There comes a time in life when we all realize that we’re not as young as we once were. Unfortunately, this also happens in the sports world, that time when an athlete realizes he can longer run, catch, pass or jump like he once could and now it’s time to hang it up and begin a new chapter as a former player.
Well, former TCU star running back LaDainian Tomlinson, or “LT” as everyone calls him, has reached that point. After 11 seasons in the NFL, he will retire this week where it all started for him, in San Diego with a one-day contract that allows him to call it quits as a Charger, where he did his best work as a pro between 2001 and 2009.
Of course, he is a Waco native who burst onto the national scene as a senior at TCU, when he led the nation with 2,158 yards rushing and also scored 22 touchdowns, earning the Doak Walker Award, given annually to the nation’s top running back and finishing fourth in the balloting for the Heisman Trophy.
But his impressive list of accomplishments for the Horned Frogs proved to be only the beginning for this durable back. His impact with the Bolts was immediate as he ran for 1,236 yards and 10 touchdowns as a rookie for a San Diego team that finished 5-11 under then-head coach Mike Riley. He also earned a trip to the Pro Bowl as a rookie, the first of five trips he’d make to the Aloha State during his career.
Tomlinson followed that up by rushing for 1,683 yards and 14 touchdowns his sophomore campaign in the NFL and also caught 79 passes, which was then a career-high. He also carried the ball 372 times, which remains the most carries he’s had in a single season. With each passing year in San Diego, not only did he firmly establish himself as one of the top running backs in the entire league, but he also showcased his ability to catch passes out of the backfield, something he didn’t do a whole lot of during his time in Fort Worth.
In fact, it was in 2003, just his third year in the league, that he caught 100 passes for the first and only time in his NFL career. He also ran for 1,645 yards and 13 scores that year for the Bolts, but his value as a receiver was always something that was a bit undersold by many when discussing why he was one of the top backs in the league during the prime of his career.
However, his best season came in 2006, when he ran for 1,815 yards, scored an NFL-record 31 touchdowns and caught 56 passes, earning NFL MVP honors. This was when LT also won the first of two NFL rushing titles. He followed that up by winning a second straight rushing title in 2007, when he scampered for 1,474 yards but after running for just 1,110 yards in 2008 and 730 in 2009 as he got fewer and fewer snaps, it was clear his body had taken an incredible beating and that he wasn’t the same player he was earlier in his career.
Once he suffered an ankle injury in the ’09 opener and missed the next two games, it seemed like the die was cast and his time as a Charger might be coming to an end. And even when that belief turned into reality and San Diego decided they didn’t want him anymore after the ’09 season, Tomlinson handled the whole situation with nothing but professionalism and sheer class. He cast aside any personal ill will he might have felt toward Bolts’ General Manager A.J. Smith, instead choosing to take the high road and eventually ended up with a two-year deal to play for the New York Jets.
In 2010, his first year with the J-E-T-S, Tomlinson nearly cracked the 1,000-yard barrier for a ninth time in his career, but in the end fell 60 yards short. Still, his comeback season was a great story and showed he might not yet be done. But he entered last season as New York’s third-down back and was also there to help mentor starter Shonn Greene. LT finished last season with 730 yards on 75 carries, but it was clear his time in the league was nearing an end. So, over the weekend, news came out that he was going to sign a one-year deal with San Diego and retire a Charger, the way a career like his should end.
All told, it was an impressive career, one where he leaves the game the holder of numerous franchise and NFL records, as someone who ran for at least 1,000 yards in eight of his 11 seasons in the league. Tomlinson also currently ranks the fifth-leading rusher in NFL history. His legacy is definitely secure as one of the finest running backs ever to play the game and it won’t be a huge shock to see him be a first ballot Hall of Famer when he first goes up for consideration five years from now.
He was also incredibly durable during his 11 seasons in the league, sure he did miss three games due to an ankle injury in 2009 with San Diego, but for the most part, this was a guy who was there to answer the bell each and every time it was rung. That’s definitely saying something in today’s NFL, especially at a position like running back where even the most durable guys can be chewed up and spit out after just a few productive seasons pounding the rock.
LT’s impact on fans was immeasurable, not only for those who cheered him on who went to TCU or those who backed the Bolts or the Jets, but also those fantasy football players who had him as cornerstones of their teams during his prime. It’s a safe bet he’ll always hold a special place in their heart since he likely helped many of them win their leagues and possibly a nice chunk of change and bragging rights in the process.
On a personal note, this writer had the unique opportunity to shuttle Tomlinson around when he won the Doak Walker Award in January 2001. Not only did I find him to be as humble and affable as any athlete I have ever come in contact with, but even then one could see in the way he handled himself with fans and media that he was definitely a guy who got it in terms of not taking himself too seriously and realizing truly how blessed he was to be playing the same game he loved for a career.
His No. 5 jersey at TCU has already been retired and it’s very likely his No. 21 with the Chargers will also be retired at some point this year or maybe next. So, from all football fans from Texas and around the nation who had the honor of watching you play either in college or in the pros, thanks for the memories, LT. Your businesslike approach to the game and sheer grace with how you handled yourself, even in the twilight of your career only heightened your already considerable appeal. There won’t be another one like you in the NFL for some time. We’ll see you at Canton in 2017 or 18.