LaDainian Tomlinson is calling it a career. The dazzling running back signed a one-day contract with the San Diego Chargers on June 18 and then promptly announced his retirement, ending his 11-year career in the NFL.
It’ll be strange watching football this fall without L.T. in the mix. In his time with the league, he has become an NFL icon. He’s a five-time Pro Bowler, twice led the league in rushing yards, was named the 2006 NFL MVP, and holds a number of league records. He rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of his first 8 seasons, and he was one of the rare athletes who excelled in college (TCU), was selected in the first round of the NFL Draft, and lived up to expectations as a pro.
Tomlinson is also a genuinely good person, too, which made him easy to admire. His father abandoned the family when L.T. was young, yet LaDainian managed to overcome that obstacle just fine. He was named the Walter Payton Man of the Year in 2006 and the Bart Starr Man of the Year in 2007. He promised his mom that he’d return to TCU and finish his college degree, and in 2005, he did just that. He is heavily involved with community service, and you never hear about him in the police blotter.
He’s a living, breathing Disney movie script.
One thing he hasn’t achieved, however, is a Super Bowl ring, which is a driving force that often keeps NFL players hanging around too long, and which motivated Tomlinson to join the New York Jets after the Chargers released him in 2010.
Even players who have won a Super Bowl have stayed in the game longer than they should have and have put some tarnish on an otherwise shiny career. Johnny Unitas was a legend as a member of the Baltimore Colts, but his last season in the league—with the Chargers—made fans cringe. Ken Stabler had a brilliant career with the Oakland Raiders but stuck around too long with the Houston Oilers and New Orleans Saints. Most recently, Brett Favre alienated many football fans by not knowing when to say goodbye.
But Tomlinson is doing it the right way. He felt like he still had something left in the tank when the Chargers released him, and he proved it with the Jets in 2010, rushing for 914 yards and catching 368 yards’ worth of passes. The Jets fell just short, however of providing L.T. with an opportunity to get that elusive Super Bowl ring, losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship game.
In 2011, he played a much-diminished role with the Jets, running only 75 times for just 280 yards, and a disappointing 8-8 record kept the team out of the playoffs.
The signs are there that it’s time for L.T. to explore life after football, and to his credit, he’s doing just that by retiring before we remember him as a broken-down used up back rather than for the top shelf player that he was for a decade.
He’s doing it the right way at the right time. He’ll retire as a Charger, and when he inevitably enters the Pro Football Hall of Fame, it will be as a Charger.
Here’s to that kind of success for him outside of football, too.