One of the greatest running backs of his era and of all time was LaDainian Tomlinson. For 11 seasons he embarrassed defenders and put up monster numbers.
In doing so, L.T. became the most popular NFL player in one of America’s most populous cities while revitalizing a franchise that had been struggling.
No one who saw Tomlinson play will ever forget his physical gifts nor his prolific production.
Growing Up In The Lone Star State
On June 23, 1979, LaDainian Tarshane Tomlinson was born in Rosebud, Texas to Loreane Chappelle and Oliver Tomlinson.
In 1983, Oliver, a construction worker, suffered a back injury that rendered him unable to continue working at his job. With the family experiencing serious financial problems, Oliver left the household when LaDainian was just seven years old and didn’t play a role in his upbringing after that.
To pay the bills, Loreane worked as a pastor at the Greater Life Gospel Church.
Although his father wasn’t around much after his divorce, he did introduce Tomlinson to the game of football beforehand, and the young child fell head over heels in love with it, as he became a fan of the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Hurricanes.
“They used to watch those Dallas Cowboys together on the living-room floor when LaDainian was a little boy,” said Loreane.
At age nine, he joined the Pop Warner League, and he instantly found that he had a knack for football. The very first time he touched the ball as a member of the league, he scored a touchdown.
Young Tomlinson was so enamored with the game that, in his official biography, he admitted that he slept with his football until his junior year of college. Some of his favorite players growing up were Jim Brown, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders.
But Cowboys Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith was not only one of his favorites but also a role model. One year, Tomlinson was lucky enough to meet Smith at a football camp and was impacted by him.
“I found inspiration in meeting Emmitt Smith at the age of 12 years old,” said Tomlinson. “I had a chance to really meet him, talk to him, touch him and see he was a real person.”
At University High School in Waco, Texas, he played football as well as basketball and baseball while running track. As a track athlete, he competed as a sprinter on the team’s 4 x 100m relay squad.
On the football field, he started out as a linebacker, but he would gradually blossom on the offensive side of the football as a running back.
It would all culminate with his senior season, during which he recorded 2,554 yards and 39 touchdowns and won the District 25-4A Most Valuable Player and Super Centex Offensive Player of the Year awards.
Emerging In College
Although Tomlinson was outstanding in his senior season at University High, his first three seasons were nothing special, and therefore he wasn’t courted by major football programs across the nation.
But he did receive and accept a scholarship to Texas Christian University (TCU) in Fort Worth, which allowed him to remain relatively close to home and his family.
Early on in his football career at TCU, Tomlinson was not a featured back. He split duties with Basil Mitchell, a tailback who would go on to play in the NFL for the Green Bay Packers, and he was used heavily as a blocking fullback.
Tomlinson had a quiet freshman season, rushing for 538 yards and six touchdowns on 126 attempts. He was not satisfied with his first year with the Horned Frogs, and thus he worked hard during the offseason on strength training and conditioning in order to make himself more valuable to his team.
His numbers as a sophomore weren’t dramatically better: 717 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns. But he started to make an impression on new head coach Dennis Franchione, and his hard work would pay off.
In 1999, Tomlinson started to become his best self. He became TCU’s main weapon and registered 1,974 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns while yielding 6.5 yards per carry.
In a game against UTEP, he set the NCAA FBS single-game record for rushing yards with 406.
After helping the Horned Frogs to a 7-4 record, Tomlinson dashed for 124 yards and two touchdowns to lead them to a 28-14 win over East Carolina in the Mobile Alabama Bowl.
He then turned things up as a senior with 2,158 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns. He could’ve left before the season to turn pro, but he decided to stay, partly to please his mother by getting his degree.
By staying, he also improved his visibility among pro scouts. It was the second straight season that he led the NCAA in rushing yards and touchdowns, and he also earned first-team All-American honors, the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) Offensive Player of the Year award for the second in a row as well as the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s best running back.
His 2,158 yards were also the fourth-most by a running back in a single season in college football history.
Tomlinson’s senior season was also noteworthy on a personal level, as his father came to watch him play one Saturday against Rice University, and it made the running back extremely happy.
In December of 2000, Tomlinson earned his degree in communications, which took care of a promise he made to his mother. A few months later, he would become engaged to his girlfriend, LaTorsha Oakley.
With his family situation improving (his father and mother moved in together in Fort Worth, even though they were still divorced), Tomlinson headed towards the NFL draft.
A San Diego Sensation
Despite his exploits at TCU, some NFL scouts were unsure Tomlinson’s college success would translate to the pros. However, the San Diego Chargers were smitten, and they made him the fifth overall pick of the 2001 NFL Draft.
At the time, the Chargers were going through a dry spell that had lasted almost two decades. Ever since their high-powered teams of the late 1970s and early 1980s that were led by Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts, the Bolts had fallen on lean times.
With the exception of a brief run that took them to Super Bowl XXIX, San Diego had rarely finished with a winning record or made the playoffs.
As one of the worst offensive teams in football, the Chargers immediately made Tomlinson their starting running back, and he would instantly give the team and its loyal fans some real hope.
His presence was part of something of an overhaul of their offense, which included hiring former Washington Redskins head coach Norv Turner as their offensive coordinator, acquiring Doug Flutie as their new QB and drafting another QB by the name of Drew Brees.
He would finish his rookie year with 1,236 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, letting it be known that he was the league’s newest star. Although the Chargers only won five games in 2001, change was in the air.
For the 2002 season, Marty Schottenheimer became the team’s new head coach. He had previously coached the Kansas City Chiefs for most of the 1990s, and he favored a run-focused offense, which suited Tomlinson well.
He would put up 1,683 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns that year, and he showed his versatility by also catching 79 passes for 489 yards and a touchdown. Those big numbers earned Tomlinson a trip to the Pro Bowl for the first time.
— NFL Fantasy Football (@NFLFantasy) December 3, 2020
Although the Chargers missed the playoffs for the seventh straight year, they did improve to an 8-8 record on the season.
Tomlinson continued to turn heads in 2003 with 1,645 rushing yards, 13 rushing touchdowns, 725 receiving yards and four receiving touchdowns. He led the league with 2,370 total yards from scrimmage, and it was his second straight season with at least 2,000 total yards from scrimmage.
The Texas native also became the first player in NFL history to record at least 1,000 rushing yards and 100 receptions in the same season.
But for some reason, he was left off the Pro Bowl team, and he decided to use it as motivation.
“I’m going to work my tail off harder than I ever worked before,” he said at the time. “When I come back, I’ll be MVP of the league next year.”
Tomlinson may have fallen short of his proclamation for the 2004 season, but he still had a great year and got the recognition he deserved.
Rushing for 1,335 yards and 17 touchdowns and adding another touchdown in the air, he not only returned to the Pro Bowl but also garnered First-Team All-Pro honors for the first time.
More importantly, the Chargers finished 12-4 and finally made the playoffs, as Brees matured into a Pro Bowl QB. Although they lost to the New York Jets in the wild card round, Tomlinson had served notice to the NFL.
Although he had 1,462 rushing yards and 18 rushing touchdowns in 2005, things didn’t work out well for San Diego that year, as it narrowly missed the playoffs with a 9-7 record. With Brees leaving as a free agent, things looked somewhat uncertain moving forward.
With Brees gone, it would be up to new quarterback Philip Rivers to lead the Chargers. The team acquired him on draft day 2004 after trading Eli Manning, whom they had taken with the first pick, to the New York Giants, after Manning said he wouldn’t report to the Bolts.
Although he had played only four games to that point, Rivers was a revelation in the 2006 season, as he would make the Pro Bowl and become San Diego’s new franchise QB, and Tomlinson would become his main beneficiary.
The running back would have a season for the ages that year. He amassed 1,815 rushing yards and a remarkable 28 rushing touchdowns, along with 508 yards and three touchdowns in the air.
His 31 total touchdowns were the most any player had ever put up in a single season.
On this date in 2006, LaDainian Tomlinson broke the single-season record with his 29th touchdown. @LT_21 finished the year with 31 and was named the league’s Most Valuable Player. (Dec. 10, 2006) pic.twitter.com/puFQakrsYC
— NFL Legacy (@NFLLegacy) December 11, 2021
Tomlinson led the NFL in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, rushing yards per game and total touchdowns from scrimmage. He earned another trip to the Pro Bowl, as well as First-Team All-Pro honors.
He was the first player in league history to score at least three touchdowns in four straight games, as well as the second to have three games with at least four touchdowns in a single season after Marshall Faulk.
In Week 11, he became the fastest player to reach 100 touchdowns, as it only took him 89 games to attain the milestone. Two weeks later, he ran for 178 yards against the Buffalo Bills, making him the first running back to gain at least 1,236 yards in each of his first six NFL seasons.
But the big piece of recognition he would earn in 2006 was the league MVP award, the same one he said he would win a few years before.
He would also win the ESPY Awards for Male Athlete of the Year, Best Record-Breaking Performance and Best NFL Athlete.
At 5-foot-10 and 215 pounds, Tomlinson was blessed with plenty of strength, speed and quickness, which he exploited each week on the gridiron. Oftentimes, opposing teams simply didn’t know what to do with him.
“He’s real quick and real hard to tackle,” Hawaii linebacker Chris Brown once said about Tomlinson. “He’s got strong legs, and he’s elusive.”
But it was also his outstanding work ethic that allowed him to maximize what the universe gifted him with.
San Diego finished the season with a 14-2 record, the best in the NFL, and it led the league in scoring as well. Southern California was abuzz about the Chargers and their chances at their first-ever Super Bowl championship.
The team would start the postseason with a divisional-round matchup against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, who had won three world titles in the past five seasons.
Tomlinson had his way with the Pats, rushing for 123 yards and two touchdowns while adding 64 yards on two catches. His second touchdown gave San Diego a 21-13 lead in the fourth quarter.
But the Chargers wouldn’t score again, partly due to some bad decisions made by coach Schottenheimer, and they would lose by just three points to Tom Brady and company. Tomlinson’s season to remember had ended with one of the most painful playoff losses in franchise history.
What made the loss even worse was that some Patriots players celebrated the win at midfield on the Chargers’ logo while mocking the dance San Diego linebacker Shawne Merriman would break out after sacking an opponent.
Tomlinson didn’t hold back his feelings about the Patriots’ behavior.
“They showed no class at all,” said Tomlinson. “Absolutely no class. And maybe that comes from the head coach (Bill Belichick).”
The heartbreak would continue for the tailback. Several weeks after the Chargers’ playoff loss, Tomlinson’s father, as well as his father-in-law Ronald McClain, died in an auto accident. McClain, who had been driving, had lost control of his pickup truck, and it flipped over on a Texas highway.
Tomlinson’s relationship with his father had improved over the years, and he was shaken by the incident.
“My father and I had a great relationship, and I am devastated by his passing,” Tomlinson said. “I will miss him.”
Perhaps as a result of blowing the lead against New England, Schottenheimer was fired by the Chargers and replaced by Norv Turner, the same Turner who was their offensive coordinator several years earlier.
Tomlinson continued to feast in 2007, putting up 1,474 rushing yards and 15 rushing touchdowns, leading the NFL in both categories. On Dec. 2, he tallied 177 yards and two touchdowns on the ground against the Kansas City Chiefs, allowing him to pass Walter Payton, one of his heroes, in career rushing touchdowns.
That season, he also reached 10,000 rushing yards for his career, becoming the fourth-fastest player to get to that mark. He got named to the Pro Bowl for the fifth time and fourth consecutive year, and he copped First-Team All-Pro honors for the second-straight season.
With an 11-5 record, the Chargers again finished first in the AFC West and looked to have another shot at winning it all.
But after getting past the Tennessee Titans in the wild card round, Tomlinson sprained his MCL during San Diego’s divisional-round victory over the defending champion Indianapolis Colts. The injury dampened the team’s chances in its rematch with the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.
Tomlinson tried to play on the injury, but he only managed five yards on two carries. With Rivers playing injured throughout the game (he had torn his ACL), the Chargers fell short, 21-12.
Afterward, some criticized Tomlinson for being soft, feeling that if Rivers was able to play on a more severe injury, he should’ve been able to do the same.
“You’re a big-time player. And big-time players must play big-time games,” said NFL legend Deion Sanders.
Unable to work out with his teammates during the offseason because of his hurt knee, Tomlinson jammed his toe in Week 2 of the 2008 season and started the campaign slowly.
Although he didn’t have any of the big games that he had become known for, he still managed to put together 1,110 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns for the year. He also continued to be a threat as a receiver out of the backfield, catching 52 passes for 426 yards and one touchdown.
The Chargers played poorly for much of the season, but they managed to win their last four games to win their division and quality for the playoffs. However, Tomlinson suffered a partially torn groin in Week 17, and he re-injured it in the Chargers’ wild card playoff win against the Colts.
San Diego would go on to lose in the divisional round to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Once the 2009 season started, Tomlinson was now 30, and injuries and wear and tear had taken a toll on his body. He missed two games early in the schedule with an ankle injury, and his 730 rushing yards were a career-low, as was his anemic 3.3 yards per carry.
Still, the Chargers managed to win 13 games, yet again finishing first in the AFC West and making the playoffs for the fourth straight year. If appearing in the postseason was becoming routine for Chargers fans, so was getting their hearts broken.
The team jumped out to a 7-0 lead at halftime of its AFC divisional playoff game against the New York Jets, only to give up 10 unanswered points. Rivers responded with a short run for a touchdown to trim San Diego’s deficit to three with just over two minutes left in the fourth quarter, but it was too little too late, as it couldn’t recover the ball on the ensuing onside kick.
Tomlinson had only 24 rushing yards against the Jets, and it was clear that his best days were behind him. The Chargers released him several weeks later.
At his farewell press conference, Tomlinson decided to take a shot at his now-former coach, Norv Turner, accusing him of going away from him in favor of a greater emphasis on the passing game, implying that it was the reason for his diminished production.
Last Act On Broadway
In March 2010, Tomlinson signed a two-year contract to join the New York Jets. He wasn’t a top-flight tailback anymore, but head coach Rex Ryan apparently felt that combining him with young running back Shonn Greene would help the team improve on losing in the AFC Championship Game the year before.
Once he started working out with his new teammates, Tomlinson threw another jab at his old team and teammates.
“The things that happened in San Diego, everything was taken away from me,” Tomlinson said. “There wasn’t an emphasis on running the football anymore, my best fullback was gone, the linemen were pass blocking and it was a passing quarterback and a passing coach. So, the situation’s kind of misleading when you look on film.”
He only had six rushing touchdowns in 2010, which was a new career-low, but his rushing yardage went up a bit to 914, as did his yards per carry, from 3.3 to 4.2.
— NFL Legacy (@NFLLegacy) April 16, 2021
With an 11-5 record, the Jets flew into the playoffs and a wild card matchup with the Colts. In an old show of who he used to be, Tomlinson ran for 82 yards and two touchdowns as the Jets edged Indianapolis, 17-16.
New York then defeated the New England Patriots to advance to the AFC Championship Game versus the Pittsburgh Steelers. It would be Tomlinson’s last shot at reaching the Super Bowl.
After falling behind 24-0, the Jets cut their deficit to 24-19 with just over three minutes left in the fourth quarter despite Tomlinson being held to 16 yards. But they couldn’t stop the Steelers on defense and ended up losing.
The 2011 season was Tomlinson’s last in the NFL. He only mustered 280 rushing yards and one touchdown, and the Jets finished 8-8 and missed the postseason.
The following June, he signed a ceremonial contract with the Chargers so that he could officially retire as a member of the team he had spent all but two seasons with. In 2015, the organization retired his No. 21 jersey.
Life After Football
Tomlinson finished his career at or near the top of the list of numerous NFL statistical categories. He was one of the biggest locks ever to get inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and he received the honor in 2017, his first year of eligibility.
At his induction ceremony, Tomlinson mentioned his ancestors, who were slaves prior to the Civil War, and issued an impassioned plea for Americans of all races and ethnicities to unite as one nation and one people.
“Football is a microcosm of America. All races, religions and creeds living, playing, competing side by side.”
— NFL (@NFL) June 29, 2020
Off the field, L.T. has become a family man. In 2003 he married his college sweetheart LaTorsha, who has gone on to become an R&B singer, and soon after they looked to start a family.
At first, they were unsuccessful. LaTorsha suffered a miscarriage in 2005, and although the couple was very disappointed, Tomlinson kept up his faith in someday becoming a father.
“You think you have got life planned out and you’ve got it all dialed in and you know how it’s supposed to go,” Tomlinson said in a 2005 interview with San Diego Union-Tribune’s Kevin Acee. “We’re going to have a baby. It’s going to be great. Then God says, ‘Not yet. This is not the time.’”
In 2009 LaTorsha surprised LaDainian by leaving him a note in his locker room along with a positive pregnancy test.
Their first child, Daylen, entered the world in 2010, and a year later their daughter Dayah was born.
The legendary running back is also passionate about giving back and helping those who are less fortunate. His Touching Lives Foundation helps feed poor families during the holidays, gives toys to children who are hospitalized with serious illnesses and helps support kids’ academic and career aspirations.
One way or another, Tomlinson has certainly brought happiness to many while leaving tons of sweet memories.
Your favorite RB’s favorite RB.
— NFL (@NFL) June 23, 2021