None of it happened by accident. None of the gaudy numbers we now expect from LaDainian Tomlinson. But if you didn't see it coming, you're not alone. He sneaked past a lot of folks through the years. In high school, he was the top running back in Texas, yet the venerable minds at the Longhorn U. looked at his relatively slight 5'10" frame and deemed him too small for college football's elite. Instead, he became a Horned Frog at little ol' Texas Christian, and he collected more yards in Division 1-A (5,263) than all but five collegiate runners ever.
And, Lord, did he sneak right past the Atlanta Falcons. They were so enamored with a certain running QB out of Virginia Tech they traded their No. 5 first-round pick (plus a second, a third, and wide receiver Tim Dwight) for the top pick overall, which belonged to the San Diego Chargers. ATL used it to select Michael Vick, and, well, that didn't turn out so well, did it? L.T. didn't slip past the Chargers, though, and now, in his seventh NFL season, he no longer slips past anyone—except the guys wearing the opposition's colors. He's the top rusher in football today, the running back of our age. He's our Jim Brown, our Barry Sanders, our Emmitt Smith. With more than 9,100 rushing yards coming into this season, Tomlinson is the top pick in everyone's fantasy draft; he's also on track to become the game's most prolific runner ever, surpassing Smith. Tomlinson's 31 touchdowns and 186 points in 2006 are already in the record book, and the 2006 MVP award is sitting at his mom's house back in Texas.
Off the field, he is still relatively slight (compared with the typical NFL behemoth) and unassuming, though he's now a sculpted 221 pounds. His locker at the team's campus-like practice facility sits in a dimly lit corner. Sandwiched between safety Marlon McCree on the left and cornerback Cletis Gordon to the right, Tomlinson can go all but unnoticed amid the cacophony of a post-practice locker room with booming beats, trash talk, and various parts of sweat-soaked uniforms flying about. "He's always been that way," says Chargers cornerback Quentin Jammer, a fellow Texan who sits two lockers away and has known L.T. since high school. "He's not a rah-rah guy, but he speaks when he needs to speak."
Are the Chargers asking so much that they might need even more from their star behind the mask this season, when anything short of reaching the Super Bowl will be considered a failure? The 2006 season ended ugly for San Diego. Hosting a divisional playoff game against New England, the Chargers, undone by conservative play-calling and untimely mistakes, lost 24–21. But that wasn't even the ugliness: After the final gun, a few Patriots began celebrating on the Chargers turf, mimicking the "Light Out" dance made famous by San Diego linebacker/beast Shawne Merriman. Incensed, L.T., who had rushed 23 times (clearly not enough) for 123 yards and two TDs, stomped angrily into a scrum of boisterous Patriots, yelled some not- so-congratulatory words, then stormed away. He shook no one's hand as he left the field. Later, he told reporters, "I would never, never react in that way. They showed no class, absolutely no class, and maybe that comes from the head coach."
Six months later, sitting in the shade beyond bright afternoon skies after a preseason practice, Tomlinson says he has only one regret about his behavior that day. "If I had it to do again, I'd handle it the same way because this game is about the respect you have for your opponents and your teammates," he says. "When you cross the line and disrespect your opponent by celebrating on the field and dancing in the middle of that field, you also disrespect the fans and everybody watching. At some point, there are little kids who are wishing to be us and who'll go out and act like that. Do you know what I mean? It becomes a ripple effect.
"The only thing I really regret is that I called Bill Belichick out, because when you think about it, he didn't have anything to do with that situation. But [former Chargers coach] Marty [Schottenheimer] always told us, 'Don't disrespect these guys,' so I feel like it's the coach's job to handle that." Tomlinson says he approached Belichick at the Pro Bowl in Honolulu following the post- season and the two men worked it out.