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L.T. did it all except win it all

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By Eric Edholm

LaDainian Tomlinson is a first-ballot Hall of Famer to-be. He retired Monday with the legacy of being one of the pioneers of a new generation of running backs that could do everything, building off what Thurman Thomas and Marshall Faulk did before him.

There was little L.T., maybe the last truly dominant back we’ve seen over a seven-year stretch, couldn’t do in his prime. And it says something about his greatness that the public allowed Tomlinson to carry that nickname — two simple letters that were coined, in tandem, by perhaps the greatest defensive player most of us ever saw: Lawrence Taylor.

Taylor’s personal fall from grace aside, that nickname, simple as it might be, once felt untouchable. It felt like it belonged to one man. Then Tomlinson stormed the NFL and our lives.

L.T.’s style was unmistakable in that he was just as likely to bash his way through a defender as he was to sidestep him with his patented jump cut that made more than one would-be tackler look foolish. If it wasn’t simply one or the other, it might have been a combination of power and flash, perhaps on one of those screens he ran so well. Or maybe he just stood up a blitzing linebacker and knocked him squarely in the mouth.

“It was almost impossible to defend him,” said another future Hall of Famer, Ravens LB Ray Lewis, “because he had hands like a receiver, he had feet like a ballet dancer and had a heart like a lion.

“Anytime that you have all of those things, you just never know what you are going to get. I think what made him the hardest thing to deal with was that he always kept a calm demeanor. You never could rattle him. He always stayed true to himself.”

And don’t forget his throwing. Tomlinson was a secret-weapon passer with a career passer rating of 146.9 — he was an incredible 8-of-12 passing in his career for 143 yards and seven TDs to zero interceptions. L.T. really could do it all in his heyday.

That was then. What a run it was.

“I’ve had five months to actually think about and contemplate retiring,” Tomlinson said during his retirement press conference. “It wasn’t because I didn’t want to play anymore.

“It was simply time to move on. That’s how I look at it.”

But it’s hardly a footnote that much of his career will be defined by the almost, the not quite and the just short. He retires as one of the best athletes — in the Charles Barkley-Dan Marino pantheon — never to win a title. It’s a part of that legacy you can’t forget to mention.

Sure, there have been plenty of amazing running backs in NFL history to join L.T. on that list. Barry Sanders, Curtis Martin, Eric Dickerson and Jim Brown are four of the nine leading rushers in NFL history, and none of them took home a championship.

L.T.’s greatness was undeniable. When Tomlinson put together his magical 2006 season, the one in which he set the all-time marks for rushing touchdowns and total TDs in a season, it felt only logical that he would break Emmitt Smith’s then-two-year-old rushing mark of 18,355. He was carried off the field by his teammates that record-breaking game against the Broncos — fueled by chants of the crowd’s “L.T.! MVP!” — seemingly on top of the football world.

Tomlinson was 27 years old, and he was tough, talented, elusive and the centerpiece of an offense that was nearly impossible to shut down. He stood at 9,176 yards — a smidgen rush short of halfway to Emmitt — and if anyone was going to take down Smith’s mark, it would be L.T.

Six more years like his first, and we might be making plans to crown Tomlinson this season as the NFL’s all-time rushing champ.

Instead, we turn back and praise what was a miraculous career. Just not one without the what-might-have-beens. He never could do what he always said was his ultimate goal, to win a title in San Diego, and he couldn’t piggyback one in New York the past two years, either. Neither fact was ultimately his fault. But that’s not to say that Tomlinson didn’t live without regrettable moments.

Everyone’s favorite smiling running back became known for being brutally honest, sometimes to a fault. His anger was widely accepted when the Chargers benched his friend Drew Brees after a 1-7 start in 2003, and the public was on L.T.’s side when he and Chargers GM A.J. Smith publicly spat over Tomlinson’s status with the team towards the end of his run there. Still, it was an ugly exit for L.T. from San Diego, a city that had endured more than a decade of losing after the Super Bowl appearance in 1995 and through the early part of Tomlinson’s NFL career, when he often was the only thing going on some bad Chargers teams.

“Nobody in the NFL carries the ball now the way L.T. did, nor carries the responsibility of the team on his shoulders the way this guy did,” Brees said. “He is one of the few running backs in history that could literally take over a game, despite what might have been happening around him.”

As Tomlinson said Monday, his former coach, Marty Schottenheimer, told him that even if he didn’t win a Super Bowl, “There were championship days.”

But there also were questions of Tomlinson’s toughness, first in the Chargers’ conference championship game loss to the Patriots, when it was reported that L.T. had a sore knee and would return and when we later found out that QB Philip Rivers played through the game with a torn ACL. Although Norv Turner vehemently defended his star back after the game, Tomlinson’s reputation took a hit because of what people thought they saw on TV: a guy who wanted no part of the game.

A year later, Tomlinson suffered a serious groin injury and missed the playoff loss to the Steelers, and it was the first time — coming off a season in which his long play from scrimmage on 344 touches was 45 yards — he looked human. But so did the Chargers, who ran for only 15 yards on 11 touches in that game.

After his injury-hampered 2009 season, Tomlinson and the Chargers split. He was on to the Jets to try to be a part of a title team, but hardly as the lead dog. L.T. left San Diego, he said Monday, a bit distracted.

“At the time, when you move on, you’re focused on trying to win a championship,” he said. “I do understand how it came come off (looking like it was a bitter divorce). It was hard to move past it initially.”

The physical toll was part of what ground L.T. down. But he says not to overlook the mental grind as well. Capping off his career with two disappointing seasons in New York (including 11 games last season with 29 rushing yards or fewer) was just the capper.

“As a running back, you try to continue to play at a high level, at 33 years old, it’s difficult,” he said, when asked if he still could play today. “Physically, I can. But mentally, it’s difficult. Mentally, it drains you more than anything.”

Still, we remember a back that was transcendent. Nowadays teams look for two (or three) backs to fill the role of what Tomlinson did by himself.

Saturday, Tomlinson will celebrate his 33rd birthday. He played in 170 of his teams’ 176 regular-season games, ran for 100 yards or more in 47 of them. But that only partially explained his greatness. For a man to unleash as much punishment as he absorbed, the fact that Tomlinson never had surgery in his career stands as remarkable.

His popularity was easy to understand. He was a warrior and a gem of a man. His emotions ran strong, often hot, and he wasn’t afraid to tug on Superman’s cape, either, once calling out Bill Belichick’s style of coaching and his persona, suggesting it bordered on dirty and evil.

Privately, many players, some of whom never met L.T. or even played against him, cheered comments like that. Many wished they had the talent or bravado, even one of the two, that Tomlinson possessed.

But like Dickerson, L.T.’s career burned to a medium-cool on the back end after a scorching start. The Tomlinson we knew from 2001 to 2007 was not the one we saw the past four seasons.

And in a time where we’re watching one of Tomlinson’s contemporaries, Terrell Owens, burn out, L.T. stepped out of the game gracefully. Exits are important to people, and so are the way athletes handle themselves. Never vainglorious, always grounded, Tomlinson was a front-runner you rooted for.

He’ll slip on the gold jacket in Canton five years from now, in his first year of eligibility, likely still looking young at age 38. We’ll marvel at the way the former NFL Man of the Year has kept clean and in shape, remained a family man and represented the game well in his post-career, in some form or fashion, whatever that will be.

But it will be a bit sad, just a tad, when we think about the almosts and the not quites — because they’re a part of L.T.’s legacy, too.

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