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Thank You, LaDainian Tomlinson

The San Diego Chargers retired LaDainian Tomlinson's jersey yesterday. Here's a salute to one of the all-time greats.

Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday was strange.

About a month ago I told you that this season can always get worse. Now, at the time I meant that as a pessimistic, visceral reaction to what I was seeing rather than a ulcer -inducing case of precognition.

Yesterday was as bad as it gets.

I don't care what happens the rest of the season. This was the lowest of the low in lowest of seasons.  Not that that means it's getting better any time soon, either.

But it was also as good as it gets.

I won't let the ghosts of Chargers present ruin the glory of Chargers past. Yesterday was awful, yet amazing, unforgivable and yet, unforgettable.

I had the privilege to watch every single one of LaDainian Tomlinson's performances at the Q in person. From his outstanding debut against the Washington Redskins to the playoff loss to the Jets I was there to bear witness to the miracles of LT as devoutly as any pilgrim.

I was nine years old when I first saw him play. A couple of months ago I wrote that my Chargers fanhood, like a lot of you, began with Junior Seau. But it blossomed into this obsessive, compulsive, tormenting, ecstatic addiction because of No. 21.

While the franchise struggled to fight it's way out of the shadow of Ryan Leaf and a 26-54 record from 1996-2000, Tomlinson was, of course, that metaphorical bright light.

There was his walkoff winner in Oakland in 2002 and his 220 yards rushing, 11 catch, 3 touchdown performance against Denver that same year. He proved he could do it all a season later, with his first ever touchdown pass (to Drew Brees) in an 187 yard outing against the Raiders, only to be topped by a career-high 243 yard effort on the ground against those same Raiders in the season finale, where he also recorded his record 100th reception for the season.

There was his coming out party in 2002 against the defending champs, the New England Patriots, a game in which he delivered the game tying and go-ahead touchdown runs, the latter with one of my favorite blocks of all time, courtesy of Tim Dwight.

There was his back-to-back 140-plus yards receiving outings in 2003 against the Lions and the Packers and his career high 13 receptions against the Cardinals in his rookie season.

And that's just the first three seasons.

There were jukes and jumps. Lateral hop cuts, shimmies, shakes, and stiff arms.

Somewhere, Ty Law is still looking for his jockstrap, O.J. Atogwe his helmet, and Ryan Clark a doctor to remove that hand-sized bruise from his chest.

It took time and six  frustrating seasons - during which the Chargers have gone 44-46 - for me to fully appreciate what we had in LT (who led the Chargers to a 67-29 record in his final six seasons in San Diego).

Yes he was humble. And transcendent. And dominant and endearing. He was passionate and powerful, effortless and evocative. He was spectacular, sensational, San Diegan, and, as Schottenheimer once acknowledged, superlative-exhausting.

For all of that, he is, far and away, my favorite Charger of all time.

But more than any of that, LT was hopeful.

Before 31 TDs, AFC West domination and the emergence of the likes of Drew Brees, Antonio Gates, Lorenzo Neal, Shawne Merriman, Philip Rivers, and the rest, there was LT slogging away behind the likes of Fred McCrary, Jason Ball and Toniu Fonoti. And, even though the team might only win four or five games, there was hope.

If you haven't already go ahead and spend an hour or two watching LT highlights on YouTube, from before 2004 if you can find them, to remind yourself what that feels like - and just how special 21 was.

Because it's going to be a while before we feel that way again.

And that's partly why yesterday was so strange.

Back in LT's first three seasons he was beacon, something to hold onto as San Diego clawed back to respectability. Now, we sit and watch the twilight of Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates' careers slip away as the Chargers fade back into irrelevance.

It's somewhat fitting that LT's retirement came in a 33-3 loss to a divisional rival during one of the worst seasons. Even in retirement, No. 21 still finds a way.

But I didn't want to write this piece because of how little hope there is for the future (there is some, I promise!).

Instead, I just wanted to thank one of the all time greats for giving so much.

Thank you LaDainian for giving my dad and I so many memories. Thank you for the head-shakingly, can't help but smile, how in the hell did he do that? moment upon moments, play upon plays you produced week in and week out.

Thank you for an attitude, an identity, a culture, and relevance.

Thank you for 13 straight, all 148, and 153.

Thank you for the up-and-over, the "watch this's" and "there he goes!".

Thank you for the hair-raisers and the heartbreaks.

But most of all, thank you for the hope.