|LaDainian Tomlinson spent his first nine seasons with the Chargers, becoming one of the NFL's best. (AP)|
The conversation with LaDainian Tomlinson came toward the end of last season. Privately, Tomlinson was circumspect about his future, not as definitive about staying in the game as he was publicly. But there was something he said that made me believe we would never see Tomlinson on the field again.
It was, in effect: I don't want to be one of those guys who just hangs on just to hang on.
Tomlinson doesn't need the money; he has taken care of his. He no longer needs a pat on the back; his bust, no doubt, will adorn the Hall of Fame as soon as he's eligible. So he walks away, retiring officially on Monday, when a great player should: on top, mostly of his own choosing, with body and mind intact.
It's not perfect timing. It's not Jim Brown leaving as the best athlete in all of sports, retiring from the set of The Dirty Dozen while standing in front of an Army tank, telling the football world to go screw itself. Tomlinson's skills over the past two to three years had declined so quickly, he was at times unrecognizable as L.T. Time does to a running back what rivers do to rock and sand. There is slow erosion until the landscape is altogether changed.
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So, perfect timing? No, but it was damn close. Tomlinson leaves the game as one of the few sure-fire Hall of Famers to depart with limbs and cerebrum intact, scarred neither by injury or scandal. His 11 NFL seasons saw a few bumps -- his rant against Bill Belichick was classic, and his very public feud with San Diego Chargers general manager A.J. Smith wasn't one of his best moments. Neither was sitting on the bench with a sprained MCL, his helmet still on, during the 2007 AFC Championship Game, pouting as his teammates played on. Still, mostly Tomlinson showed that rare combination in sports of otherworldly production and great class.
For those who never knew him as a player, this is why he was important. Tomlinson got it. He took seriously his role as an ambassador of the game. He speaks about the sport without sounding hypocritical or sanctimonious. He wasn't one of these players or coaches who discuss their love of God while having seven different kids with six different women.
This is an unusual thing in today's sports world, as the good guy-jackass ratio continues to head in the wrong direction. Tomlinson has been among the stable isotopes in a sport that is often radioactive. This isn't to say he was perfect but if he had been, say, in the Saints' locker room, the bounty scandal likely would have never happened. He would have told Gregg Williams to shut the (expletive deleted) up.
His basic decency as a guy was matched by football superpowers. There are only a handful of players (Brown, Eric Dickerson, Gale Sayers, Bobby Mitchell) who had a faster burst in their initial few steps after crossing the line of scrimmage than Tomlinson. I'm not talking speed or cutting (like Barry Sanders). I'm talking pure explosion. L.T. did things in 2006 I hadn't seen before and may not ever see again.
We all know the statistics, but behind Tomlinson's numbers and his genial personality were a nastiness and ferocity on the field.
There was a moment when L.T. was in New York and he had a typical Tomlinson moment, calling the Jets locker room dysfunctional. "The [Jets organization] created this," he said at the time. "This is the type of football team that they wanted. Mike Tannenbaum, Rex Ryan are both brash, in-your-face type of style, say whatever you want, just get it done on the field. And then it leads to other things, as guys are calling each other out and saying I'm not getting the ball or whatever it may be."
Tomlinson was criticized by some, but his comments were not only accurate but needed. Good for him. Yes, it was typical Tomlinson. Typically right.