It is one of the single greatest plays in NFL history, and a defining moment in Chargers folklore.
December 10, 2006 against the Denver Broncos. LT takes the hand off, bounces left to the corner and crosses the goal line to set the all-time record for touchdowns in a single season.
However, 10 years later, those who authored that moment can’t agree on the play call.
“It was 50 power,” Philip Rivers says with steadfast determination.
“No, we ran 70-load-power,” Running Backs Coach Clarence Shelmon says equally certain. “That is a play that goes to the left. LT scored 31 touchdowns that year and 17 of them were off of that play. That’s the play.”
Tomlinson agrees with Rivers.
“It was 50-power because I was supposed to go up the A-gap and keep it inside, but Lorenzo (Neal) fell down so I booked it to the corner. It was Marty’s favorite play, so it was fitting to break it on that play.”
His fullback, who led the way on so many of LT’s big runs, disagrees.
“We break the huddle and it is 70-load-power. I know that’s what it was because I am the point of attack. I have the safety.”
Meanwhile, center Nick Hardwick agrees with his quarterback and running back.
“It was definitely 50 power.”
Eager to settle the debate, Philip Rivers fires up his video catalog of plays, watches it one more time, and confirms it for good.
While recollections of the specific play call may be fuzzy, the exact play itself remains crystal clear. The moment is embedded in fans’ brains, eternalized forever by Chargers play-by-play announcer Josh Lewin’s historic call - “Chargers Fans are Witnesses to History!”
LaDainian Tomlinson’s 2006 campaign: A season never before seen in football history, and one likely impossible to duplicate.
Tomlinson set a total of 10 new NFL league records including rushing touchdowns (28) and total points (186). Along with his 31 touchdowns, he also led the NFL with 1,816 rushing yards, one of many key factors to being named league MVP, the only player in Chargers’ history to champion that honor.
While fans witnessed history on the field, they were not privy to what went on behind the scenes.
Locker room temper tantrums. Question marks surrounding Philip Rivers. LT challenging his teammates. The constant demand and pressure Tomlinson was under 24 hours a day. That and much more had previously never been shared in detail.
That is, until now.
For the first time, hear the full oral history of the single greatest season of any player in NFL history.
Part 1 – Marty Ball
LaDainian Tomlinson was already a household name by the time the 2006 season kicked off. Selected fifth overall in 2001 out of TCU, number 21 spent five seasons establishing himself as one of the league**’s top running backs. He burst onto the scene as a rookie under Head Coach Mike Riley, setting a new team-record with 1,613 total yards from scrimmage. However, his career really took off when Marty Schottenheimer was hired in 2002.
Running Back LaDainian Tomlinson: “When Marty first came in, I went up to his office to talk. Right away I could tell he believed in me. Marty was going to build the team around me. He would give me the ball as much as possible. He had a firm belief in the way to win games. I couldn’t have had a better relationship with a coach than I had with Marty.”
Head Coach Marty Schottenheimer: “LaDainian was the best pure running back I’ve ever been around. And I was around Marcus Allen and Christian Okuyoe; guys like that. It was really a treat to be involved with him. I told him from the start that he had it all, and we were going to ride him.”
Left Guard Kris Dielman: “Those were some fun years, and you knew what you were going to get with Marty. There was no beating around the bush, and I appreciated that. That’s why I got along with him so well. He liked tough kids. He wanted you to go out there and beat the crap out of people. We gave LT a little hole and he blew it all up. It was awesome.”
Fullback Lorenzo Neal: “Marty Schottenheimer was a father figure to a lot of men. What Marty meant to LT, his gravitas and who he is as a man –I mean, he would look at LT and say ‘LT, I am going to run you till your tongue falls out.’ LT could be seen champing at the bit.”
Running Back LaDainian Tomlinson: “Everyone on the team bought in to Marty’s philosophy. Everyone was selfless. That was Marty ball, and it was the perfect storm.”
Tight End Antonio Gates: “In order for me to start my career I had to learn how to block power. Otherwise I wouldn’t see the field! Marty Schottenheimer was not a finesse type of coach. He was about hardcore, tough kids who were physical. Obviously when I got here, LT was the focal point of how we were going to win games. So I learned, if I wanted to see that field, I had to block some, too.”
Center Nick Hardwick: “Marty wanted to pound the ball. That’s really all Marty Ball was. He wanted to pound it, protect the lead, eat the clock up and wear down the opponent. And LT was perfect for that. Having him at running back at that time, it was the way it needed to be. Marty trusted in the superstar he had, and it was a perfect fit.”
Fullback Lorenzo Neal: “It was any coach’s dream to have a guy as prolific as LT. And to play Marty Ball, and know that Marty was going to utilize the running game, it really was perfect for who we had on the team. We knew when he said we were going to run it that he meant it. We. Were. Going. To. Run. It. He had us prepared. He knew he had a horse in LaDainian Tomlinson that would never let us down.”
Running Back LaDainian Tomlinson: “I really learned the game of football from him. That is probably the greatest thing that any football player can say about his coach. He knew all aspects of the game. That relationship continued. We had the type of relationship where in the offseason, my wife and I would go see him and his wife Pat out in Palm Springs. We would stay at their house.”
Marty Ball suited LT, and the Chargers, to a tee. Each year Tomlinson took his game to new heights. In 2012, he set the mark for total yards from scrimmage (2,172). The next year, he set the franchise mark for most catches in a season with 100 reception, in the process becoming the first player in NFL history to catch 100 passes and rush for 1,000 yards. LT also posted the second most yards from scrimmage that year, as his 2,370 trailed only Marshall Faulk’s 2,429 in 1999. In 2004, Tomlinson led the league with 17 rushing touchdowns. In 2005, he tied the NFL record with a touchdown in 18 straight games, and set a new NFL record by scoring a rushing touchdown in 14 straight games. It became evident to the entire football world that LT was a once in a generation player. After all, teams knew what was coming and still couldn’t stop number 21.
Running Backs Coach Clarence Shelmon: “The year before he scored 31 touchdowns, I remember running ’40-power’ 21 times in a row to beat the Raiders. That was a companion play, but without the heavy personnel in it. We called that play 21 times in a row; we just used different personnel groups and they couldn’t stop it. I just remember that so vividly because it is unheard of to call the same play 21 times in a row, but we did because they knew it was coming and still couldn’t stop LT.”
Running Back LaDainian Tomlinson: “That’s the best feeling in football. To be able to move a man against his will and do something to a team where they know it’s coming, they know what’s happening, and there is nothing they can do. That is what you thrive on doing as a player. Dominate your opponent. That was something we all remember.”
Center Nick Hardwick: “It’s a powerful feeling knowing the other team can’t stop you, and they knew they couldn’t. It was really powerful knowing with LT, you could just break an opponent’s will. He was such a weapon to have back there.”
President of Football Operations John Spanos: “LT was the complete package as a runner. His overall skillset was unparalleled. We’d go into games and Marty would say as an offense, we could draw a play up and block everybody but leave one guy free because they knew LT would make that one guy miss.”
Tight End Antonio Gates: “It didn’t matter. You could put eight in the box and you still couldn’t stop him. We’d say leave a man for LT and he’ll make him miss. And he did it over and over again. That is why he was special. You just knew he was going to take over.”
Part 2 – The Question Mark at Quarterback
The Chargers entered 2006 knowing what they had at running back. It was the unknown quantity at quarterback that worried them. After the Bolts acquired Philip Rivers in a much publicized draft day trade, the QB spent his first two seasons learning behind Drew Brees. After Brees suffered a career-threatening shoulder injury in the 2005 season finale, the Chargers made the decision to roll with Rivers. With a first time starter under center, the entire organization knew they were going to rely on LT even more.
Center Nick Hardwick: “It is easy to look back and say, ‘Yeah, we knew Philip was going to be good.’ But we didn’t really know if he would be. We knew he could, but didn’t know if he would.”
Running Back LaDainian Tomlinson: “I knew going in I would get a lot of touches. Having a young quarterback and first time starter, and with Marty’s philosophy, we all knew that we probably wouldn’t go out and throw the ball 30 or 40 times a game. It would be a balance of 65-35 run to pass. But that was also how our team was built. We were built to rely more on the run.”
Quarterback Philip Rivers: “It was comforting to have a guy like LT back there for me. Gates had really come along my first two years to become the Gates that we know, so that was comforting as a first year starter, too. I had the guy to hand it to in LT, and Gates was nearby to kind of be that guy I could throw it to.”
Left Guard Kris Dielman: “We knew LT was going to be our horse. Philip was still young, and LT was a pretty savvy. He was an accomplished veteran, and we knew we could strap it on to his back and ride him.”
Center Nick Hardwick: “Yeah, we knew that we were good as a team. We knew we had a really good makeup of a great defense. On offense, we knew we had a great running game. We had the fullback. We had the tight end. And it turned out we had the quarterback who could make every tough throw you needed him to make. But we didn’t know for sure at the time.”
Radio Voice of the Chargers Josh Lewin: “When the season started there was all this angst about how it would be with Philip Rivers in charge. Then they go out on a Monday night to start the season and shutout the Raiders. The next week they just about shutout the Titans, too. So you are sitting there in the middle of September thinking ‘Boy, this is going to be great.’”
Sure enough, the Bolts opened the season riding LT. He recorded the third most carries of his career in Week 1, toting the rock 31 times as the Chargers steamrolled the Raiders with a 27-0 road victory. Meanwhile, Rivers threw the ball just 11 times, completing eight passes for 110 yards and a touchdown.
President of Football Operations John Spanos: “Going into the season we thought a big priority for us, in terms of weekly game plans, was going to be establishing the run game. Well, that thought couldn’t have been confirmed any stronger than week 1 when LT had over 30 carries and we only threw 11 passes.”
Director of Public Relations Bill Johnston: “I remember Marty saying he wanted to take it slow with Philip at first, so the coaches limited what they were asking him to do. They were giving the ball to LT any way they could. Runs, quick passes, having him throw it. And then, we were doing really well so that plan never changed although eventually they opened things up for Philip.”
Quarterback Philip Rivers: “He had a good feel for the game, which really helped me that year. I have grown where I direct a lot of the traffic now, but there would be times when you would hear him hollering over to the other backs, ‘We got action! We got action!’ He’d say, ‘I need you over here to help me out.’ He was in-tune to all that. He had great awareness of all of that, not just in the run game, but in protections, too.”
Head Coach Marty Schottenheimer: “LT helped Philip, but Philip helped LT, too. Philip was a terrific quarterback. We knew that going into that year. He had the ability to understand exactly what we were trying to do offensively. He could have a player walk into the huddle, and that player may not have remembered his specific assignment on that play, but sure enough Philip knew it for every one of them. There wasn’t an assignment Philip didn’t know, so that was a help for LaDainian as well.”
Quarterback Philip Rivers: “There was no doubt that as a first year starter, even though I had been here for two years and I didn’t feel like a rookie, it was a heck of a way to start my career. And then we won 14 games and the guy behind me is scoring 31 touchdowns and named MVP of the league. It was just crazy.”
Part 3 – LT Breaks Out
Tomlinson raced out to a strong start, but it was merely ho-hum by his standards. In fact, he had just three touchdowns over the first four games of the season. However, that all changed with a Week 6 trip to San Francisco. The Chargers boasted a 3-1 record with the bye in the rearview mirror as they played the 49ers at Candlestick Park. LT scored four rushing touchdowns that day to lead the Bolts to a 48-19 blowout win. His first score broke Lance Alworth’s franchise record for most career touchdowns. His third came with 33 seconds to go in the first half as he seemingly leaped into the stratosphere over a goal-line pile. At that point, 49ers fans began heading for the exits. For the rest of the afternoon, thousands upon thousands of Chargers fans took over “The Stick,” flooding it with chants of “LT! LT! LT!”
Quarterback Philip Rivers: “That game was awesome. I remember Gates caught a 57-yard touchdown on a slant and then broke four tackles and we were just rolling. But it was the LT chants I remember the most. Even on the road, they would fill the stadiums.”
President of Football Operations John Spanos “The San Francisco game from that year is one I’ll always remember. The offense was really clicking and we put close to 50 points on the board that day. The thing I really remember about that day was toward the end of the game most of the 49ers fans had left and all the Chargers fans had moved down to the lower bowl. It truly felt like a home game at that point. You could hear LT chants and Chargers chants. It was awesome.”
Tight End Antonio Gates: “It was crazy. I’d look up and there he’d go, busting a big one. And then you realize, wait, he has four today? He had games where he scored more touchdowns in the game than some people do all season. And then you’d hear the fans.”
Fullback Lorenzo Neal: “You just knew you were working with something special. You knew you had something that only comes around every so often; you don’t get many chances, if at all, to see and be that close to greatness.”
Quarterback Philip Rivers: “We used to joke about it with the guys saying, ‘Hey, when we get down there, you better get into the end zone, because if you get tackled inside the five, we are not going to have a choice but to give it to LT instead.’ Even on the road, the whole stadium is chanting ‘LT’ so we have to give it to him! I mean, we can’t not hand it to him at that point. It’s not like we didn’t mind handing it to him, but it was kind of funny with the other skill guys saying to each other, you better get in because if you get tackled short, LT is getting the ball next.”
Radio Voice of the Chargers Josh Lewin: “Whether you were on the road or at home, everyone was coming to see LT and see what he would do next. He was the centerpiece of everything; the team was built around him that year.”
Running Back LaDainian Tomlinson: “I remember those touchdowns, but what meant the most was that the 49ers game is when we started to feel like we could dominate the league. That we were a special team that could beat anyone. In that game, at that point, our team was the team of California. It wasn’t about the 49ers or Raiders; it was the Chargers. That was a clear indication to everyone that at the end of that game California was truly a Chargers state.”
Part 4 – The Poem
The Chargers followed up the big win in San Francisco with a crushing, last second loss in Kansas City. After rallying from a 17-point deficit to tie the game in the fourth quarter, the rival Chiefs booted a 53-yard field goal with six seconds left to send the Chargers to 4-2. According to those in the locker room, the heartbreaking loss could have sent the team into a tailspin. Critical moments require leadership, and LT provided it in a unique form later that week– a poem.
Running Backs Coach Clarence Shelmon: “One of the things I remember most about him was that he delivered this poem to the whole team – players, coaching staff, everyone – during one of those times we weren’t doing really well. LT spilled his heart out in regards to what playing football meant to him, and how hard you have to work to achieve your goals. He gave everyone a little plaque with a copy of that poem. It was something that resonated with me at that time and it still does because shortly after that our season really took off.”
Running Back LaDainian Tomlinson: “I would always read inspirational poems or quotes to my teammates that I came across. That year it was “The Inner Voice” poem that I gave to everyone. I got one for everyone and put it in their lockers. That became our theme.”
Fullback Lorenzo Neal: “I still have that poem in my house today. It was just about a man’s heart and who you are. The whole thing was about the strength of the inner man and inner soul. It was a self-fulfilling poem about who you are as a man and what it takes. It wasn’t about football; it was about the inner soul.”
Quarterback Philip Rivers: “I remember that poem. He was always doing stuff like that when we needed it. We started 4-1, and then got beat in Kansas City to become 4-2. And then he would do something like that.”
The Chargers didn’t lose a single regular season game the rest of the year, winning 10 straight to post a franchise best 14-2 season. While fans saw LT’s monumental presence on the field, his equally large impact in the locker room often went unnoticed. Truth be told, it was a role LT never felt truly comfortable with.
Running Back LaDainian Tomlinson: “I was thrust into a leadership role that maybe I never really wanted. I was the guy who always just wanted to play ball, but I evolved into one. Just like my career, I’d say I was a late bloomer as a leader. I was never the rah-rah guy. I just didn’t talk much early on, but that evolved and there were times when I needed to say something and I did. They knew I wouldn’t be the rah-rah guy, but when LT said something, he is really serious and means it.”
Head Coach Marty Schottenheimer: “I always referred to him as a quiet leader. He wasn’t one of those guys who would jump up, rant or rave. But when he spoke to his teammates and coaches, he was spot on right on target 98.7-percent of the time.”
Running Back LaDainian Tomlinson: “I used to challenge my teammates. With the defensive guys in the weight room, sometimes I would go over to them and (needle) them. Like Shawne Merriman or Shaun Phillips, if we were playing Walter Jones or Jonathan Ogden, I’d say, ‘Hey man, don’t even worry about lifting weights. I know you aren’t going to get a sack this week. Don’t even bother.’ And that would push them. It would challenge them.”
President of Football Operations John Spanos: “Obviously a huge part of what made him so great were his physical attributes, but equally impressive was everything that he embodied off the field. He was our leader, but he wasn’t overly vocal. But I will say, when he did speak, people listened.”
Quarterback Philip Rivers: “His leadership style was that he didn’t say a lot, but when he did, you felt it. You could hear a pin drop. As a quarterback, you are always communicating and talking. But as a running back, you don’t really as much in that role. So when he did, it was like, ‘Shoot, this must be important.’ Guys would really hold on to what he said and listen to him. It was his way and it was very effective.”
Part 5 – The Streak
Taking the field after the loss to the Chiefs, LT went on a run of epic proportions. He tallied eight straight multi-touchdown games. Three against the Rams. Three against the Browns. Four vs. the Bengals. Four vs. the Broncos. It was an astonishing streak in which Tomlinson’s greatness truly emerged. It was also when people began to believe he might actually set the NFL’s all-time touchdown record.
Running Back LaDainian Tomlinson: “During that streak of four touchdown games, those multi score games were easy. That is when I realized what was possible and knew that this is going to happen. It was so easy.”
Center Nick Hardwick: “Everything just seemed so automatic. Every time giving him the ball down in the red zone he was just so freaking automatic.”
Running Backs Coach Clarence Shelmon: “It wasn’t so much that we were even calling plays for him to score touchdowns as much as he kept finding ways to score touchdowns. Whether it was from 50 or 60 yards out or near the goal line, he just kept scoring.”
President of Football Operations John Spanos: “When you look at the game log from that year, and you see the touchdowns by game, and it’s like 3, 3, 4, 4, 2, 2, 3, etc… it’s just mind boggling to think about. I’ve never seen anything like it. I remember as the year was going on, the NFL would put out these stats about ‘Most touchdowns scored in a two-game stretch, most touchdowns scored in a three game stretch’ and so on. And I remember it seemed like every week he was breaking one of those stats. And then the next week he’d break it again.”
Fullback Lorenzo Neal: “We got to watch greatness. But when you have a guy like LT, I don’t think people fully understand and realize what they got to witness, how blessed they were, to see arguably one of the greatest backs to ever play in the National Football League.”
Director of Public Relations Bill Johnston: “That streak and then his 31 touchdowns, it is the most impressive accomplishment I’ve seen in a season. The only individual accomplishment I could even compare it to would be Wes Chandler in the strike season in 1982. He was unbelievable. In eight games, he had over 1,000 receiving yards. He was just rolling. That is the only thing that might be close.”
Tight End Antonio Gates: “Now I look back on it and realize how crazy it is. But in that moment, to us, he was just having a good year and we were winning games. We were focused on just getting that next win. We weren’t expecting records, but then we look up, and realize what he did. It took us a bit by surprise. We weren’t giving him the ball to get those records, we were giving it to him to win us a game. And he did! That’s how it all unfolded.”
Running Back LaDainian Tomlinson: “That was a great season, but I think just the ability to score touchdowns is probably what people will remember most about me. I was the fastest to score 100 touchdowns in the NFL. That is how you win the game - by scoring. That is what I think people will think of when they think of LT. That he could do it all in terms of catching it, running it and throwing it. But more than that, he could just score, period.”
Part 6 – “A Bunch of Mean Mother F*ckers”
They say a running back is only as good as his offensive line. If that’s the case, if there was a spot in the Hall of Fame for an offensive line as one entity, the 2006 Chargers deserve to be right up there alongside the bust of LT. From left to right, there wasn’t a more productive, or intimidating, offensive line than Marcus McNeil - Kris Dielman – Nick Hardwick – Mike Goff – Shane Olivea.
Running Back LaDainian Tomlinson: “Man, those guys were tough and physical. They relished run blocking. They lived for it. They were the identity of our team. Everyone knew we were running the ball and teams still couldn’t stop us. That speaks to the offensive line and how dominating they were.”
Left Guard Kris Dielman: “We were just a bunch of mean mother f*ckers. That is what we were. Just some tough dudes. I mean, Marcus played with two broken hands late in the year. The rest of us, you could just go around and everyone was injured by the end of the season, but nobody complained. We sucked it up and kept battling. We beat the (crap) out of people. We would break the will of other defensive lines. It was awesome.”
Center Nick Hardwick: “We had everything you needed in that line. We had youth, which was just a ton of energy. We had a really mean pit bull in Dielman. We had a stable left tackle in Marcus. We had Goff, who was the veteran presence who was ever steady. He always did his job so amazingly. And then we had Shane Olivea at right tackle, and that was his best year. He was a really good fit for how we ran it. So I think we had all the different personality traits and all the different physical traits that you needed.”
Quarterback Philip Rivers: “They all fed off each other. They had the mentality of, ‘Shoot, if he’s going to play (banged up), I’m going to also. He’s hurting. I’m hurting. But I can’t not go if he’s going to go.’ It was a group that prided themselves on being tough and nasty. They wanted to always be out there at all costs.”
Director of Public Relations Bill Johnston: “In my 38 years with the Chargers, that was probably the best offensive line we’ve had. Only one starter missed a game, and it was only one game. They were a very proud group.”
Radio Voice of the Chargers Josh Lewin: “There wasn’t any nastier middle than Kris Dielman – Nick Hardwick – Mike Goff. It just seemed they could run straight up the middle whenever they wanted, or they could bounce it outside.”
Quarterback Philip Rivers: “That line took pride in knowing they had an MVP caliber player back there in LT. It was like, ‘We got to help make sure he does what everyone already knows he can do.’ They took pride in both that and protecting their quarterback. They cared about that. They had a passion for it and it meant something to them.”
President of Football Operations John Spanos: “That mix of guys was pretty special. LT is right; they played hard and tough. They took pride in knowing that our offense was going to try and run the ball over and over and over again. And the best part was the mindset of the group; they didn’t care if the defense knew we were going to run the ball. We were still going to run it, and we were going to run it successfully. And we did.”
Still, what you saw on the field was only a glimmer of the work it took to succeed. LT and his linemen spent countless hours at Chargers Park breaking down opposition tendencies. They studied their own habits, knowing where each member would be at all times. All the work all week long turned Sunday into a synchronized dance, poetry in motion where each person knew exactly where the other would be. And they trusted each other to win their individual battles.
Head Coach Marty Schottenheimer: “LaDainian had great instincts for running the ball, and those guys during practice would organize exactly how they wanted to do things. They knew exactly what they were going to do in every situation come the game. LaDainian was the leader of the group, albeit not with what he said. He wasn’t an outgoing, gregarious guy in that nature, but he was the best with how he prepared with them.”
Running Back LaDainian Tomlinson: “We were smart players. We watched a lot of film on what the defense was doing and saw what we needed to do to be successful. We studied everything. I mean it. Everything. On Sundays, it didn’t matter if the defense moved right before the snap or whatever they did. We were able to adjust and knew what every one of us would be doing. That is what made us the best as a team. It doesn’t matter what look the defense was in because we were all on the same page. I knew what my linemen were going to do and they knew what I was going to do.”
Left Guard Kris Dielman: “LT was smart and a good student of the game. He was a lot of fun to be with in those meetings. He would always interact and get on the same page. Playing in the game became second nature. He knew when I was pulling around on a certain play. He knew the way I was going to kick this dude, so he’d go up the other way. We’d talk about it and practice it. He was really inclined to take that, listen and do it.”
Tight End Antonio Gates: “That O-Line was phenomenal. Yeah, we knew we could count on LT, but we knew we could also count on that O-Line collectively. They could get some things done for us. And hey, I made a couple of those blocks, too!”
Center Nick Hardwick: “Sure thing, Gatesy. Blocking is what Antonio Gates is known for.” (laughs)
Tight End Antonio Gates: “Hey, I’m not saying I was a dominating blocker! But I had the want to. It meant something to me, and for all of us, to make the block for that guy running the football. Especially knowing that if I just get my guy, he’s got a chance to reach the end zone.”
Center Nick Hardwick: “It was more than just the O-Line, like he said. It was the tight ends, receivers and of course, Lorenzo Neal.”
Part 7 –There is No 21 Without 41
On November 22, 2015, there was only one logical choice to introduce LT before his number 21 was eternalized forever in the rafters. Lorenzo Neal led the way for so many of Tomlinson’s signature moments, it was only fitting he did so one more time when the Bolts retired his jersey. As LT often said, without number 41, there was no 21.
Running Back LaDainian Tomlinson: “Lorenzo was my eyes. He was the guy who led me through the holes. We were harmony. We were always in sync. It happened quick for us, too. There were certain things I didn’t even have to tell him. He already knew. Now, a lot of fullback-running back combinations take years playing with each other to really understand how they like to run, but we were like that after just one year.”
Center Nick Hardwick: “Lo is blast! Lo is a ball of energy. Every time he came into the game you knew something exciting was going to happen. He was fired up to be there, and we just knew big runs were going to happen. It was like your homerun hitter is going up to the plate, you expect him to do it and he does it.”
Quarterback Philip Rivers: “Lo was awesome. He was your old school fullback, and he wanted to lead the way.”
Head Coach Marty Schottenheimer: “Lorenzo was simply a blocking back. But obviously, he did a terrific job. He was perfect to team up with LT. The confidence they had in each other; they were a perfect match.”
Running Backs Coach Clarence Shelmon: “Lorenzo was the most physical fullback I ever saw. He was unbelievable.”
Left Guard Kris Dielman: “Having Lorenzo Neal as your freaking fullback helps out A LOT. He was like another lineman because he is crazy. He is just as crazy as the five o-linemen. When you have that mixture, it’s money. Lorenzo would run through anything. I watched him crush some people. He was a beast.”
Quarterback Philip Rivers: “He touched the ball some throughout the year on a fullback belly, but he was an extension of the linemen. He took pride in knowing he was going to help LT be one of the best ever. He’d say that. Lo loved that. Lo and LT would talk a lot. He played some tailback in college and the career he had, he would say to LT, ‘This is what I see here, ok? I’m taking this player and go that way.’ They were really, really close.”
Fullback Lorenzo Neal: “The offensive linemen and the guys I was able to build relationships with was second to none. I was very blessed and very fortunate to play with a guy of the stature of LaDainian Tomlinson. It was great being an extension of the linemen; they treated me like I was lineman, they treated me like I was one of theirs.”
Center Nick Hardwick: “Lo was LT’s eyes; Lo knew his assignment so well that he knew how to make the right adjustments. He knew where the linebackers were going to be, and he knew what LT was thinking because he is an amazing communicator. It was really great timing for everybody.”
Radio Voice of the Chargers Josh Lewin: “I didn’t really appreciate Lorenzo at the time. Only since he left do you really appreciate what he did. I mean, he and LT worked in such perfect synchronicity. The way they worked in concert was beautiful.”
Running Back LaDainian Tomlinson: “Lorenzo is a man of many talents. He was a champion wrestler, and he was a jokester. I mean, he is one of my very best friends. But Lorenzo is the ultimate professional. It was the best relationship I could have had with a fullback. It’s hard to even explain what our relationship was like.”
Left Guard Kris Dielman: “The proof is in his work. He became LT’s fullback and LT had these crazy years. Lorenzo – that dude is legit. Fullback like he played it is a lost spot in today’s game.”
Part 8 – The Epic Comeback
Asked to describe one game that defined LT’s historic season, few if any mentioned the record-breaking performance itself. Instead, it was the comeback in Cincinnati. Down by 21 points at halftime, the Chargers rallied for their greatest come from behind win in franchise history. The game not only showcased LT’s skills, but also his fiery persona and stout leadership.
Quarterback Philip Rivers: “I remember that game because we were struggling the first half and it was like, “What in the world is happening?”
Running Back LaDainian Tomlinson: “21-0 in the first quarter seemed like an insurmountable deficit to come back from, but we weren’t scared. They did it too early! That’s what I was saying. If they were up 21 in the fourth quarter that would have been one thing. But they did it too early.”
President of Football Operations John Spanos: “We go into Cincy and they jump out to this huge lead. It seemed like it was 28-7 in the blink of an eye, and it was like, ‘Oh my goodness. Well, we’re going to see what we’re made of in this second half.’”
Running Back LaDainian Tomlinson: “I remember the coaches being really upset at the way we were playing. Coach Shelmon came in and threw a projector right away.”
Running Backs Coach Clarence Shelmon: “I did! I It was really cold, and they jumped out on us really bad. I kind of went crazy in the locker room at halftime. So I threw a projector against a wall.”
Left Guard Kris Dielman: “Marty’s halftime speech was pretty crazy, too. I can’t remember specifics, but he went crazy.”
Center Nick Hardwick: “Being in the locker room at halftime is really what I remember most from that game. Marty came in and said, ‘Men, I don’t know how this is going to play out, but we’re going go out there and fight and see what happens. I can’t promise you that we are going to come back and win, but we are going to fight our asses off!’
Running Backs Coach Clarence Shelmon: “The guys came in the locker room and knew they hadn’t played the way they were capable of playing. LT made some comments, and they kind of made a commitment to each other to go out there, have some resolve and not give in to the adversity that they faced.”
Running Back LaDainian Tomlinson: “We were all in shock. As captain of that team, it was my job to get everybody focused on the second half and give everyone the belief that we are coming back. We are going to come back and win this game.”
That’s exactly what the Bolts did with a 42 point second half explosion. LT tallied four touchdowns, including two in a 15 second span in the fourth quarter as the Chargers took advantage of a Carson Palmer fumble. When all was said and done, they returned home with a 49-41 victory.
Quarterback Philip Rivers: “If I pick a handful of games that I look back to in my career and thought, ‘I am going to be alright in this league’; it is that one. Because of how LT was, how our team responded and how we fought together.”
Running Backs Coach Clarence Shelmon: “LT has a heart that is as big as a football field, and that guy hated to lose. I mean he hated to lose. That is why he put it on the line the way he did all the time.”
Tight End Antonio Gates: “That game right there, those were the type of games that would separate him. He was able to carry us when times got hard. If things got hard, we knew we just had to get the ball to 21. He could make some things happen. When you have a player like that, and surround him with guys who believe in him, that is when special things happen.”
Quarterback Philip Rivers: “I remember him running 90-Truck-T where he scored on an outside sweep and cut back inside to take the lead early in the fourth. Those games like against Cincy, he had four touchdowns but he contributed in so many other ways. When you are down 28-7, you throw it a lot but he made some runs that were key and then had some plays in the passing game.”
Center Nick Hardwick: “That set the tone for the season. Games like that really strengthen your resolve. You just have the feeling that you can overcome anything against all odds if after being down 21 against a good football you find a way to beat them. And we did that.”
Part 9 – “All Glory is Fleeting”
Michael Jordan. The Beatles. Elvis Presley. That was the level LT was on in 2006. A superstar in every sense of the word, everybody wanted a piece of Tomlinson. The praise was endless. The demand nonstop. But LT didn't change.
Quarterback Philip Rivers: “When you thought about the Chargers at that time, it was LaDainian Tomlinson. He was the guy out west. He was no doubt a superstar, but in the locker room, we saw him as one of the guys. We all knew what he was, a superstar, but it never felt like he was better than us. He didn’t act that way. That dynamic can be tough. Being a superstar at that level is a whole different animal.”
Running Back LaDainian Tomlinson: “I tried to keep everything in perspective. I remember something my old college coach, Dennis Franchione, told me when I started to have a little success. He called me in his office and said, ‘All Glory is Fleeting.” I didn’t know what he really meant. I said, ‘Huh? What are you talking about, Coach?’ And he said it again. ‘All Glory is Fleeting. Do you know what that means?’ I said, ‘No, sir.’ He said, ‘All glory that you gain instantly starts to fade right away. At some point it will all fade.’ I kept everything in perspective after that point. Those words stuck with me through everything.”
Director of Public Relations Bill Johnston: “LT was a real pro when it came to the media, too. He handled his responsibilities. He never balked, and he never changed win, lose or otherwise. He knew what was expected of him, and it was a lot, but LT always stepped up. Everyone was pulling on him in different directions, especially by the end of the year.”
Fullback Lorenzo Neal: “Every year people would line up just to get a look at him, but that year especially. I remember I was on vacation with my wife in New York and his jerseys were selling in downtown New York. I was like ‘Oh my God,’ what is that like to not even be in that market and have your jerseys selling out? It wasn’t Michael Strahan. It was LaDainian Tomlinson’s jersey in downtown New York. Everyone wanted a piece of LT.”
Director of Public Relations Bill Johnston: “LT didn’t put on an air about him, and that is why I believe the outside world respected him so much. It’s because he didn’t change with the success he had, or who he was talking to. He always was cognizant of relationships, and of other people’s feelings, needs and jobs they had to do. LT was genuine. There were things that pissed him off, and he had passion. He would get fired up about things that happened. But he was able to use it in the right away.”
President of Football Operations John Spanos: “When your best player is also one of your hardest workers, and does everything right off the field, that is going to make everyone on the team better. That is kind of what he embodied and the example he set for everyone.”
Fullback Lorenzo Neal: “LT touched lives! That is what is so remarkable about him. He just didn’t do it when the lights were on, when everyone was there watching and talking about him. He did it when he wasn’t in the spotlight.”
One example was “The 21 Club.” LT invited 21 kids from youth groups and non-profit organizations to attend each home game. Afterward, he invited them on the field where he would personally meet with them for a one-on-one visit and special gift.
Director of Public Relations Bill Johnston: “Everything about LT is why the fans loved him. He is a very real person to people. LT was the man on that team, but he never acted superior. He had an ego. Everyone does, but he never showed it. The fans pick up on that, and he was everything to them. He made the most of his time when he was here. On the field, certainly. But off the field he was still doing different programs and had different charities. He began a foundation he was really tied into.”
Fullback Lorenzo Neal: “LaDainian Tomlinson was a better person than he was a player. My sister Twlya was born with Down Syndrome and she loved LT. She met a lot of players and a lot of guys, but she fell in love with LT. She talks about him to this day. LT would always treat her so well, giving her a hug and a kiss. She would just be on cloud nine. Now she is 35 years old and she still talks about LaDainian.”
Head Coach Marty Schottenheimer: “I’ve always said when you look at him as a football player you say, ‘Wow, he’s a terrific running back.’ But in my mind, the way he performed as a player was outmatched by only one thing – his heart.”
Part 10 – “Chargers Fans Are Witnesses to History!”
December 10, 2006. Week 13. To this day, the date lives on in football immortality. However, the team’s focus that day was solely on beating the Denver Broncos and capturing the AFC West crown. The Bolts of course knew LT was three touchdowns away from setting the record, but it was merely a thought in the back of their minds. When the ball kicked off, they had no idea they would soon make history.
Running Back LaDainian Tomlinson: “Most of that game, breaking the record wasn’t any part of my thinking. It was all about clinching. Honestly, I didn’t think I would get it that day. It is hard to score multiple touchdowns in a game, especially against a division opponent.”
Quarterback Philip Rivers: “Obviously we all knew that week going into the Denver game where he was with it, but we were focused on getting that win.”
Center Nick Hardwick: “Actually, I had no idea. The first I knew of this record, this is how ignorant I was at the time, was when it flashed up on the board after his second touchdown. LT has tied the single season touchdown record. I was like, ‘Whoa! Cool!’
Running Back LaDainian Tomlinson: “My mindset the whole game was not, ‘Oh I am going to break the record this game, and yeah, it is going to be awesome.’ I just tried to have the same routine and really think about what I needed to do to help my team win the game. Now, when I got close to it, and certainly when Shawne Merriman got that sack and we got the ball back in the red zone, what went through my mind was, ‘Ok, this is supposed to happen.’"
It’s the defining moment in Chargers history. Shawne Merriman forcing a fumble. The offense getting the ball at the seven-yard line. Tomlinson crossing the goal line. The team running onto the field and into the huddle. Everyone rushing to LT after the touchdown, lifting him in the air and into immortality.
Running Back LaDainian Tomlinson: “Up until that point I never thought anything was supposed to happen that day, but at that point I thought to myself, ‘This is supposed to happen. We are supposed to break the record right here.’ I didn’t say nothing. I walked in the huddle and Kris Dielman looked at me and said ‘Let’s get it.’ I looked at him and said, ‘Ok, let’s go.’”
Quarterback Philip Rivers: “That feeling, I’m sure some of the other guys described it in their own way differently, but there was a feel in the stadium of history is about to happen. It was different sounding. There was a vibrant kind of atmosphere.”
Center Nick Hardwick: “I remember being in the huddle and just feeling really consumed with this energy that we were about to do something great. We went down on that drive and I remember him in the huddle. He came in and basically said, “Guys, I’m going to break the record on this run.’ I started welling up in the huddle.”
President of Football Operations John Spanos: “I was standing right there in the end zone and can picture it perfectly. We got that turnover, and I think everyone in that stadium felt like he was going to score. For whatever reason, every one of us was standing there and all of us had the same feeling of ‘Hey, he is going to break the record right here.’”
Running Back LaDainian Tomlinson: “As I got ready to take the ball, I’m looking inside because it was 50-power. So my eyes go inside. They go straight downhill into the A-gap, and so as I check the A-gap I see that it is clogged up. Then my next thing, my eyes go to the left and out because I am searching for a hole, and then out of the corner of my eye I see Lorenzo start to fall.”
Fullback Lorenzo Neal: “Well, we bounce it out and I trip. I’m falling and I’m thinking this is a bad dream. Are you kidding me? This can’t be happening! Oh my God, it was like slow motion. It was like the commercial, ‘I’ve fallen and can’t get up!’ I remember going down, and I’m like ‘Oh my God!’” If you watch the play, I am crawling on the ground like a damn dog. I was crawling, scratching. I am yelling at myself, ‘Please don’t fall down!’ And that is what is so good about LT. He didn’t just make one guy miss; he made two guys miss on that play. My guy and the other guy.”
Running Back LaDainian Tomlinson: “So then I see a defender who he is supposed to block right there in front of him, and I think to myself that if I can get to the corner, that defender still won’t be able to tackle me. So I booked it. I went to the corner and end up getting in.”
Quarterback Philip Rivers: “I just remember when he bounced it, I knew he was scoring That one, when he bounced it, it was like ‘Alright, it’s over, he’s getting in there.’”
Tight End Antonio Gates: “He raised his hand we all ran down there. Lifting him, when I see those pictures on the wall these days, it’s still such a special moment. It’s a time I look back on and cherish those memories.”
Fullback Lorenzo Neal: “I will tell you, I was so happy when I looked up. After the smoke cleared and the fireworks went off, and I looked up and LT had scored. I was like ‘Thank God! He saved me.’ If he wouldn’t have made that touchdown, I probably would have been cut the next day.”
Center Nick Hardwick: “I had a back block, so my back was turned to him, but I knew he scored by the sounds. The guys had already beaten me over there to celebrate, and everybody was lifting him up. My only concern was while he was up on people’s shoulders that I wanted to touch him. I just wanted to touch greatness; it was just such a magical moment.”
Tight End Antonio Gates: “Even though we didn’t win a Super Bowl or an AFC Championship, like he’s said, we had big moments like that. Those celebratory moments are what we will always have, and can talk about forever.”
Left Guard Kris Dielman: “The place was electric. I will never forget that. My family was all right there with him in that corner too, so that was special. They were able to be a part of that, too. That was a special year, man. A special moment.”
President of Football Operations John Spanos: “Once he broke the record, it started to set in. We just witnessed the greatest single-season touchdown scoring record in the history of the NFL.”
Running Back LaDainian Tomlinson: “It’s indescribable. Man, to be able to do that, turn around and see your teammates running at you; it is such a phenomenal moment. I think I realize how special that moment is every day I get further and further away from when it happened.”
Radio Voice of the Chargers Josh Lewin: “I love hearing that call – ‘Chargers fans are witnesses to history’. It was mostly organic. I didn’t know exactly what it would sound like when it left my mouth. The one thing I knew I wanted to do, because the fans were just so into it that day. I wasn’t sure how to weave in the fans but I just felt like they were part of the story so I had to involve them. I was just so thrilled to watch it happen and the fans just exploded. I looked out the press box window and it was just sheer joy. It was such a tsunami of joy.”
Part 11 – LT’s Legacy
LaDainian Tomlinson scored two more touchdowns the next week to bring his record breaking total to 31. While it was a magical season unlike any the NFL will likely see again, it is only a small piece of what defines LT’s legacy. He ranks fifth all-time in career rushing yards, twice led the NFL in rushing yards and was the NFL rushing touchdown king on three occasions. A five-time Pro Bowler, he was also a three-time First-Team All-Pro selection, three-time Second-Team All-Pro Selection. Overall, LT’s legacy is one that will always be remembered. However, his 31 touchdown season is one that will in all likelihood never be surpassed.
Fullback Lorenzo Neal: “I think it is going to take a near-act of God to break it. Records are meant to be broken, I get that, I just can’t see it happening… unless a team gets down to the goal line and gives it to one guy every time.”
Tight End Antonio Gates: “He is going to hold that record for a long, long time. It’s crazy to think anyone will ever be able to come close.”
Running Backs Coach Clarence Shelmon: “All records can be broken, but this one is not going to be easy. I can promise you that. What LT did, the guy was unbelievable. It was like watching a video game.”
President of Football Operations John Spanos: “31 touchdowns. Thirty One. If someone is ever going to break that, it would have to be a pretty spectacular year. I would image there is a good chance that’s going to stand for a long while. It’s pretty awesome, and speaks to how talented LT was as a player, and how special that year was.”
Running Back LaDainian Tomlinson: “What we all did that year is hard to do. It is hard to go 14-2. It is hard to set a record like that touchdown record. Think about it. No one in the history of the game has scored over 30 touchdowns in a season except for me, and we did that together. We did it as a team. That is one thing that my teammates can say. That no one ever did what we did together. No one has. That is a pretty special feeling. And we did it as a team.”