What happened between being drafted by the Chargers in the first round in 2001 and retiring as a Charger today is one of the greatest stories in San Diego sports and NFL history.
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. He certainly will be a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection when he becomes eligible in 2017.
Tomlinson was the face of the Chargers’ franchise during 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 – already have been enshrined in Canton, Ohio, and Smith is the only player to score more rushing touchdowns than the player affectionately known as “LT.”
“This is a special, special day for me, just as it is for all Chargers fans,” said Chargers President Dean Spanos. “Few players, if any, have meant more to this franchise than LT. He was the heart and soul of this team through one of the most successful decades in our history. I couldn’t wait to watch him play because I knew I would see something special every week. And that’s what he gave all of us: special memories we’ll carry with us forever. And being here with him on the day he came into this league and the day retired is extra special.”
“Some guys you watch play and say, ‘I wonder if he will wind up in the Hall of Fame?’ LT answered that question a long time ago,” said Chargers Executive Vice President and General Manager A.J. Smith. “He is one of the greatest and most versatile running backs to ever play the game. He helped this organization return to relevancy in the NFL and gave all of us a lot of exciting moments we’ll remember forever.”
Head Coach Norv Turner added: “I was fortunate to be with L.T. his rookie year. It was very evident that he was going to be a great player, a complete player with good fortune. He was going to have the career he had. There have been very few players in the NFL who have meant as much to their team than LT did during his career here. In particular, his MVP season in 2006. It would be hard to find a back that led the league in rushing and caught over 100 balls in separate seasons. It speaks volumes for his abilities and what he was capable of doing.”
Tomlinson is one of the most decorated Chargers in history. Among the more than 100 team and NFL awards that he captured during his career, Tomlinson was the Associated Press’ NFL Most Valuable Player and Offensive Player of the Year in 2006, the same year he was named the Walter Payton co-NFL Man of the Year and the runner-up as the AP’s Male Athlete 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. Tomlinson was named by his teammates as the Chargers Most Valuable Player and Offensive Player of the Year five times.
From his very first game in a Chargers uniform, Tomlinson seemed destined for greatness. He ran for 113 yards in his NFL debut against the Washington Redskins in 2001, becoming only the 20th player in the NFL since 1970 to eclipse 100 yards in his first-career game. And as a rookie, he would go on to set a team record with 1,603 total yards from scrimmage, while setting team rookie records for rushing yards (1,236) and rushing touchdowns (10).
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.
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. Tomlinson became just the eighth player to post consecutive seasons with 2,000 or more scrimmage yards. Among his individual game accomplishments in ’03 were a pair of 200-yard rushing performances, the third and fourth of his career, which tied him with Jim Brown, Earl Campbell and Barry Sanders for the second-most in league history behind O.J. Simpson’s six.
In 2004, Tomlinson carried the Chargers to their first AFC West title in 10 years as he led the NFL in rushing touchdowns (17) for the first time in his career. A year later, he tied Lenny Moore’s NFL record by scoring a touchdown in 18 straight games and set a new NFL record by scoring a rushing touchdown in 14 straight games. In San Diego’s ’05 season finale against Denver, Tomlinson scored his 20th touchdown of the season, breaking Chuck Muncie’s team record of 19 in 1981. Tomlinson also moved past Lance Alworth to become the team’s all-time leader in career yards from scrimmage.
Tomlinson enjoyed perhaps his best season in 2006 as he helped the Bolts recapture the AFC West throne with a 14-2 record. He was selected the NFL’s Most Valuable Player by the AP that season. It was the team’s first-ever league MVP award. Tomlinson garnered 44 of a possible 50 MVP votes. He also finished second to Tiger Woods in voting for AP’s Male Athlete of the Year Award. Tomlinson shattered a host of NFL records in 2006, most notably setting new league marks for rushing touchdowns (28), total touchdowns (31) and points scored (186) in a season. His scoring average of 11.6 points per game was the most since Paul Hornung’s 12.2 ppg average for the Green Bay Packers in 1961. Tomlinson won his and the team’s first NFL rushing title with 1,815 yards and just missed out on the title for yards from scrimmage by 11 yards. He became only the fifth player in league history to score 20-or-more touchdowns in consecutive seasons and set 10 other NFL records, including touchdowns in a five (15) and six-game stretch (19); touchdowns through the first 10 (22) and 12 (26) games of a season; games with two or more touchdowns (8); games with four touchdowns (3), games with three rushing touchdowns (5), consecutive games with three rushing touchdowns (3) and consecutive games with three or more total touchdowns (4) and consecutive multi-touchdown games (8). He shared the league’s mark for consecutive four-touchdown games (2). Tomlinson also became the NFL’s fastest to both 100 rushing touchdowns and 100 total touchdowns.
Tomlinson’s accolades in 2006 extended beyond the playing field, as he was honored with the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. One of LT’s childhood idols, Payton was the only other man to win MVP and Man of the Year honors in the same season.
In 2007, Tomlinson captured NFL titles for rushing yards (1,474) and rushing touchdowns (15), while tying Emmitt Smith as the fourth-fastest player to rack up 10,000 total scrimmage yards (106 games). But Tomlinson was injured during the playoffs. He suffered a knee injury in the AFC Divisional Playoffs at Indianapolis and missed nearly all of the following week’s AFC Championship Game in New England. The injury occurred just weeks after Tomlinson scored his NFL-record third game-winning touchdown in overtime to cap a December game at Tennessee. Tomlinson became the first player since Edgerrin James (1999-00) to win consecutive league rushing titles and the first player ever to score 15-or-more touchdowns in six consecutive seasons.
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.
Tomlinson’s final two seasons in San Diego saw him achieve even more milestones. In 2008 he reached 15,000 career scrimmage yards, doing so faster than any other player in league history and he reached 11,000 career rushing yards faster (117 games) than every back except Eric Dickerson (103), Jim Brown (107) and Barry Sanders (115). In 2009, LT scored his 150th career touchdown, reaching that mark in fewer games than any player in history. At the conclusion of the 2009 season, Tomlinson had set NFL marks for a decade (2001-09) for rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and total touchdowns.
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. In 2011, he saw his touches drop and Tomlinson totaled 729 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns.
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.
Tomlinson’s work off the field and the mark that he left in the communities of San Diego and his native Texas were both indelible. He and LaTorsha started the Tomlinson Touching Lives Foundation, which hosted many events over the years. They included youth football camps, a golf tournament, fishing trips for kids for homeless and at-risk teens, a Thanksgiving program that provided complete holiday dinners to more than 2,100 San Diego families, and a Christmas program in which they gave away more than 1,500 holiday gifts to the patients at San Diego’s Children’s Hospital and Health Center.
At each Chargers’ home game, Tomlinson hosted “The 21 Club,” where he invited 21 kids from San Diego youth groups and nonprofit organizations to attend games. After the game, he invited the children down to the field where they enjoyed a one-on-one visit with their football hero and were sent home with a special gift.
The Foundation also created the “School is Cool Scholarship Fund,” which awarded 30 annual scholarships to college-bound students based on academics, community involvement and volunteerism. Of the 30 students selected by Tomlinson each year, 15 were selected from San Diego and 15 were chosen from his alma mater, University High School in Waco, Texas.
In 2009, Tomlinson and Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, were selected as Most Caring Athletes by USA Weekend Magazine.
Born in Rosebud, Texas, Tomlinson was a star player at University High School in Waco before taking his career to Texas Christian University where he became an All-American and a two-time Western Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year. At TCU, Tomlinson became just the second player in college football history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season and 5,000 yards in a career. In 2005, his jersey was retired at TCU and in 2009 he was inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame.
LaDainian and LaTorsha now live in Colleyville, Texas with their son Daylen and daughter Dayah.