As I have stated before, I am a SAN DIEGO Chargers fan who resides all the way from New Jersey. Jersey is a place that is bombarded with obnoxious Jet fans and egotistical Giants supporters. I am often greeted with looks of confusion and bewilderment when I give the response, “I am a Chargers fan.” I don't blame them; it's not like the Chargers are local or one of the popular teams that have won numerous Super Bowls like the 49ers, Steelers, Packers, or Raiders.
I remember the day I became a Chargers fan. I was home with my father on a cold, and dreary October Sunday. My dad, with the ulterior motive of making me a New York Giants fan, sat me down and introduced me to the game of football. We watched a defensive battle between the Chicago Bears and the New York Giants which was somewhat of a bore. I was not impressed. I remember thinking to myself, “I am supposed to like this?” Then something happened.
The afternoon game quickly followed the conclusion of the Bears, and Giants. Dick Enberg welcomed me and the rest of the nation to the second part of the double header between the San Diego Chargers and the Miami Dolphins. I became intrigued by these men with lightning bolts on their helmets (I was young and thought they had cool jerseys). It was a completely different game than the one I saw before. It was quicker, more open, and had more offense. Most importantly, a warrior wearing the number 55 caught my eye. This mad man was all over the field, hunting his prey, and celebrating like a gladiator who just won a death match whenever he made a big play (and he made plenty in that game). That warrior was none other than Junior Seau.
Junior Seau (and the best jerseys in football) is the reason why I became a San Diego fan. However, LaDainian Tomlinson is the reason why I became fanatical with the Chargers. San Diego was on a downward spiral after getting blown out by the 49ers in Super Bowl XXIX. Years later they took some up and coming hot shot quarterback by the name of Ryan Leaf, that was supposed to save the franchise and bring them back to relevance. As we all know by now, Leaf became the biggest draft bust in NFL history and San Diego continued their free fall from grace.
The Chargers were in need of some serious talent and had the first pick of the 2001 draft. Like many, I was enamored with the idea of adding the dynamic Michael Vick that year. But after San Diego traded their first pick to the Atlanta Falcons, I knew it was not meant to be. So with the 5th pick of the 2001 NFL Draft, the San Diego Chargers selected, running back, out of TCU, LaDainian Tomlinson. I didn't know too much about LT then because TCU’s games didn't get much national coverage so I didn't know what to make of the pick.
It didn't take me long to make up my mind on LT. Watching him in his rookie year was something special. He showed that he can single handily carry the offense to some wins despite the poor quarterback play of Doug Flutie. Despite his smaller frame, LT showed that he could be a workhorse as he touched the ball 398 times in his first year.
However, this is not going to be an article where I just spew out a bunch of stats to justify why LaDainian Tomlinson is a top 5 running back of all time and why he deserved to be a first ballot Hall Of Famer. You can google his numbers yourself and see why he will be sporting that gold jacket this weekend.
It was the intangibles that set LT apart from other good running backs like Larry Johnson, Willis McGahee, and Jamal Lewis. Watching Tomlinson play was like watching a beautiful piece of art come to life or the ballet. LT was the perfect combination of strength and finesse. You want to talk about power, then let's talk about Tomlinson’s infamous stiff arm. There are two instances that come to mind that displayed how violent LT could be against opposing defenders. The first was against the Rams, where Tomlinson literally knocked the helmet right off of Rams’ safety, OJ Atogwe with a vicious blow to the head (if you don't know what I'm talking about then you need to google it). The other was in overtime against the Redskins. Tomlinson broke a run and was being pursued by the safety and LT literally threw the player down to the ground by the head with one hand. Both plays had me jumping out of my seat and screaming like Smokey in the movie Friday; “Daaammmmmnnn!!”
But what I really enjoyed about LaDainian, was how smooth of a runner he was. He played with such great anticipation knowing where the hole would be. He paired up his elite vision and feel for the game with his superb athleticism. LT moved like a rabbit and would frustrate defenders with his jump cuts. Tomlinson’s lateral movement was probably the closest thing to Barry Sanders I have ever seen. It was usually these jump cuts that had defenders grasping for air and allowed Tomlinson to take it to the house for six. And if LT couldn't jump around players, he would simply mimic his idle Walter Payton, and jump over them for the score. Yes, I compared his running style to the combination of Walter Payton and Barry Sanders, perhaps the two best running backs of all time.
But there is more to LaDainian than his rushing ability. He was always on the field because he was so versatile. Yes, fans know that he was an effective passer on half back options, but few realize how fantastic he was in pass protection. He always knew his assignment and looked damn good to when he made contact with an oncoming blitzer. Fans take that for granted nowadays because it's not something we see on the stat sheet.
Defenses would have a sigh of relief when they saw LT stay in for protection because they did not want to see him running routes. Tomlinson would amaze me with the routes he ran. I have seen him run go routes up the seam, slant routes, and screen passes better than some wide receivers of the time. The fact that Tomlinson caught 100 balls while rushing for over a 1000 yards in a season is still mind boggling to me. Some elite receivers in the NFL today don't even catch 100 passes.
With all that being said, the thing I loved about Tomlinson the most was his quiet and humble leadership. LT was soft spoken and lead by his play on the field rather than his words on the microphone. He wasn’t a diva like other greats (Randy Moss, T.O., Chris Carter). He just worked as hard as he could so he could put the team on his back to victory. But when push comes to shove, LaDainian showed some passionate leadership to defend himself, his teammates, and the city of San Diego. I applauded his rant against the classless New England Patriots where he called out Bill Belichick and his team for being disrespectful.
The LT years were a great time for my fandom. I loved LaDainian for everything he did for the team I rooted for and I admired how he did it. I remember watching games with my friends as they nervously waited for Tomlinson to crush their team's hopes and aspirations. They had such a defeated and hopeless look in their eyes, and frankly, I loved their fear and enjoyed their jealousness. They wanted someone on their team that could take over the game and give opposing teams a pit in their stomach because they couldn’t even stop him. I had that and am forever grateful for LaDainian Tomlinson for being an elite player and professional. I guess what I am trying to say is, thanks LT for bringing so much joy to my life and being a true role model!