Don Coryell and Kellen Winslow to make room for Tomlinson for he is one of the most decorated Chargers in franchise history.
Tomlinson was the Associated Press’ NFL Most Valuable Player and Offensive Player of the Year in 2006, the same year he was named the Walter Payton co-NFL Man of the Year and the runner-up as the AP’s Male Athlete of the Year.
He was a five-time Pro Bowl selection, a three-time first-team All-Pro, a two-time second-team All-Pro and runner up for the AP’s Offensive Rookie of the Year Award in 2001. Tomlinson was named by his teammates as the Chargers Most Valuable Player and Offensive Player of the Year five times.
With the résumé this TCU great has established in the NFL, the question of whether he should enter the Hall of Fame has already been answered.
“Some guys you watch play and say, ‘I wonder if he will wind up in the Hall of Fame?’ LT answered that question a long time ago,” said Chargers Executive Vice President and General Manager A.J. Smith. “He is one of the greatest and most versatile running backs to ever play the game. He helped this organization return to relevancy in the NFL and gave all of us a lot of exciting moments we’ll remember forever.”
In 2002, Tomlinson shattered team records with 1,683 rushing yards and 2,172 total yards from scrimmage. He ranked second in the NFL in rushing and third in yards from scrimmage. His 15 total touchdowns placed him sixth in the NFL. L.T. remembers the 2002 campaign well.
“You know what sticks out to me? It’s the overtime run in Oakland because that was our breakthrough,” said Tomlinson. “That was our breakthrough. Even though it was in ’02 it sticks out to me like it was yesterday. I remember the guys were so excited. In fact, that day, we probably ran that same play at least 40 times and they couldn’t stop us.”
Tomlinson caught a team-record 100 passes and became the first player in league history to rush for 1,000 yards and catch 100 passes in the same season in 2003. He racked up 2,370 total yards from scrimmage, second-most in NFL history behind Marshall Faulk’s 2,429 in 1999.
“I have a great relationship with L.T. He’s a guy who isn’t too bashful,” said Hall of Fame running back, now NFL analyst for the NFL Network Marshall Faulk. “He wasn’t afraid to ask for help to seek out the things he felt necessary to make his game better. A lot of guys can learn from that.”
“L.T. looked at people within the game who were doing things he felt like he wanted to improve on within his game, and he would call and ask about those things,” he added. “His ability to lead was amazing. His dedication to wanting to make San Diego a championship-caliber team is a testament to the man and the kind of commitment that he gave to the team.”
“He and how he played the game is the last of ‘us’ at the running back position: a guy who could do it all, an every-down (back), can go the distance, can get the tough yards, and was reliable regardless of where he was on the field. I’m happy he had his success,” he continued.
Tomlinson became just the eighth player to post consecutive seasons with 2,000 or more scrimmage yards.
Among his individual game accomplishments in 2003 were a pair of 200-yard rushing performances, the third and fourth of his career, which tied him with legendary backs in Sanders, Jim Brown and Earl Campbell for the second-most in league history behind O.J. Simpson’s six.
“It was great playing with L.T. That’s my big brother,” said New Orleans Saints running back and former teammate Darren Sproles. “I really learned how to be a pro from him; how to take care of my body and how to study film on my opponent. I have been blessed to come into the NFL and learn from one of the best every-down backs of all time.”
Tomlinson’s final two seasons in San Diego saw him achieve even more milestones. In 2008 he reached 15,000 career scrimmage yards, doing so faster than any other player in league history and he reached 11,000 career rushing yards faster (117 games) than every back except Hall of Famers in Sanders (115), Brown (107) and Eric Dickerson.
“I was fortunate to be with L.T. his rookie year,” said Chargers head coach Norv Turner. “It was very evident that he was going to be a great player, a complete player with good fortune. He was going to have the career he had. There have been very few players in the NFL who have meant as much to their team than LT did during his career here.”
“In particular, his MVP season in 2006,” he added. “It would be hard to find a back that led the league in rushing and caught over 100 balls in separate seasons. It speaks volumes for his abilities and what he was capable of doing.”
Many believed that Tomlinson had nothing left in the tank and he wanted to prove that he could perform on a high level even at the age of 30. The Jets gave him that opportunity and he played his final two NFL seasons (2010-11) in New York.
In 2010, he helped lead Gang Green to the AFC Championship Game after rushing for 914 yards and six scores in the regular season. In 2011, he saw his touches drop and Tomlinson totaled 729 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns.
“I think right from when LaDainian burst on the scene as a rookie, he had a major impact,” said Jets head coach Rex Ryan. “Clearly, he’s one of the all-time great, first-ballot Hall-of-Fame backs. This guy was so consistent throughout his career right up until the end. He was a dominant performer. He could play all three downs.”
“He could do it all—a great receiver out of the backfield, obviously a great runner inside, great runner outside and could pass block,” he added. “We were fortunate to get him at the end of his career, but he was still outstanding. He still had that great wiggle. (He) almost gained 1,000 yards the first year he came here and he would have had we played him in that last game.”
“However, to his credit, he was like, ‘No, I would like to be rested for the playoffs.’ Then he turned in a great performance in that first playoff game in particular,” he continued. “He was a great guy to have, a tremendous leader, and I feel very fortunate and blessed to have coached him.”
Tomlinson became just the fifth player in NFL history to rush for more than 10,000 yards and catch 500 career passes.
He became the first player to score 10 or more touchdowns in each of his first eight NFL seasons. And he became just the third player in league history to rush for at least 1,000 yards in each of his first eight seasons.
In 2005, the man known affectionately as “LT” had his jersey retired at TCU and in 2009 he was inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame.
After an unbelievable NFL career, Tomlinson will have his jersey and name immortalized in Canton when he is enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 2017.
“People and players like LaDainian Tomlinson don’t come around very often, if at all,” said Jets Chairman and CEO Woody Johnson. “His humility and work ethic made it clear why he will be remembered as one of the game’s best players. Without question, his next stop will be the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”