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Tomlinson Bids Fond, Respectful Farewell to San Diego

Feb 24, 2010 – 10:00 PM
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Tom Krasovic

Tom Krasovic %BloggerTitle%

LaDainian TomlinsonPOWAY, Calif. -- It's not typical for a sports franchise and its longtime star to part with sensitivity and grace, but the Chargers and LaDainian Tomlinson seemingly have pulled it off.

Reviewing his nine years with the club today, two days after Chargers president Dean Spanos told him he was being released, Tomlinson thanked the San Diego fans and organization, then broke down while addressing reporters. The tears he wiped away, he said, he owed to nostalgia, not bitterness, and even the crusty sportswriters who were present tended to believe him.

"Sometimes emotion is what makes a person, and as you guys know I've always worn my emotions on my sleeve," Tomlinson said while standing on a podium at a golf country club near his home. "So for that, I'm not sorry.

"I gave everything I had, I absolutely did," he added. "I trained the right way, went about it in the community in the right way. I felt like I did everything I could possibly do to help us win a championship. Sometimes things just don't happen or fall the way they're supposed to."

The Chargers made the right call in releasing Tomlinson. Also, Spanos did it the right way, inviting Tomlinson to Chargers Park on Monday, thus giving him time to sign with another club before the draft. It's the right call because Tomlinson, 30, no longer runs away from NFL defenders. When opponents met him last season, LT often dropped like a sack of rocks, not befitting a man who is eighth among the NFL's all-time rushers.. The Chargers' offensive line, to be sure, needs more horsepower, but if GM AJ Smith can draft a talented running back such as Clemson's C.J. Spiller, observers may be shocked to see how many yards Tomlinson was leaving on the field.

For his part, Tomlinson is making the right call, too, by vowing to exhaust his ambition of reaching a Super Bowl. His former Chargers teammates Junior Seau and Rodney Harrison were past their prime when they joined the Patriots, and both of them went on to the Super Bowl. Who's to say Tomlinson can't do the same with another club? Contrary to some reports, he's not insisting on being a feature back anymore.

"I don't think that's necessary," he said today. "We all have ego and pride, and obviously we want to be the guy. But I pretty much always have a guy with me, a guy to to help out. I'm OK with [a secondary role]. I want an opportunity to win a championship."

"He's one of the most humble players I have ever met. I have nothing but respect for him as a person and a player."
-- Chargers FB Jacob Hester on Tomlinson
Anyone who expected Tomlinson to admit that his skills have eroded would've been disappointed by him Wednesday. But it's misguided to expect a harsh self-scouting report from any athlete who, for nearly a decade, steeled himself for encounters with the heat-seeking missiles that are NFL tacklers -- self-doubt can't be part of the equation. However, you wondered if he'd taken one hit too many when he said that he believes he can play for another four years. When asked about his plummeting yards-per-rush averages -- 5.2 to 4.7. to 3.8 to 3.3 over the last four years -- LT cited the team's shift from coach Marty Schottenheimer's run-first emphasis to coach Norv Turner's aerial circus. Thriving under Schottenheimer in 2006, Tomlinson earned the NFL's MVP award, but when the Chargers lost to the underdog Patriots in their playoff opener that season, Schottenheimer was fired.

"I was very fortunate because he allowed me to prove what I can do in this league," Tomlinson said. "He put the ball in my belly, and that's all I can ask for from a coach. He believed in me, and I appreciate that."

Expect Tomlinson to return to the Chargers someday, just so that he can retire as a Charger. When his No. 21 is added to the franchise's ring of honor, we'll again hear that Tomlinson was the greatest Charger of them all. Fans have voted him such, and many media pundits rate him as highly.

Tomlinson declined to say what team he would like to join, or what teams might have interest in him. He said he wouldn't be surprised if his buddy Drew Brees, the Saints' quarterback, lobbies for New Orleans to sign him. Jokingly, he said he'd never sign with San Diego's foremost rival, the Oakland Raiders.

His new team, if there is one, probably will be swayed by Tomlinson's respectable work last year in the red zone, where his vision still serves him well. He also remains a reliable pass-catcher. However, unless the Chargers whiff in the running-back market, it's not the field where the Chargers will miss Tomlinson -- the LT of 2009, that is -- but behind the scenes. Any teammate who wasn't a knucklehead was bound to learn a few things from Tomlinson.

"LT was a true class act," said fullback Jacob Hester, whom Tomlinson mentored like a brother, although Hester was replacing Tomlinson's friend and longtime path-clearer, Lorenzo Neal. "From the first day you walk in, he treats you like a friend, always ready to take care of a young guy. When I first got to San Diego, he really helped me with not only the playbook, but being a pro everyday. He's one of the most humble guys I have ever met. I have nothing but respect for him as a person and a player."
Looking fit in a white golf shirt and dark slacks, Tomlinson said he's never felt better physically so soon after a season and that he's ready to help some NFL team. He prefers one that's "on the rise."

It needn't be a team that's heavily expected to reach next year's Super Bowl, though.

"I still think I have a lot to give to the game," Tomlinson said, "not only the performing part on the field, but also the mentoring part, teaching young guys who aspire to be great."
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