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LaDainian Tomlinson and BFTB

The day before his number gets retired by the San Diego Chargers, we look back at what LaDainian Tomlinson has meant to this blog and community.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Writing for, and running, a blog is a funny thing. Especially for me.

I didn't start Bolts from the Blue, but I became its captain just a few months after it was started. I was 23 years old, and the extent of my writing "experience" was as a contributor/editor for my community college newspaper. My training was an informal one, trying to learn what I could from the written words Bukowski and Tolstoy and Thompson and Leitch and Magary and Ufford get the point.

In the end, I wound up making a lot of mistakes. I feel as though I learned from a lot of them, though, and that I'm a better writer (and blogger) today than I was six years ago. Due to that, it's often hard for me to go back and read some of the older things that I've written on BFTB. However, this is the internet, where nothing dies, so the opportunity is always there for me.

I always remember this article. I can't forget it. I constantly think about it. It was one of the first that I had written, and definitely one of the first that I had done some actual research for. In a way, my "style" of stats-heavy rambling was borne out of this post. It was formed organically, as I tried to prove to people that their perception of "running backs go downhill once they hit the age of 30 years old" was ill-conceived. There was a difference between actual years and "Running Back Years" and I wanted people to read my explanation of that and understand it.

At the end of the day, when I go back and read that article, I cringe. I can see the arguments I was trying to make, but they never really seem to present themselves to the reader. The stats I was using could have been researched and written about in a more clear fashion, as well. Sometimes I think about re-writing that post, and perhaps I should've written it about Danny Woodhead this year (and perhaps I still will), and it's almost entirely because I feel like I owe it to LaDainian Tomlinson to write it better.

I don't want to go into comparing LaDainian Tomlinson and Junior Seau, mostly because I don't know how I could separate the two. They were both incredibly talented players, guys who players better than similar players with similar skillsets because they played with more heart than anybody else. They were both incredible guys away from the field as well, in their own ways.

I never really had my chance to write about Seau as a Charger. He was traded 5+ years before BFTB even started, so everything I wrote was in the glow of a romanticized history. I could live with that. I had to.

However, it has always bugged me that I couldn't write some of my best stuff about LaDainian Tomlinson while his outstanding career with the Chargers was happening. He deserved greatness. The phrase, "They should have sent a poet," comes to mind.

So, instead of wallowing over missed opportunities, I'll use the rest of this post to tell you about the first and last times that I met LaDainian in person...

The First Time

It was 2009. LaDainian was coming off his first "human" season in the NFL. San Diego Chargers Training Camp was in full swing, but something was different about LT. You could tell that he was a different guy, both on and off the field.

His reputation had swung, from that of the league's best RB to a RB on the downside of his career that couldn't hold up to the pounding of a full NFL season. The jokes about him wearing his helmet and his jacket on the sidelines of a playoff game, or about him spending time on the exercise bike instead of the field, were in full force. You could see it on his face. He was frustrated.

After a particularly bad day at practice, where Tomlinson had tripped more than normal and ended up on the ground a handful of times despite tackling being prohibited, I entered the locker room and tried to talk to my favorite athlete of all time. I was shaking. I said my name, I said my affiliation, I requested the interview.


I said my name, and my affiliation, again. The weight of the world pulled LT's face downward into a scowl. He glanced around the room at his teammates as if they were enemies, ready to pounce on the aging king just for a chance to wear his crown. He stayed silent. I knocked him out of his stupor by saying his name.

"Not today, man," was his only response.

I was heartbroken. I was angry. I was young and stupid and filled with pride that was ready to be converted into a bruised ego and rage. I held onto the rage for years, convinced that LT couldn't possibly fir the nice guy image that we had been sold by the media. I had seen the real LaDainian Tomlinson, I told myself, and he was one of the "bad guys".

The Last Time

2015 was my first time on Radio Row at the Super Bowl, but it only took a couple of days to figure out that it's a place where promises go to die.

"I'll stop by at 10am" actually means "I might be somewhere in the area around 11am."

"I'd love to do an interview with you" actually means "If, by some chance, there isn't a bigger show or personality that wants my time, I might be willing to give it to you." It's part of the game (and, actually, part of the fun).

When I got an e-mail saying that LaDainian Tomlinson would be coming by at 10:15am to sit down and talk to me, a Chargers blogger, I didn't believe it. I knew he'd get grabbed along the way by a producer of a bigger show, or a bigger site, and he'd make the call to give his time to the person who could distribute his words to a larger audience.

At 10:10am, I saw LT walking towards me with a crowd of people around him. Not an entourage, they were mostly people asking him if he would come on their show. I won't go into specifics, but some of these bookers work for such high-level shows that you would probably recognize them on the street, and you probably see the host of their radio show on television regularly.

As he got within earshot, I heard him reply to one of these big-name producers by saying, "I have to go over here and talk to this gentleman first." The implication being that he had accepted the offer to be on their massively-popular radio show, but that his scheduled interview with a Chargers blogger was more important in that moment because it had been booked in advance.

The entourage stopped a few feet away, so as not to crowd LT when he got to where I was, and waited for him to finish. He walked up to us, I was sitting with a few other people, and said "Which one of y'all is John?"

He stayed longer than he probably should've. We chatted for about 5 minutes before I started recording, and about 10 minutes after. All in all, he spent nearly a half an hour with me, all while making a super-important person wait on the side for their turn. We talked about the Chargers on and off the record, TCU on and off the record, and a little bit about his family and how they had been covered by the San Diego media. I still have no idea why he trusted me, maybe he trusts everyone, but I know he told me things that I will never tell another person.

The Man

It's weird to boil someone down to what they can do with their body. I've never really understood it entirely. That is to say, I've always had a hard time wearing a jersey with someone else's name on the back.

(Was I pretending I was that person? Was I celebrating who that person is? In the long run, I don't know who that person is. In all likelihood, I've never had a meaningful conversation with the person whose name and representation has now overwhelmed my body. What if they're a bad person? What if they're mean? What if they're cold and ruthless? What if I don't want their wholly existence to represent mine.)

That being said, I'm happy that LaDainian Tomlinson is getting his number retired on Sunday. I'll be wearing my jersey while watching the game from home. I hope to see a lot of LT jerseys in the crowd at Qualcomm Stadium. As a player, and as a man, it's hard to argue that anyone has been more deserving of being represented on your back and shoulders that LT, just like it's hard to argue that anyone has been more deserving of being represented as #21 for the Chargers for the rest of human history.

I'm glad he's getting a chance to be honored as one of the pillars of the franchise before they possibly move to a new market that doesn't have any ties to him at all. I'm glad he's getting a chance to be honored in front of a community that he was a part of for so long, in front of people that knew him both on and off the field. I'm sure that means a lot to him, too.