Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Hampered By Age, An Icon Is Released

As a sports town, San Diego can best be described as sometimes a bridesmaid but never a bride. No one knows that better than LaDainian Tomlinson, affectionately known as LT.  The greatest running back in San Diego Chargers franchise whose 153 touchdowns ranks third in National Football League history has been released.

Age, a more pass-happy offense, an often-injured offensive line and the loss of the best blocking fullback ever -- all contributed to Tomlinson's pink slip in the cut-throat business of the NFL. He is free to be hired by the other 31 teams for what probably will be a bargain.

Tomlinson, 30, is an icon in San Diego, perhaps more popular than Tony Gwynn, the Hall of Fame outfielder for the San Diego Padres baseball club. He was the face of the NFL just as Lance Alworth, a former Charger wide receiver and Hall of Famer, was in the days of the old American Football League.

In football, all the former Texan who played college football at TCU wanted was to win the Super Bowl. His team made it only as far as the playoffs in four tries. Those 12,490 rushing yards, eighth on the all-time NFL list, were nice but no cigar. In 2006, he scored a league record 31 touchdown, was the NFL MVP and won the Walter Peyton Humanitarian award.

To me and 10,000 inner city kids, LT could have won 10 straight Super Bowls and never surpassed the good he did off the field. He and his wife LaTorsha.spent millions of their own wealth on charities through their foundation. They formed health clinics, playing fields, educational programs and drives for healthy foods for the poor living in the black ghettos and barrios of San Diego.

At every Charger game, Tomlinson bought 100 tickets in a bleacher section of Qualcom Stadium for the needy children. After each home game, he would sign autographs for the kids, do the obligatory high-fives and see to it they were given a hot meal before returning home.

He put his money where his mouth is,  meaning he did most of the charitable work without fanfare or pestering the daily newspaper for publicity. 

The average career of running backs in the NFL is three years. LT survived nine, the last year a statistical shortfall, including a pathetic performance in the second round of last season's playoff against the New York Jets.

In his six most successful seasons, Tomlinson played alongside fullback Lorenzo Neal whose blocks opened gaping holes LT would squirt, juke and dart through. Neal was traded two seasons ago and suddenly holes were filled with 300-pound defensive tackles. His desire was there. His legs were not.

I hope Tomlinson's wish is granted and lands with a team that can advance him to NFL heaven. One team that could use him is the New England Patriots which has come close to claiming itself a dynasty in recent years.

Meanwhile, the Chargers 1961 edition is the only major professional franchise to win a championship for San Diego. The Chargers were in the Super Bowl once and lost. The Padres were in the World Series twice and lost both times in 1984 and 1996.

I'll miss LT and that gorgeous baby blue old school uniform numbered 21.

Nick Canepa, the great sports columnist of the San Diego Union-Tribune, ended his column today with these parting words:

But it would have been great, great for all concerned, if the final shot in the Chargers movie featured Sheriff LT, the man who tamed the West, riding off, guns blazing, tossing down his star to the roar of a grateful public. A statue of the man should be erected somewhere around here.

But this is almost as though the director couldn’t decide how to end it. LaDainian Tomlinson came in like a 747. He should not be leaving by cab.

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