By Simon Samano/@sjsamano
For FOX Deportes
When LaDainian Tomlinson was at the top of his game, busy scoring boatloads of touchdowns and passing Hall of Famers on the all-time rushing list seemingly by the week, he was frequently asked how long he thought he could play in the NFL.
To which his answer always echoed the same sentiment: until he was ready to walk away from the game.
That day came Monday when Tomlinson, after an illustrious 11-year career, signed a one-day contract with the San Diego Chargers to officially retire as a member of the team that drafted him fifth overall in the 2001 NFL Draft.
”I knew at the end of the season last year that it (retirement) may be a possibility,” the 32-year-old Tomlinson said during a news conference. “It wasn’t because I did not want to play anymore. That wasn’t the reason. It was simply time to move on.”
Reaching that realization is never easy for the professional athlete, especially one the caliber of Tomlinson. And yet he deserves credit for being a man of his word on this.
Because even while Tomlinson remained adamant throughout his career that he played to win a Super Bowl, something he sadly never achieved, he always knew his desire for a championship wouldn’t draw out his career.
Sure, he played two years with the New York Jets in hopes of winning a championship, even as his production continued to slide. But Tomlinson wasn’t about to go out like Jerry Rice, who unceremoniously announced his retirement at Denver Broncos team headquarters, of all places, after 20 years.
No, Tomlinson had the courage to walk away now, with his health and dignity intact — not to mention with his spot in the Hall of Fame reserved. And it was only right that Tomlinson returned to Chargers Park to make the announcement, even after he and the organization parted ways with mutual acrimony.
“I always felt like I was a Charger,” Tomlinson said. “The guys, my teammates, the bond we built, the battles we (fought) together, was special. And I always felt I was a Charger in my heart.”
How could Tomlinson feel otherwise? He ensured his place in NFL history in San Diego, where he opened his career with eight consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons. That includes his league MVP season of 2006, when he compiled 2,323 total yards (1,815 rushing) and scored a record 31 total touchdowns (28 rushing, three receiving).
Of course, Tomlinson couldn’t have done all that without a stellar offensive line, and he knew that.
“My offensive line, you know, I always felt like they were my best friend,” said Tomlinson, who ranks fifth on the all-time rushing list with 13,684 yards. “And I used to always do things for them just out of the goodness of my heart, because they never got any credit for it, but they battled their butts off in the trenches. And I truly appreciate them.”
So where does Tomlinson rank among the all-time greats? It’s hard to say. He’s in a unique category with Marshall Faulk as the two most versatile running backs in NFL history. They were the best during their eras at also hurting you with their ability to catch passes out of the backfield.
That was good enough for Faulk to be voted a first-ballot Hall of Famer. The same will be true for Tomlinson in five years.