Despite bitter breakup, Tomlinson retires in SD

Despite bitter breakup, Tomlinson retires in SD

Published Jun. 18, 2012 12:46 p.m. ET

SAN DIEGO, CA — In a move as improbable as some of the dazzling, game-changing runs he used to make as one of pro football’s greatest backs, LaDainian Tomlinson came home to retire.

After a bitter split with the San Diego Chargers in 2010 and two mediocre years as a member of the New York Jets, LT signed a one-day contract to return to the scene of his greatest glories to hang ‘em up and start the countdown to his probable election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“I’m 33 years old,” said the NFL’s fifth all-time leading rusher, “and it was just time for me to move on. As a running back, to try and play at a high level at age 33 is pretty difficult. Physically I can do it — I’m still in great shape. But mentally you have to be in it, focused on your craft every single day, and that drains you more than anything.”

At this media gathering, there were no barbs from General Manager A.J. Smith, no perceived criticisms from former teammates, no more charges that he didn’t give his all during a playoff game; just a day of celebration for an athlete who ranks with Hall of Famers Lance Alworth and Dan Fouts of the Chargers and the Padres’ Tony Gwynn as the greatest performers in San Diego history.

When you remember how Tomlinson left San Diego — criticizing management, teammates and fans — a day like this would have been impossible to imagine. It was a bitter breakup, even though Tomlinson now says it was just part of moving on in the NFL.

“At the time,” Tomlinson said, “any athlete you always press forward; you never look back. That’s the way I always handled things. And to be honest with you…there were never any hard feelings with anybody.

“The guys that I played with — Philip (Rivers), Antonio (Gates), all the guys I played with — we always went out on the field and always had the same goal: trying to win a championship. And we worked our butts (off). That was our goal. When I left, I didn’t look at them any different. I still loved these guys. I watched them; paid attention to them as much as I could.”

He did admit, though, that after some of the statements he made, he could understand why people would think his departure was acrimonious.

“Absolutely,” he said forcefully. “Anytime you move on to another team you’re trying to bond with a new group of teammates. But I do understand how it could come off like that, because people knew me as a Charger. It was kind of hard to move past that because I was on a new team — way over on the East Coast. Obviously, the East Coast media is a lot (tougher) than the West Coast media."

The problems for the 2006 Most Valuable Player actually began just a year after he set the NFL record for most rushing touchdowns in a season with 28.

2007 was his second consecutive year leading the league in rushing and he was considered by many to be the best football player alive. But when he strained a knee ligament after just a few plays in the AFC Championship game against New England, he sat out the remainder of the contest. TV cameras constantly showed him sitting alone on the bench, appearing to hide under his helmet and a large jacket while his team was losing to the Patriots. It didn’t help that QB Philip Rivers played the game with a knee that later needed surgery. Public perception quickly turned against the team’s most popular player, even when Coach Norv Turner vehemently defended Tomlinson, saying that the doctors told him he couldn’t go back into the game.

Things then disintegrated beyond repair the next year.

In 2008, while the Chargers and LT were trying to re-work his contract, he wrote on his website: “I feel that I need to make it very clear that I have NO intentions of leaving San Diego. San Diego is where my career started and where I want it to end. I have nothing but love and the utmost respect for this team, the players and the Spanos family. Me being traded is completely out of my hands. I have ABSOLUTELY no control in that decision making. All I can do is wait and see how it all plays out. As for now I am a Charger and will be until I am told otherwise.”

Instead of issuing a routine “We’re trying to work out a deal with LT and hope he can stay with the Chargers for the rest of his career” statement, the acerbic Smith mocked Tomlinson when he told reporters: “My first reaction is that we both have similar feelings. I have no intention of leaving San Diego. San Diego is where my GM career started and where I’d like it to end. I also have nothing but love and the utmost respect for this team, the players and the Spanos family. I have absolutely no control over how long I will be with the Chargers.”

Certainly not tactful for the general manager of a professional sports organization, and it clearly signaled that the team was just going through the motions in trying to work out a long-term deal with its all-time leading rusher. Smith said later that he wasn’t making fun of LT or light of the situation, but the damage had already been done.

Once the 2009 season ended, Tomlinson was released, and expressed a hope of coming back to the Chargers to finish his career when and if Smith was no longer employed by the team.

Tomlinson didn’t exactly handle his departure and signing in New York with the class expected of him, either.

He was always known for being brutally honest about his feelings, and instead of showing some of the tact that he accused Smith of ignoring, LT ripped the Chargers, saying the Jets were the best organization he’d ever played for. According to newspaper reports in San Diego and New York, he took some shots at the San Diego fans, saying the New York crowd was better. He even criticized the Chargers offensive line, partly responsible for making him into one of the most feared runners in the game.  Rivers and others intimated that the Charger locker room was a happier place with LT gone, and it seemed that Tomlinson was a distant part of the team’s past and would remain that way.
However, as quickly as matters turned sour, they swung back 180 degrees due to a tragedy that shook up the Charger family, past and present—the suicide death of Junior Seau.

The Spanos family sponsored a celebration of Seau’s life at Qualcomm Stadium, and Tomlinson was one of the speakers. The crowd went wild as he approached the microphone, chanting his initials, and showing that all had been forgiven, paving the way for Monday’s ceremony at Chargers’ Park.

‘When L.T. called me a few weeks ago and said he’d like to retire as a Charger, I was very touched and very honored,” team president Dean Spanos said at the news conference. “He will always be a Charger to me and all the fans here in San Diego.”