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.
After spending some time with Tomlinson, you wouldn't be surprised at his outburst, his steadfastness, or even his act of reconciliation. He comes, as they say down Texas way, from good people. Good stock. People who do what needs to be done—no matter how it looks to outsiders—to take care of their loved ones. Like too many young black athletes, Tomlinson was raised almost solely by his mother, Loreane. She was a preacher, and she worked multiple jobs to feed her three children. But that's where the cliché ends. His father, Oliver, was a stranger during Tomlinson's youth, yet the two men got acquainted when L.T. reached college and they became friends. In time, when he was ready to know, L.T. grew to understand why Oliver did what he did. "It was a difficult situation because he'd been with a woman who wasn't his wife and had children with her before he married my mother," Tomlinson says. "I never understood why he left or why he was back and forth. But as I got older, [he told me] he felt they needed him more. My mom was a strong, independent woman, and she could handle it. The other [woman] wasn't, so he had to be there. Later, I understood that's what it took to care for his family, to be there for them no matter what."
In February, Oliver was killed in an auto accident that also took the life of Tomlinson's brother-in-law. L.T. is glad he had the opportunity to get to know his father and thankful for the lessons he imparted. "He stressed that a real man is always there for his family when he's needed," Tomlinson says, adding after a heavy pause, "I'm that guy now."
If Tomlinson inherited his sense of family from his father, then the roots of his legendary work ethic are purely maternal. "From my mom, I learned about hard work," he says. "The things you have to do to be successful in life, the sacrifices you have to make, the dedication you have to have. Just seeing her work two jobs with three kids by herself—at a young age I understood what she was going through. She always told me, 'If you really want something, no one's going to give it to you. You have to earn it.'"
Think Walter Payton or Jerry Rice, two NFL icons whose rigorous off-season workouts were known to make teammates puke. Tomlinson is right there; just ask any Charger who has worked out with him. Although his commitment to his body is a given for someone who aspires to greatness (he makes no secret of his desire to become the NFL's all-time rushing leader), Tomlinson's overall regimen—an intense year-round program so refined his weight rarely fluctuates more than six pounds— is really equal parts sweat and science. "I know my body well," he says. "I know exactly what I need to do and when to get in shape, and it's taken me every bit of time to this point to find that out. But now I know what weight I play best at, at what weight I feel good, where I feel the strongest and quickest, and all the things that it takes to survive in this league." Much of that knowledge was culled while spending time with three of the greatest running backs in NFL history—Smith, Sanders, and Brown—who mentored him on everything from nutrition and training to self-preservation.
"Emmitt taught me how to take care of my body. He talked about building my team—people who help you stay strong and healthy." And as Smith counseled, L.T. has created Team Tomlinson: Trainer Todd Durkin is at the hub of a group that includes a nutritionist who prepares almost all Tomlinson's meals, a massage therapist, and a doctor specializing in Active Release Techniques, which is an advanced form of soft-tissue and muscle manipulation that restores areas of the body damaged by injury or repetitive motion—or 16 weeks of pounding and 400 to 500 violent hits per season by waves of 200-plus-pound guys with bad intentions. And despite all the bruises and muscle-tissue hemorrhaging, Tomlinson must be ready to play every Sunday, says Chargers running back coach Matt Simon. Add Father Time to the equation, and it's easy to see that football is not at all kind to the body.
As with other players, Tomlinson's most rigorous training occurs during the off-season, when the body must prepare for the all-out physical attacks of the regular season. His workouts start a couple of weeks following the last game and at first focus on rebuilding damaged areas. "You get broken down, and you get weak," he says. "So you start with the basics: core, hips, and shoulders. Then you move on to the more functional stuff like building strength."
Durkin, a local trainer who had worked with several Chargers, began working with Tomlinson individually in 2003. Durkin's area of emphasis is "joint integrity," which is based on the notion that optimum physical performance cannot be achieved if the body is not properly aligned. To assess his client's symmetry, some of the first exercises he had Tomlinson perform back then were balance moves requiring him to stand on one leg and pick up objects from the floor. Simple enough, right? Well, at that time, Durkin says L.T. was Baryshnikov on one side, a klutz on the other—something the team immediately set out to rectify. Why was Tomlinson's balance critical?
"Because it affects everything he does, in the gym and on the field," says Durkin. "Improper alignment means a player will unconsciously favor his stronger side, and tend to run in that direction when forced to make a cut. Any defensive coach will spot that and devise a defense to exploit it." After UT passed on Tomlinson, he became the fifth-best runner in Division I-A history at TCU; last season, Tomlinson didn't appreciate the Patriots' post-playoff victory antics on the Chargers' turf, and he told them about it; now Tomlinson hopes the Chargers will be celebrating in February.
In time, Tomlinson was able to do the exercises with equal dexterity, and he says the change has had an impact on the field. "I used to get knocked to the ground pretty easily when I got hit," Tomlinson says. "Now, I feel like I can keep my feet."
From the beginning, his 90-minute workouts with Durkin have seemed medieval. The trainer works Tomlinson from his toes (many exercises are performed barefoot) to his fingertips with a series of exercises that are based on movement, flexibility, functionality, core conditioning, and strength. There's a lot of jumping and balancing between BOSU balls, often while catching a medicine ball or football. "Football is a movement game," says Tomlinson. "You don't lie down, like you're on a bench press, and tackle somebody. Skill players want to be quick, strong, and agile, so you don't need to do a lot of heavy lifting, not all the time."
Of course, weight training is part of L.T.'s regimen: dumb- bell power cleans, bench, and shoulder work. He does not lift maximum weights (his max bench in college was 405; now he lifts about 330), but he completes up to five sets of four quick reps—mimicking football's 10- to 15-second bursts. "I don't focus on maxing out anymore," Tomlinson says. "Back in college, we were building ourselves up, so we had to max. Now I'm not trying to get big. I just want to feel strong."
During the off-season, Tomlinson's week looks like this:
MONDAY A day to loosen up. Emphasis on core training with Durkin, jump squats, split squats, exercises with medicine ball (throwing and bouncing).
TUESDAY Weight training, as outlined above, under the supervision of Charger strength coaches Jeff Hurd and Vernon Stephens.
WEDNESDAY Pilates and stretching. "As much as we all do to prepare ourselves to play, it still puts a strain on our bodies," Tomlinson says. "Without stretching, the muscles get tight, and when you get hurt in one part of your body, it's usually because you were tight somewhere else. Stretching may be boring, but it's the most important part of working out."
THURSDAY Weights again.
FRIDAY Upper- and lower-body training with Durkin. "A really tough day," says Tomlinson, who follows this workout with a deep-tissue massage.
THE WEEKEND Recuperate.
Two years ago, Tomlinson would not have used those days to rest. He would have run stairs or found some other way to drive himself. Not coincidentally, the only NFL game he's missed came during the 2004 season, after an off-season when he would not listen to reason. "You learn," he says, "that your body needs to recover, too."
During the season, Tomlinson and Durkin work together more sporadically, with an emphasis on stretching and movement exercises with the medicine ball.
That's why 2006 was no accident. Not the career-high 1,815 yards or 28 rushing TDs, 10 more than he'd earned in any previous season. Until then, Tomlinson still largely slipped by all but the most savvy football fans. Indeed, in an age characterized by the flamboyant and controversial likes of Terrell Owens and Chad Johnson, who would've noticed the man behind the mask? Tomlinson says he wears the smoked-out visor, which shields his eyes from view, for two reasons: One is to protect him from the glare of the sun, which used to cause migraines. The other? "It adds to my personality," he admits. "I'm kind of a mask guy. I don't brag, I just do."
But how much more can he do? How close is Tomlinson to achieving his physical peak? "I'm very close," he says. "Last year, that was probably 95%."
Offensive coordinator Clarence Shelmon was promoted this season after coaching the Chargers' running backs for six years. He also held the position at Dallas, where he coached Emmitt Smith. "They have a lot in common," Shelmon says. "Both bring a business mind-set to their training. Some people may see having a chef as an extravagance. But they see their bodies as an investment."
Each season, Tomlinson has gotten smarter and more versatile, Shelmon says, which challenges the coach to add more L.T. wrinkles to the offense. More plays designed to get him the ball in the flat, in the open field, and, this season, farther downfield. "It just allows you to be more creative," Shelmon says.
During prior preseasons, Shelmon gave Tomlinson a list of personal goals. This season, they decided there was no need. "I'm at the point where I've done everything that a person can do individually," Tomlinson says. "This time, the individual stuff is over. It's all about the championships."
Across from L.T. in the Chargers' locker room sits Lorenzo Neal, a 15-year veteran fullback who, going into 2007, had played in 208 consecutive games and blocked for 10 consecutive 1,000 rushers, including Warrick Dunn (now of the Falcons) and former Tennessee Titan Eddie George. Neal is a warhorse, a throwback who sheds his pads slowly and speaks with passion. "I know that if I can just get a piece of a block and get him into the secondary with two safeties, I'll just roll over and look at the Jumbotron or listen for the roar," he says. I tell opponents, 'If you're seeing the back of 21, it's too late.'"
Given Neal's tenure, his words must be treated with a high level of respect. And you can believe he speaks for the majority in the locker room—if not the full squad—when he says Tomlinson is just reaching his stride. "All the great ones are unique," he is saying, his voice beginning to crescendo. "But they have one thing in common: Once they get it, it's only them and the game. I got history here. I'm blocking for possibly the best back ever, and the book is still being written. We're only in the middle chapters, baby, and I can't wait to see the conclusion.