Of all the numbers connected with LaDainian Tomlinson, in the end, the number 3,410 is the one that matters most now because it's the one that ended his time in San Diego and as the best running back in pro football.
When the Chargers announced they would let Tomlinson go after nine mostly brilliant seasons, it left the NFL's eighth-leading rusher in tears and perhaps in denial. But you can't deny the ravages caused by touching a football 3,410 times. Only one other active player and only eight in history so exposed themselves. Each paid the high price Tomlinson has, which is to become an old man at a young age.
Tomlinson's sad exit from San Diego pointed out yet again what the game demands from its superstars and what it takes from them. It demands bodily sacrifice like an angry Aztec chieftain, stealing away a man's youth and leaving him at age 30 with a tear-stained face and disbelieving eyes as he faces an uncertain future.
"Sorry," Tomlinson said at a goodbye press conference as his cheeks began to glisten from the tears that ran down them. "It's probably because I was all prepared and said I wasn't going to do this. Sometimes emotions are what makes a person, and as you guys know, I've always worn my emotions on my sleeve."
He also wore out his body rushing for 12,490 yards and 138 TDs, the second-highest rushing TD total in NFL history. That left him on his way to the Hall of Fame and on his way out of San Diego, his role diminishing as the Chargers began to pass more and his legs began to rush with ever-decreasing elusiveness.
Tomlinson will land on his feet somewhere, but the track record for heavily used backs over 30, which he turns this summer, is dismal. When a man touches the ball more than 400 times in three different seasons — including a mind-numbing 451 times in 2002 — it's only so long before the spring is gone from those legs.
"This is a part of the business I hate, and it's particularly hard when you're dealing with someone I consider a friend," club president Dean Spanos said the day L.T. was cut to avoid paying him a $2 million roster bonus due in March.
"Change involving great players is never easy. No matter where he chooses to continue his career, in my mind L.T. will always be a San Diego Charger."
Indeed, his legacy will be as a Charger, but that's partly because wherever he goes from here, it won't often be through a defense in the slashing ways of his youth, a sacrifice for which he was handsomely rewarded but which, once made, ended his time as a Charger. The harsh truth is Tomlinson won't always be a Charger. Next season he'll be a Bronco or a Raider or a Chief or wherever he ends up, but more significantly he won't be LaDainian Tomlinson either, which he isn't quite ready to accept.
"I don't want to blame the system or anything, but I would say, just being honest, since Marty (ex-head coach Marty Schottenheimer) left, the focus of running the football the way it was, every year my numbers have dropped," Tomlinson insisted despite several injury-marred seasons and a 2009 season in which he was given the ball only 243 times and produced just 3.3 yards a carry, a pedestrian number that is a symptom of the effects of 3,410.
"Every single year it has dropped. For me, I look at the numbers. Did I get old after I won the MVP (in 2006)? I don't think so. What about a couple years? I certainly don't think so. This is not the end of the road at all."
When LaDainian Tomlinson "looks at the numbers," he doesn't look at the only two that matter now - 30 years old, 3,410 carries. The Chargers added them up and subtracted him from their roster. It's what happens in the NFL, and it's a sad day when it does.
Sad and sadly inevitable, because that's what happens to football's warriors. In the end they take one too many arrows.
Read more of longtime football columnist Ron Borges at www.ronborges.com.
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