The awards have come in bunches for LaDainian Tomlinson over the years, and so have the records and compliments.
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He thinks that’s all nice and he’s proud of what he has accomplished in 10 outstanding NFL seasons. It’s what he hasn’t done that creeps into his mind during those quiet moments.
”I just want to feel what it feels like to get there and win a championship, so I can tell my kids someday that I’ve been through every situation and done every single thing that a guy can possibly do in his career, and be happy about it,” the New York Jets running back said Friday. ”I don’t want to be like, `Well, I was MVP one year and led the league in rushing and touchdowns and all this kind of stuff, but sorry, I never felt what it feels like to win a championship or get to the Super Bowl.”’
Tomlinson was agonizingly close last season, his first in New York. But, he went home disappointed after the Jets lost 24-19 to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC championship game. That makes him 0 for 2 in big games before the Big Game, and it took him about a month to get over the last loss.
”Every year, it gets longer to deal with, especially when you’re in the playoffs and get as close as we got,” Tomlinson said, ”mainly because you don’t know if you’re going to get that shot again. You really don’t know.”
Tomlinson is 32 and no longer the lightning-quick gamechanger he was just a few years ago. The one thing he knows, though, is the end of the road – at least in his mind – is not close.
”What I don’t want to do is retire too early and still have that fire,” he said. ”You’re going to have that fire anyway because we’ve been doing it for so long, but I don’t want to have that urge, that emptiness where I just feel like, `Man, I just didn’t get it out of me.”’
But is New York his final football destination?
”I would hope so, I really would, honestly,” Tomlinson said. ”But I will say this is not the last year I will play football. I hope I continue to play here, but this won’t be my last year playing.”
Tomlinson came to the Jets after a brilliant run with the San Diego Chargers that ended on a sour note. He was rejuvenated with the Jets, particularly early, and led the team with 914 yards rushing. He slowed down as the season wore on and Shonn Greene became the primary running back.
That caused some to doubt whether Tomlinson would return to play out the final season of his two-year deal or be released, just as some other popular veterans have. Tomlinson believed he’d be back all along.
”I felt like I played well enough where I added value to this team, and that was my whole mindset,” he said. ”There was something I could offer here that would make them want to bring me back.”
But beyond this season is unclear. Tomlinson has a Chargers lightning bolt tattooed on one calf with ”2001-09” under it. On the other is a Jets logo with ”2010-” – and he hopes that blank doesn’t have to be filled in anytime soon.
”I’ve got a pretty good judge of that feeling you kind of have to have where you say, OK, it’s time,”’ Tomlinson said. ”A lot of that depends on situations. The team situation and your role and where you fit in in the situation, so a lot of that will depend on that, I’m sure.”
Tomlinson already has accepted a reduced role as a third-down running back behind Greene, and that suits him just fine. Quarterback Mark Sanchez has referred to Tomlinson as his ”security blanket,” the guy he can dump the ball off to when he’s in trouble and let him make a play.
”I always saw myself as I got later in my career, this is what I wanted to do,” he said. ”Obviously, in order to take a role like this, you can’t have an ego. That’s not what it’s about for me. Like I said last year, I wanted to come in and have a role and I was hoping that would be my role last year, but it just didn’t shake out like that. I think that’s the way it’ll be this year, and I’m looking forward to it.”
Sure, he might not be the same L.T. that set an NFL record with 28 touchdown runs in 2006 and was the league MVP. But the Jets think he still has plenty of football left in him.
”We know he does,” coach Rex Ryan said. ”He had almost 1,000 yards rushing last year, played great in the playoffs, so we know he’s definitely got a lot left in the tank. I just think his role now is being primarily a third-down back where he doesn’t have to take the grind of being a first and second-down back, on a down-after-down basis, will be good for him.”
Tomlinson also accepted a pay cut so the team can work under the salary cap and sign more players to help win that elusive championship. He said it was a chance for him to show how much of a leader he can be with his actions.
”I think that’s the bonus plan,” Ryan said. ”You get a guy that has so much more to give.”