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LaDainian Tomlinson: TSN 2006 Sportsman of the Year

Discussion in 'Latest Chargers News & Headlines' started by robdog, Dec 19, 2006.

  1. robdog

    robdog Code Monkey Staff Member Administrator

    Jun 29, 2009
    Source: <a target="_blank" href="http://www.sportingnews.com/features/sportsman/2006/index.html">The Sporting News</a>

    By Paul Atner

    <img width="208" height="257" align="left" title="Sportsman of the Year" alt="Sportsman of the Year" src="http://www.sportingnews.com/features/sportsman/2006/images/magazine.jpg" />One for the record books

    His teammates idolize him. He respects his profession. He cares about his community. Oh, yeah, and he's a touchdown-scoring machine. LaDainian Tomlinson is a worthy Sportsman in every sense of the word.

    LaDainian Tomlinson sometimes will walk into the room just to look at the memorabilia he has collected.

    He'll stare at the signatures -- Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Marcus Allen, Franco Harris -- and think about those men and what they've meant to the NFL, and to him.

    The room in his suburban San Diego house takes its name from the billiards table sitting in its middle. But in his mind, he sees it as something else: The Artists Room. That's what great running backs are to him -- artists, each with a distinct style. They all have been geniuses creating canvases full of memories filled with brush strokes flush with records and highlights. He can visualize all of them at work -- extraordinary players who left the game with a wonderful masterpiece of a career.

    The little kid within Tomlinson that makes him so refreshing also drives him to collect the autographs of every revered running back he encounters. He still gets wide-eyed in the presence of his heroes; he met Jim Brown for the first time earlier this season, and he struggled to speak. But his single-mindedness has a purpose. Those autographs, that room, serve to constantly nudge him about those who came before him and what they represent and how he wants his canvas to look when it's finished.

    We celebrate the accomplishments of this amazing player, the 2006 Sporting News Sportsman of the Year. We celebrate his season of history, how he is trampling records of note seemingly on every carry. We celebrate the artist in him, the portrait he now is painting, how every season it becomes more vivid. But more than anything, we celebrate his substance -- what he stands for and how he reminds us about what is so good and right about sports and its athletes.

    What is more important, that Tomlinson broke Shaun Alexander's single-season touchdown record two weeks ago or that he did it in front of a section at Qualcomm Stadium filled with kids from his LT 21 Club, needy kids who otherwise never would see a game in person? That he shattered Paul Hornung's 46-year-old single-season scoring mark or that a new flag football program at San Diego's inner-city Jackie Robinson Family YMCA, which includes 50 gang members from three schools, is thriving because of L.T.'s influence? "The contact he has had with these guys and the way he conducts himself on the field, it's affected how this league has worked," says Michael Brunker, the Y's executive director.

    That's what makes Tomlinson so special. He understands his obligations not only to himself and his family but also to his team and his community in San Diego, where he lives, and in the Waco, Texas, area where he grew up. Six years into his career, his artistic work continues, and he's glad about it. He has much still to accomplish, as a player and a giver.

    It's almost as if America is playing catch-up with L.T. Within the league, it has been a given for the past few years that he ranks among its two or three best players. But despite an ever-growing resume of stats and achievements, he never has been the favorite this late in a season for the MVP award, much less won it. He never has been a part of so many ESPN highlights or given so many interviews or surpassed the volume of attention usually reserved for T.O. and Peyton and Brady and all the other high-visibility players who dominate magazine covers and radio talk shows.

    He has played in three Pro Bowls but has been first-team AP all-pro just once. In fantasy drafts, Larry Johnson, not L.T., was every league's first running back pick. Tomlinson's coach, Marty Schottenheimer, has been touting him forever as the best running back he has seen. Now, Schottenheimer has gone one step further; he says Tomlinson is the best running back ever to play.

    That label is not fair. L.T.'s resume is brilliant, but his body of work is too short to make that judgment. Tomlinson, ever the historian, agrees. Besides, he can't imagine his career being as majestic as Payton's.

    "I look at how he played and what he accomplished, and it still blows me away," Tomlinson says.

    Still, for Tomlinson this is all about Payton and Smith, his boyhood hero, and Brown and the rest, about making them proud, about tracing their paths as closely as possible. It's why, when he scores -- and scores and scores and scores -- he tosses the ball to the official and trots to the sideline. It's why, after he passed Alexander, he didn't want to give an interview over the stadium sound system unless he was surrounded by his offensive teammates. It's why, afterward, his friends and family were more excited at dinner than he was, why he told his wife later, "It's hard to celebrate when there is still so much left to do." It's why he spends a large chunk of his offseason working with a personal trainer and withstanding grueling exercises designed to elevate an incredibly gifted talent to levels of ability we haven't seen before. It's why you can't find anyone around the Chargers' complex -- or around the league -- who says one disparaging thing about him, why the first word his friends and teammates usually use to describe him is humble.

    "There's a right way to conduct yourself," he says. "I learned back home to do right by others and not call attention to yourself. The guys before me -- Emmitt, Barry, Jim, Walter -- they just played the game and gave it everything they had and went about their business without a lot of show. I always liked that."

    This season, we are watching a rare player in his prime, healthy, physically honed, impressively focused, the leader of a surprising Super Bowl contender.

    San Diego, typically a blase sports city, is bonkers over Tomlinson. Everywhere you go, you see No. 21 jerseys and L.T. signs and hear talk of his triumphs. Yet he is a reluctant celebrity; Chargers officials had to persuade him to appear on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno recently. His hesitancy? He didn't feel the interest was warranted.

    "From a franchise standpoint, you couldn't ask for anything more than this," says Chargers president and CEO Dean Spanos. "To have a player like L.T. represent us like he does and be both the player he is and the person he is in our community is as good as it gets. This town is electric right now because of him. It is an amazing feeling. And what's funny is that we are all much more excited about what he is doing than he is."

    This is the kind of season the Chargers envisioned when they drafted Tomlinson in 2001. It was an intriguing commitment; the late John Butler, then the team's general manager, traded away the No. 1 overall pick and the opportunity to select a potential franchise quarterback in Michael Vick and instead staked a large chunk of the club's future on a running back. When the Chargers were suffering through a 4-12 season in 2003, A.J. Smith, Butler's successor, took Tomlinson aside. Smith, as bold and as good a G.M. as there is in the league today, told Tomlinson to be patient, to give him time to build a winner. Then the Chargers confirmed their commitment to him with a new contract the next year, an eight-year, $60 million beauty. It has been money well invested.

    "Some guys you watch play and say, 'I wonder if he will wind up in the Hall of Fame?' " says Smith. "But with L.T., we know we are seeing a Hall of Famer playing every week. Everything is just being magnified more this season, with the way the team is performing and with the records he is setting. We just felt from the beginning that he had the combination of character, talent, leadership and energy to be our foundation."

    From afar, in New Orleans, former Chargers teammate Drew Brees, himself an MVP candidate, is enjoying the L.T. ride. "I don't know many guys that can make a guy miss in that small an area, who can make a cut like that and get around the defense, or make a catch like that, or pull away from a guy like that running the sidelines," says Brees. "He never ceases to amaze."

    That is the artistry of Tomlinson. His is a versatile presentation; rival coaches respect his blocking and receiving almost as much as they fear his running ability. Payton had these same skills, but he did not have a sprinter's speed. You now can see the refinements in Tomlinson's game. Watch the next time he runs inside the tackles, then suddenly spins dramatically despite the confined area. That move is the result of all the offseason efforts he has made to strengthen his body's core. It's almost unfair -- high-tech physiological training combined with God's gifts. No wonder he is on track to eclipse Smith's career rushing record. At his current pace, he could become No. 1 by his 12th season; it took Smith 15 years to establish the mark.

    For Tomlinson, it's all about doing the right thing. He is polite and gracious, with a neat sense of humor and no sign of cockiness or inflated ego. He doesn't hang with an entourage. He and his wife, LaTorsha, don't travel the party scene; they're homebodies with three dogs. "We're not really exciting," he says, laughing. "I could do the party thing, but why? It's not worth what could happen. One day we're going to have kids, and I want to set an example for them. I want them to be able to tell folks, 'I want to be just like my dad.' "

    For him, this is serious business. He recognizes he has been blessed. That's why his conscience is always gnawing at him. Am I pushing hard enough? Can I train more? How can I get better? That is why he asks other great players -- Junior Seau, Sanders, Smith and Rodney Harrison, among others -- for tips about the intricacies of the game. That is why he reads books about the players he admires. That is why he has the personal trainer, a nutritionist to cook meals, massage therapists and a chiropractor. Nothing is taken as a given. So what if I have 4.3 speed? What am I going to do with it?

    His work ethic comes from his parents. His mother raised three kids on her own by working two jobs. His dad earned a living loading hay on trucks in searing Texas summer heat. They instilled within him something else, too -- a sense of obligation. He remembers how he wanted to attend summer football camps but couldn't because his family didn't have the money. (He ultimately attended Smith's camp only after earning money mowing lawns). He later vowed that if he ever made the NFL, he would fund a free camp for kids back home near Waco. As a rookie, he did just that. Now he has three camps -- two overnight ones in Texas (Waco and Fort Worth) and another in San Diego. He also gives out 25 $1,000 college scholarships and laptop computers annually to needy kids from Waco and San Diego selected by him and his wife. He just fed 8,000-plus folks at Thanksgiving and helped hand out the food himself. And on Tuesday, he gave away 1,500 toys to sick kids at a children's hospital and in a Ronald McDonald House. In February, he will take a seriously ill child and family to the Pro Bowl for an extended holiday, the start of a new program, the goal of which will be to send groups of needy kids to places around the world.

    "I am not going to say I am trying to change the world," he says. "But I do want to make a difference. I've been put in a position to be able to influence others in a positive way, and I want to take advantage of that opportunity. I see what Tiger Woods is doing in the community. If I can ultimately duplicate that, I will feel I have accomplished my goal."

    It's not just talk. "L.T. is always coming to us, asking what he can do. We never have to ask him. That's what separates him from so many other pro athletes," says Brunker, the Y's executive director. "He is an absolute angel doing heaven's work on Earth. He's changing lives. Our club is in the middle of crime, gang violence, drugs, and for our young African American males who have the opportunity to go in a million different directions, to have contact with someone like him and to see how he conducts himself, to see what a really nice, modest guy he is and to see how he plays on the field, without doing any crazy stuff, it is a beautiful thing. This is the role modeling we need more of from our athletes."

    It's what a true sportsman is all about. It's not just about being a player of grand note; that's not enough. LaDainian Tomlinson gets it, in every way. And we are lucky. We are here to watch, season after season, as he completes his self-portrait.

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