Running Back LaDainian Tomlinson Retires From NFL

June 18, 2012

LaDainian Tomlinson’s career in the National Football League ended as it began, with the likely future Hall of Fame selection proudly holding up a San Diego Chargers jersey and displaying his charismatic smile.

What happened between being drafted by the Chargers in 2001 and retiring as a Charger today was a lot of spectacular plays and thrilling moments.

Tomlinson steps away from the game as the league’s fifth all-time leading rusher with 13,684 career yards; its third-most prolific scorer with 162 career touchdowns; and owner of the second-most rushing touchdowns in NFL history with 145.

“When I finally made the decision to retire, I knew it was the right thing to do," Tomlinson said. "I came to realize that I’ve been very fortunate. I’m going to be 33 years old and never had a serious concussion or anything like that. At this point, I’m taking a big risk going back out there at 33 years old, possibly blowing my knee out or something like that. Now, I’m walking around good and will be for the rest of my life.”

Tomlinson was the face of the Chargers’ franchise during his nine seasons in San Diego (2001-09). He set or tied a total of 28 team records, including marks for career rushing yards, rushing touchdowns in a season, and total touchdowns.

Three of the men who rank ahead of Tomlinson on the NFL’s all-time rushing list – Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders – are enshrined in Canton, Ohio. Only former Dallas Cowboy great Smith scored more rushing touchdowns than the player affectionately known as “LT.”

“You know what sticks out to me? It’s the overtime run in Oakland because that was our breakthrough," Tomlinson reminisced. "Even though it was in ’02 it sticks out to me like it was yesterday. I remember the guys were so excited. In fact, that day, we probably ran that same play at least 40 times and they couldn’t stop us.”

Tomlinson is one of the most decorated Chargers in history. In 2006, Tomlinson was the Associated Press’ NFL Most Valuable Player and Offensive Player of the Year. He was a five-time Pro Bowl selection, a three-time first-team All-Pro, a two-time second-team All-Pro, and runner-up for the AP’s Offensive Rookie of the Year Award in 2001.

In 2002, Tomlinson shattered team records with 1,683 rushing yards and 2,172 total yards from scrimmage. He ranked second in the NFL in rushing and third in yards from scrimmage. His 15 total touchdowns ranked sixth in the league.

"He set the bar for how the Chargers organization wanted their leaders to be. He set the standard," said Chargers tight end Antonio Gates. "Being around him was just phenomenal. To see how he treated his family and how he treated others." 

Tomlinson caught a team-record 100 passes and became the first player in league history to rush for 1,000 yards and catch 100 passes in the same season in 2003. He racked up 2,370 total yards from scrimmage, second-most in NFL history behind Marshall Faulk’s 2,429 in 1999.

"His ability to lead was amazing," said Marshall Faulk. "He and how he played the game is the last of ‘us’ at the running back position: a guy who could do it all, an every-down (back), can go the distance, can get the tough yards, and was reliable regardless of where he was on the field. I’m happy he had his success."

But to paint LT as just an elite, versatile back, would be to overlook the fiery professionalism that he displayed week after week.

"The thing that made LT the great player he was is he had great competitiveness," Chargers coach Norv Turner said. "Everybody wants to talk about the jump cuts and the catching ability, the straight arm and running over people, but you don’t do those things unless you’re a great, great, great competitor." 

In October 2007, Tomlinson and his wife, LaTorsha, were forced to flee their home in the middle of the night when flames from a wildfire roared perilously close to their property. Firefighters stopped the fire literally at the Tomlinson’s back fence, preserving their home and all of its contents. That December, Tomlinson hosted an event to support the first responders and volunteers who helped fight the fires and personally donated 300 flat-screen televisions to families that lost their homes in the fires.

That classy gesture captured only a small part of LT's voluminous work in the community, as he and Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, were selected as Most Caring Athletes by USA Weekend Magazine in 2009.

Tomlinson played his final two NFL seasons (2010-11) with the New York Jets. In 2010, he helped lead the Jets to the AFC Championship Game after rushing for 914 yards and six touchdowns in the regular season. No surprise, the Jets organization also heaped glowing praises upon LT.

"During my time around LaDainian, he never took one day for granted when it came to any aspect of his performance," said Jets General Manager Mike Tannenbaum. "His commitment drew his teammates to him and elevated everyone that came in contact with him. On the field, he was a dynamic, versatile player who was everything you could ask for in a running back. He could significantly affect the outcome of a game as a ball carrier, but also was superior as a receiver and in pass protection."

Tomlinson became just the fifth player in NFL history to rush for more than 10,000 yards and catch 500 career passes. He became the first player to score 10-or-more touchdowns in each of his first eight NFL seasons. And he became just the third player in league history to rush for at least 1,000 yards in each of his first eight seasons.

By Staff of The Daily Sports Herald and news services

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