Most of the world failed to witness that, before retiring Monday, LT was a living legend.
Sometimes, we struggle to witness greatness when it should be most tangible. That is especially true in the world of sports. Names like Jim Brown, Walter Payton, and Earl Campbell become immortalized in the lore of football, rendered superhuman, mythological, and untouchable. They are the stuff of legend –the pinnacle to which those that follow aim to reach. But a name like Ladainian Tomlinson is too new, too fresh. We’ve seen him in his most human moments. Amidst immense success, we’ve also witnessed his failures. He can’t be mentioned amongst the best.
Or can he? Sometimes, greatness deserves a second-look. Tomlinson retired on Monday as a Charger, his signature smile still shining and his someday-legendary legs still free of limp or lameness. That’s more than many can say when they step to that podium. He stood at that podium, on those legs, at the end of a journey that begs the question not if he will make it to the Hall-of-Fame, but when. Where will his legacy stand among the bronze statues that stand tallest in Canton, Ohio?
It’s easy to dismiss the impossible notion of something so new and so fresh touching the legacies of names forever encapsulated in the Mount Rushmore of football. But Tomlinson deserves a second-look. His career, his legacy, and his shining smile deserve to stand tall in the Hall next to the big boys.
There were those who doubted that a running back from the small school of TCU could ever become an NFL star. He fell to fifth in the 2001 Draft, going to a struggling San Diego Chargers team fresh off the Ryan Leaf debacle. They didn’t want another bust. They didn’t want the doubters to be right.
Ladainian Tomlinson didn’t disappoint them.
In his tenure as a Charger, Tomlinson would be named to five pro-bowls and three first-team all-pros. In 2006, at the peak of his excellence, he was named the NFL’s MVP. In his total career, he amassed 13,684 yards at 4.3 yards per carry, 145 rushing touchdowns, 4,772 receiving yards, 17 receiving touchdowns, and over 18,000 total yards from scrimmage. As he stood at that podium on Monday, he did so as a member of the top five in all of the following categories for the entire history of the NFL: career rushing yards, career rushing touchdowns, career touchdowns, and career yards from scrimmage.
The guy can even pass the ball. Over his career, he threw eight completions on twelve attempts, totaling 143 yards, seven touchdowns, and zero interceptions. Eat your heart out, Tim Tebow.
It’s that sort of versatility that makes the career of Ladainian Tomlinson the stuff of legends. His prolific numbers hold their own against those that have come to define the NFL Running Back:
|Name||Career Rushing Yards||Career Receiving Yards||Rushing+Receving Yards|
Of these nine legendary names, Tomlinson ranks fourth in total yards. And guess what all of the other eight names have in common? They’re all in the Hall-of-Fame. And in their time, they were all feared by opposing defensive coordinators. Tomlinson is no different. His dual-threat style of play tore up the AFC year-after-year throughout the 2000s. It would be difficult to choose a running back from his era that was more complete, more dynamic, or more game-changing.
Those with fresh memories and cynical eyes will be quick to point to the two seemingly pointless years that Tomlinson spent in New York after a nasty breakup with San Diego. His swan song was certainly far from Elway’s, going out on a blaze of glory. Instead, Tomlinson ended his career as a role player in the Rex Ryan Circus that is the New York Jets’ franchise. It’s not exactly a Hall-of-Fame end to a stellar start.
Or is it? For one, Tomlinson didn’t exactly disappear as a Jet. He played a role, but he played it well. And once again, the end he faced doesn’t stack up negatively to other Hall-of-Famers who would eventually be inducted into Canton with no questions asked.
This table illustrates the final two seasons of LT and running back legends:
|Name||Rushes||Rush Yds||Rush TDs||Yds/Carry||Rec. Yds||Rec. TDs||Yds from Scrimmage|
In good company, Tomlinson’s final two years seem better than four other sure-fire Hall-of-Famers. On this list, he’s highest in rushing yards, yards per carry, receiving yards, and yards from scrimmage. Many are quick to compare Tomlinson to Marshall Faulk. In the battle of the Swan Song, if nothing else, he reigns supreme.
Detractors of Tomlinson’s legacy will also point to the fact that he didn’t win. They see that lasting image of him, in a Chargers uniform, his visor down, not playing, all while Philip Rivers finishes the game on a damaged ACL. This moment in his career is certainly a stain –a disappearing act when games mattered the most. He leaves the game without a ring or a title to hang his helmet on.
But he isn’t alone. Barry Sanders, O.J. Simpson, and Eric Dickerson never hoisted a Super Bowl trophy, either. Perhaps in basketball you can hold a single man responsible for the fate of his team. There, legends win championships –period. In football, such nonsensical standards are blasphemous.
It would also be blasphemous to dismiss Tomlinson as a player that wasn’t a winner. Yes, the infamous scene of him on the sidelines is a stain on an otherwise spotless résumé’. But make no mistake; without Tomlinson, the Chargers of the 2000s may have never seen the light of day in the playoffs. He carried them there as surely as he carried the ball.
In the four seasons before Tomlinson arrived in San Diego, the Chargers struggled to get off the ground. Between 1997 and 2000, amidst the media circus of Ryan Leaf’s epic collapse, the Chargers secured a record of 18-46. They made it to the playoffs exactly zero times. In their nine years with Tomlinson, the Chargers were 84-60, making the playoffs five times.
And they haven’t been back since. With basically the same cast, minus Tomlinson, the Chargers over the last two years have underachieved. Their record is 17-15, and they’ve failed to make the playoffs both seasons, despite a depleted AFC West. One has to wonder if the fading, but still present, versatility of Tomlinson could have helped them. At this point, it will never go beyond speculation.
For when the Chargers signed Tomlinson this past week, it wasn’t for a reunion on the field. It was goodbye. It was a stitching of old wounds. It was making what was once wrong…right. Tomlinson stood at the podium, still looking young and agile on the feet that had carried him to five pro-bowls, five playoff appearances, and numerous trips to the end zone.
But this time, the lasting image wasn’t a touchdown celebration. It wasn’t a dropped visor on the sideline. It wasn’t lightning bolts and the number 21 streaking ahead of a field of helpless defenders. It was that smile.
Remember that smile. Someday soon, that smile will be likened in bronze, shining in the Hall of Canton. Not long ago, it seemed inevitable that Tomlinson would find the end-zone. Not far from now, it will seem inevitable that Canton will gain its newest living legend.