On Monday, LaDainian Tomlinson said goodbye to the NFL. One of the best players on the field for the last 11 years, and one of the classiest men off the field, Tomlinson ended his career the way he started it – with the San Diego Chargers, signing a one-day contract with the team in order to retire as a Charger.
Tomlinson played with the Chargers from 2001 to 2009, and was with the New York Jets for the last two season. He was a five time Pro Bowl selection, two time NFL rushing leader (2006 and 2007), NFL MVP (2006) and a sure first-ballot Hall of Famer.
“It wasn’t because I didn’t want to play anymore. It was simply time to move on,” Tomlinson said.
He invoked the memorable words of one of his former teammates, as he recalled Chargers’ linebacker Junior Seau’s first retirement speech in 2006.
“[Seau] said, ‘I’m graduating today.’ I’ve been playing football 20-some years and so at some point it almost seems like school every year where you sacrifice so much and there is so much you put on the line, mentally and physically, with your body, everything,” Tomlinson said.
“So today, I take the words of Junior Seau: I feel like I’m graduating. I really do, because I’ve got my life ahead of me.”
Kris Dielman, one of the offensive linemen who blocked for Tomlinson in San Diego, fondly recalled the memories of their time together. “I was a part of greatness,” Dielman said. “And it was awesome to be a part of it. It was awesome to watch. I mean, I had the best seat in the house. It was a fun time.”
Tomlinson said of his offensive linemen, “They were my best friends.”
There is a bittersweet feeling to this retirement, even more than most. Tomlinson quoted Junior Seau, who killed himself on May 2 of this year. Seau was the pillar of the defense just as Tomlinson was for the Chargers offense. And Dielman, who went to four Pro Bowls blocking for Tomlinson, retired this season after suffering a seizure following a concussion against the New York Jets last season, with Tomlinson across the field in a Jets uniform at that game.
With the spectre of Seau and Dielman in the room, it was even more meaningful to see Tomlinson walk away from the game healthy and seemingly in good spirits. “I’m healthy, I’m happy with a great family and I’m excited to now be a fan and watch you guys play.”
Tomlinson ends his career fifth all time in rushing yards with 13,684, ahead of Hall of Famers like Eric Dickerson, Tony Dorsett and Jim Brown. He is second all time in rushing TDs with 145, trailing only Emmett Smith’s 164, and is third all time in total TDs, trailing only Smith and Jerry Rice. He holds numerous NFL records, including most TDs in a season (31 in 2006); most rushing TDs in a season (28 in 2006); and the most games with 2+ or 3+ TDs (38 and 12, respectively). He scored 17 or more TDs in five consecutive seasons, from 2003 to 2007. He will go down in history as one of the greatest NFL players without a Super Bowl ring, along with other unfortunately Hall of Famers like Dan Marino and Barry Sanders.
Tomlinson said, “I’m OK with never winning a Super Bowl championship. I know we’ve got many memories that we can call championship days.”
Even his draft story was noteworthy, as he was selected with the fifth overall pick in the 2001 NFL draft. San Diego had held the number one pick, but traded with Atlanta who moved up four spots to select Michael Vick. San Diego used the pick they acquired from Atlanta to take Tomlinson at number five, and then picked up an “undersized” quarterback in the second round from Purdue named Drew Brees. Getting two Hall of Fame players in a single draft doesn’t happen very often.
Perhaps the chairman and CEO of the Jets, where Tomlinson played his last two years, summed it up best. “People and players like LaDainian Tomlinson don’t come around very often,” Woody Johnson said in a statement. “His humility and work ethic made it clear why he will be remembered as one of the game’s best players. Without question, his next stop will be the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”