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Chargers ride L.T.'s lightning, line's spark to success

Discussion in 'San Diego Chargers Hall of Champions' started by robdog, Dec 8, 2005.

  1. robdog

    robdog Code Monkey Staff Member Administrator

    Jun 29, 2009
    Source: <a href="http://www.usatoday.com/sports/football/nfl/chargers/2005-12-07-tomlinson-line_x.htm" target="_blank">USA Today</a>

    <img src="http://bolttalk.com/images/tomlinson35.jpg" alt="LT" />

    By Chris Colston

    SAN DIEGO - When it comes to generating revenue, the NFL is unparalleled in pro sports. But there are a few untapped possibilities: Forget the Skycam - how about a seat cam? Let a fan hover over the field strapped into a chair on a pulley. Whooo-eeee! They could affix tiny cameras to each player's helmet and offer an at-home, on-demand feature where subscribers can choose from which position to watch the developing play.

    Or, they could televise San Diego Chargers practices.

    Granted, idea No. 3 sounds like a tough sell. Football practices are often boring, even to the participants. But those sessions are worth watching for one reason: running back LaDainian Tomlinson. It is there, amid the palm trees on the lush grass tucked hard against the Murphy Canyon hills, Tomlinson does some of his best work.

    "You know those moves of his that make everybody go 'ooh' and 'aah' on Sunday? He makes those same moves Wednesday through Friday," guard Mike Goff says. "Absolutely."

    Tomlinson is able to spin his midweek magic because, well, he tries. "He consistently works hard every day," wide receiver Keenan McCardell says. "That's the only way you can be great - the only way. And he's always at practice."

    At 5-10, 221 pounds, Tomlinson's body takes a weekly pounding. Common sense might dictate taking it easy during the week to preserve one's health, but ... "Yes, you think he'd take a day or two off," wide receiver Reche Caldwell says. "But he never does."

    In his fifth year, Tomlinson, 26, is leading San Diego's playoff charge. He ranks fifth in the league in rushing with 1,172 yards, has 42 catches for 339 yards and has accounted for 22 touchdowns: 17 rushing, two receiving and three passing.

    With a 34-10 win Sunday night against the division rival Raiders, the Chargers - who started the season 0-2 - have won five in a row and are 8-4. And with Denver's 31-27 loss to Kansas City, San Diego pulled to within one game of the AFC West lead, tied with the Chiefs for both second place and the last wild-card spot. As it stands now, the Chargers would win the tiebreaker based on their 28-20 win over the Chiefs on Oct. 30.

    To make the playoffs, though, the Chargers will have to earn it. After hosting Miami (5-7) this week, they travel to undefeated Indianapolis and Kansas City before hosting Denver in the regular-season finale on New Year's Eve.

    They like their chances, because while Tomlinson might be the NFL's best player, this is not a one-man team. Fullback Lorenzo Neal is a monstrous, bruising lead blocker for Tomlinson. Quarterback Drew Brees ranks fifth in the league in passer rating and continues to develop as a team leader on and off the field. His play has kept the NFL's No. 4 overall pick in 2004, Philip Rivers, on the bench. Tight end Antonio Gates is on his way to another Pro Bowl season, with 63 catches for 874 yards and eight touchdowns. He has played through a foot injury and last week said he feels good. The offensive line has fought through injuries to open holes for Tomlinson and has allowed Brees to be sacked just 19 times. And the defense, ranked No. 12 in the league, should continue to improve with playmaking rookies Shawne Merriman and Luis Castillo.

    And they have a veteran coaching staff. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's name is starting to get bandied about as a head coaching prospect. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is one of the league's best and hopes to be a head coach again one day. With 185 career wins, Marty Schottenheimer is the NFL's winningest active coach. He needs just one more win to move into a tie with Chuck Knox for seventh place on the all-time list.

    The team's four losses were to Dallas (7-5) by four in the season opener, at Denver (9-3) by three, to Pittsburgh (7-5) by two and at Philadelphia - when the Eagles had both quarterback Donovan McNabb and receiver Terrell Owens- by three.

    "We've got the talent," McCardell says. "We just need to keep winning."

    Along with Seattle running back Shaun Alexander and Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning, Tomlinson is on the short list of league MVP candidates. Tomlinson certainly is the man who makes everything click in San Diego. At least one teammate shudders to think of what might happen if Tomlinson were to go down with a significant injury. The Chargers got a scare late in the second quarter Sunday when Tomlinson came out of the game with a rib injury. He returned to start the second half and finished with 86 yards on 25 carries.

    "I won't even comment on that; I don't want to start that even getting mentioned," McCardell says. "If it happened, other people have to step up, but I don't even want to go there about thinking about that. It's good when he's here. No, not good - it's great when he's here."

    For someone with Tomlinson's talent, some questions must be addressed: How does he stay mentally engaged during practice each week? Where is the challenge? What keeps him fighting so hard? His answer is simple, boring and to the point: "I always think I can get better," he says. "I'm never satisfied. That's why I keep working."

    Because of things that have happened to him since his high school days, Tomlinson has been conditioned to expect the short shrift. In high school, they made him play fullback, not tailback, until his senior year at Waco (Texas) University High. But once he got his shot, he was named Super Centex Offensive Player of the Year.

    Despite his accolades, talent evaluators were not sold. Schools such as Kansas State and Texas A&M overlooked him, so he went to Texas Christian. But even there, his own coaching staff underestimated him. He didn't get a full-time shot at running back until his junior year, when he led the NCAA's Division I-A in rushing with 1,850 yards. But again, scouts were not sold. He queried an NFL advisory committee about his draft status; he was told he'd be a late third-round pick. He returned for his senior season and rushed for 2,158 yards.

    After rushing for 118 yards in the Senior Bowl and running 40 yards in 4.3 seconds, the scouts finally began to believe, and San Diego took him fifth overall. Yet recognition still eluded him. He piled up 2,370 yards from scrimmage in 2003 - the second-highest total in NFL history - but was left off the AFC Pro Bowl squad.

    All that has changed now. After rushing for 1,335 yards and 17 touchdowns (despite a nagging groin injury) and catching 53 passes for 441 yards and another score, The Associated Press named him first-team All-Pro in 2004. And he's having an even better season in 2005.

    In San Diego's 23-17 win at Washington in Week 12, Tomlinson rushed for 184 yards, 147 of them after halftime. His 32-yard run late in the fourth quarter tied the game and his 41-yarder in overtime won it. Afterward, coach Marty Schottenheimer gushed that Tomlinson was the best running back he had ever seen: "I know people say: 'Well, what about Jim Brown? And what about Gale Sayers?' ... But I tell you what, in the era that we're in now, where you have defensive linemen that weigh 300 pounds and run 4.75, and these mammoth guys that are playing linebacker, I think with a certainty, in my opinion, he is the finest running back that I have ever seen."

    Last week, Schottenheimer said his comments were not the result of being swept up in the moment.

    "My first year here I put a caveat on it, that he was one of the best that I've ever seen," he says. "But being around him more and more, I ultimately reached the point where there are no qualifiers any more. That's just one man's opinion. But in this one man's opinion, he's the best back I've seen in the NFL."

    Tomlinson says the quote doesn't embarrass him: "But I still have a long way to go. This is my fifth year, and I think by the time I do hang up my cleats, hopefully a lot of other people will feel that way. I still feel like I have something to prove to a lot of people."

    What really makes Tomlinson unique is his presence as a triple threat. "I enjoy that," he says of his throwing acumen, "but I really don't practice it all. I might throw it around a little bit, but the only time I really practice it is when we put specific plays in."

    When asked if Brees has ever offered any pointers on throwing mechanics, Tomlinson laughed, "No, he's never done that."

    Perhaps he's worried that if Tomlinson got too good, there would be no need for the quarterback. Just snap it straight to the running back and have another blocker out in front of him. Perhaps an egomaniac would push for that, but not Tomlinson.

    "You don't think about him until you talk to your friends and they go: 'How's L.T., man? Is he a good dude?' " center Nick Hardwick says. "We say, 'Yeah, he's an awesome guy.' "

    Chargers offensive tackle Roman Oben is in his 10th NFL season and has also played with Cleveland, Tampa Bay and the New York Giants. "L.T. is the best football player I've played with in my career, and I've played with Michael Strahan and John Lynch and Derrick Brooks," he says. "Those are the kinds of character guys I compare him to, and he's clearly the best.

    "The way this league is, you get guys who have all that ability, and they're either hotheads or ... there's always something. Seldom do you have that guy with the ability, the work ethic and the leadership and all the other intangibles. Then you see the Wayne Chrebets of the world who probably shouldn't be in the NFL, but he makes plays for 10, 12 years because of what's in his head and his heart.

    "I think guys like L.T. and Marvin Harrison, who do things right all the time, don't get enough credit. Sometimes people would rather see somebody fail, some tragedy, because it gives people something to talk about."

    But Tomlinson and his wife, LaTorsha, did experience tragedy last February. The couple was expecting the birth of their first child when LaTorsha suffered a miscarriage. The two of them have persevered and grown closer, and when a visitor offered his sympathies last week Tomlinson smiled gently and said, "It's OK."

    Exactly what kind of teammate is Tomlinson?

    "He's the best kind of superstar you can have," Hardwick says, "because he's got so much talent but doesn't flaunt it. His celebration dances are real simple. But the best thing is, he lets us hug him and pat him on the head. A lot of players, when they score a touchdown, will run away, because they want all the cameras to be on just them. But L.T. just stands there and lets us celebrate with him."

    Tomlinson does allow himself one bit of flash. He drives a restored 1964 cherry-red Chevy Impala equipped with a hydraulic lift kit. He admits this is a little out of character. "But ever since I was a kid I wanted an Impala convertible," he says. "I always loved the old-school cars. And I said that if I ever had enough money, I'd restore the whole car from top to bottom. And I did it."

    Perhaps a powder-blue-and-gold Dodge Charger might have been more fitting, but there's time for that - perhaps after he achieves his main goal: winning a Super Bowl.

    "When I'm hanging out with friends who don't play football, they're like, 'Wow, what's it like to block for him?' " tackle Shane Olivea says. "I don't want to say I take him for granted, but the 'awe effect' has worn off because I see him every day. But watching film, it hits you, some of the things he does. It's like watching Nintendo. What do you call it? He's like a little robot out there."

    Oben adds: "It's like L.T. plays with a camera on top of his head."

    The L.T. cam? Now that's a view fans would definitely pay to see.


    Training camp was nearly over for the two grumpy rookies sitting to the rear of the Chargers' offensive line meeting room before the 2004 season. Their bodies ached from two-a-days in the Southern California heat and their minds were spinning from the new terminology.

    Then it was time to watch tape, and it's a rookie's job to turn off the light. The switch was in the front of the room, about 15 feet away.

    "Hit the light, Shane," said Hardwick, a third-round pick from Purdue.

    "No, you get it," said Olivea, a seventh-rounder out of Ohio State.

    "I'm not getting up," Hardwick said.

    "Me neither," Olivea said.

    This went back and forth until Hardwick said: "Fine. I'll get it."

    As he rose, Hardwick smacked Olivea in the back of the head. The blow rated somewhere between playfulness and vehemence, but Olivea thought Hardwick went too far. He leaped up and took a swing, aiming for Hardwick's face. Using what he calls his "catlike" reflexes, Hardwick ducked, knocking several playbooks off a table. Coach Carl Mauck separated them. By the time lights finally went out, the tiff was over. Both players realized how stupid they behaved. And it didn't take long for the veteran linemen to start in.

    "Whatever you do," they taunted, "don't hit Shane in the head!"

    Olivea claims he didn't want to turn off the light because he was "busy doing something."

    When Hardwick heard that, he laughed. "He wasn't busy," Hardwick said. "He didn't want to get up because I sat, like, 2 feet closer to the switch. It was easier for me to go - but I was tired of doing it."

    After the fight, their bond grew. "He kind of looked at me like I wasn't going to back down," Olivea says. "Maybe he gained a little respect for me and backed off a little bit. From then on, we became close. It went from a fight to a pretty damn good friendship."

    But something needed to reinforce their developing bond, and that came on the field. Both were thrust into the starting lineup as rookies, blocking for Tomlinson. "It's a big deal to block for him," Hardwick says. "Everybody puts him on a pedestal, he's on TV all the time - and we're friends with him. It's pretty neat."

    Neat, yes - but there was also pressure for the rookies to perform, because the franchise player must have room to work. So for guidance, they looked to veteran guard Goff, who lines up between them.

    "That first game, Shane kept yelling in my damn ear," Goff says. "I guess he thought he was back at Ohio State, playing Michigan. He was screaming: 'You gotta love this! You gotta love it!' I was like: 'Yeah, Shane. I've been loving it for seven years, buddy.' "

    Olivea and Hardwick played well enough to help San Diego finish sixth in rushing offense. Tomlinson made first-team All-Pro for the first time. More important, the team went 12-4 and won the AFC West.

    Now Goff offers very little on-field guidance to the second-year pros. "By NFL standards, they're veterans," he says, "and they get treated like veterans."

    Hardwick has quickly evolved into a team leader. "He's exactly what you want your center to be like," Gates says. "He's high-octane, energetic, and keeps everybody loose. But at the same time, he's somebody who always has your back."

    This season, Hardwick missed three games with a high ankle sprain. San Diego's rushing average dropped to 79 yards per game with him out of the lineup. He returned in Week 12 against Washington, and the Chargers rushed for 202 yards. But he's known foremost on this team for his humor. When pressed for examples of his jocularity, however, his teammates struggled; they say it's more his overall body of work.

    "Nick Hardwick? Oh, he's hilarious," Caldwell says. "It's gotten to where I just start laughing before he's even said anything, because I know it's going to be funny."

    Nothing is off-limits for Hardwick, including Schottenheimer. Last year during a Saturday walk-through, Schottenheimer warned his players to be careful. "We don't want anybody to get a concussion," he said.

    On the walk-through's first play, Hardwick screamed at the top of his lungs and held his head. Alarmed, Schottenheimer ran to him. "What's wrong?" he said. "What's wrong?"

    "Oh, nothing, coach," he said. "Just kidding!"

    The whole team cracked up, including Schottenheimer. Perhaps poetic justice would be served if Schottenheimer had then whacked Hardwick on the back of his helmet.

    But playfully - only playfully.

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