June 18, 2012

LaDainian Tomlinson leaves a lasting legacy in Fort Worth and San Diego

LaDainian Tomlinson's imprint on TCU's football program and his NFL reputation are eternal.

Pat Sullivan did not know it at the time, but a lot of people laughed at him on National Signing Day in 1997 when the then-TCU football coach said he would take that recruiting class over any class in the country.

Suuuuuure he would.

The sales pitch was considered to be more desperate rhetoric by a head coach who knew he likely was going to be fired very soon.

The people who were laughing at him shared the same employer.

Although I am quite certain not even Pat knew what he was sitting on, he now gets to laugh at us again.

In that class was a very raw player from Waco -- LaDainian Tomlinson.

Exactly no one thought LT would develop into what he became: the face of resurgent TCU football, and one of the greatest running backs who ever lived.

On Monday in a news conference in San Diego, Tomlinson signed a one-day contract to officially retire as a San Diego Charger.

At age 32 after 11 NFL seasons, an MVP award and an NFL Man of the Year award, age finally caught LT.

"It wasn't because I didn't want to play anymore. It was simply time to move on," Tomlinson said Monday. "I've been playing football 20 some years and so, at some point, it seems like school every year. Today, I'll take the words of [former Chargers teammate, the late] Junior Seau: I feel like I'm graduating. I've got my life ahead of me."

His legacy in San Diego is eternal as one of that franchise's greatest players, but what he did for the Chargers simply does not compare to the footprint he left at TCU and in Fort Worth.

Whenever Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price recovers from her recent bicycle accident (get well, Madam Mayor), here is hoping she and her political buddies have a LaDainian Tomlinson Day.

Great players come and go on the professional level, but LT was the first player in this era who legitimized TCU and made the Horned Frogs a national brand.

He embraced TCU, and it embraced him.

Long before there was any prayer of TCU joining the Big 12, before Gary Patterson was a household name and Andy Dalton was the starting quarterback for a Rose Bowl team, there was LT as the face of the non-automatic qualifying schools.

"Bob Lilly was a great Cowboy and a great Frog, but did TCU experience a renaissance the way it did the past decade? No. There are a lot of things that go into that, but you can point to LT as the most visible player who brought about this change," said Tomlinson's former TCU teammate, offensive lineman J.T. Aughinbaugh. "When we played there, we had to walk down the hill, up the hill, through the physical plant all the way just to get to practice. That campus was totally different than it is today. After the Heisman and then going to San Diego, he helped make TCU a national story."

Both the team and the school rode LT, and a less interested person or player eventually would have crashed.

When he ran for an NCAA single-game rushing record 406 yards in November 1999 against UTEP, he stuck around for an extra two hours worth of interviews from national and local media outlets.

When TCU launched its campaign to promote LT for the Heisman Trophy in 2000, his performance justified the six-figure expense. TCU never expected Tomlinson to actually win the award playing in the WAC, but the payoff would be if he made it to New York as a finalist.

(BTW: He finished fourth, behind Chris Weinke, Josh Heupel and Drew Brees).

A cynic would say TCU exploited its star student-athlete, but this is the rare case of a mutually beneficial relationship. They made each other better.

When LT arrived at TCU, he was a very rough and very raw kid from Waco. There were all the makings of becoming another guy who would play four years of college ball and leave with nothing to show for it.

By the time he left, he was well on his way to a college degree and had used everything TCU could offer to its fullest.

LT was a national celebrity, and he bragged about TCU as it if were his own kid. Whenever TCU did something, there was LT as its unofficial, official spokesperson.

In 2005, LT earned his degree and since has held his football camps at the school.

He and his family live in Colleyville and are building a house in the area to make this their permanent residence.

The only disappointment Monday brought was the reality that a guy this solid and a player this great never made it to the Super Bowl. Most guys never do. The Super Bowl was pretty much the only thing LT never did in a career that no one, including the college head coach who recruited him to TCU, could ever have expected.

And those who laughed at Sullivan at the beginning are the ones applauding at the end.

Mac Engel, 817-390-7697

Twitter: @MacEngelProf

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