LaDainian Tomlinson’s journey started in Rosebud, Texas. Next stop? The Hall of Fame

LaDainian Tomlinson still doesn’t know what to make of the three sweetest words in sports being attached to his name — Hall of Famer.

Months after being selected for football’s highest honor, Tomlinson struggles with putting it all in perspective. Maybe it’ll fully sink in when he’s officially enshrined in Canton, Ohio, and will forever be known as a gridiron great.

“I don’t think you ever get used to hearing ‘Hall of Famer’ and then your name,” Tomlinson told the Star-Telegram during an extended interview. “But I guess you just think about the journey honestly. You think about the journey of how far you have come.”

Joining Tomlinson in the Class of 2017 will be Jerry Jones, Terrell Davis, Kurt Warner, Kenny Easley, Jason Taylor and Morten Andersen. The enshrinement ceremony is Saturday.

For Tomlinson, it’s a journey that dates back all the way to his ancestors who were brought here as slaves. It’s a journey that has taken him from Rosebud to Marlin to Waco to Fort Worth to San Diego to New York and now to Canton.

It’s a journey that has been filled with record-setting days and heartbreaking playoff losses. It’s a journey that has seen a small-school kid from TCU go on to become one of best running backs in the pros with 13,684 rushing yards and 145 touchdowns — and no off-field drama — in 11 years.

The Tomlinson name will forever have a place in history.

“It’s a remarkable story,” said Tomlinson, who lives in Westlake with his wife, LaTorsha, son Daylen and daughter Dayah.

“I still ask myself, ‘Why?’ Why me to take the family name as far as it’s ever been taken on both sides — the black side and the white side? It’s truly remarkable that I’m the person doing it.

“I know how special this is to a lot of people on both sides. At the end of the day, both families are proud that the family name is going into the Hall of Fame because there is a story to that family name and it’s being told. People can relate to it because it’s truly America’s story. My story is America’s story.”

Nobody can tell it better than Tomlinson and those closest to him. Here’s an oral history of Tomlinson’s career from start to finish.

Loreane Tomlinson, mother: “You could see he was going to be an athlete from the time he was big enough to walk. I remember when we bought his first big bike, he was 5 years old and we bought it for Christmas. He was so excited for the bike; he started riding it in the yard right away. He had the smaller bike with training wheels, but he knew he could ride that big bike. Most kids couldn’t at that age, so I knew he was an athlete. He’d always challenge the bigger boys in basketball and football, too. But football was his thing. He’d always carry that football with him and he knew the game. He’d watch games with his dad and this was back before DVR and, if his dad left the room, LaDainian could tell him everything that happened. He was just a little kid and I’d sit there in amazement.”

LaDainian Tomlinson: “When I was 6 years old, I remember watching Walter Payton with my father. I was drawn to the guy. I wanted to be like him. He was the running back that I admired the most and wanted to be like.”

Tomlinson found his inner Payton early on, scoring a touchdown in his first youth league game.

LaDainian Tomlinson: “That is very true. I played quarterback in peewee and I remember like it was yesterday. I thought when you were the quarterback, you call your own plays. So here I am, this 7-year-old kid, it’s the first game and my coaches give me instructions about what he wants me to do with the first play. He says, ‘The first play I want you to take it and peel around the right end and take off running. I said, ‘Wait a minute. I want to give it to my friend Steven. He’s the running back.’ He said, ‘No, I want you to run it.’

“So sure enough I took the snap and I peeled out around the right end and I was gone up the sideline for a touchdown. The crazy thing is — this is a true story — flag on the play so they call it back. Run over to the coach, he says, ‘Do the same thing the other way.’ So I run back out there, snap, peel the other way, another touchdown. That’s how it happened.”

Tomlinson went on to have a stand-out high school career at Waco University. He spent his freshman year at Marlin High School and the final three years at University. He played both ways as a linebacker and running back, finishing his senior season with 2,554 yards and 39 touchdowns. Tomlinson was named the District 25-4A MVP.

LaDainian Tomlinson: “During the summer going into my sophomore year, I talked to the University head coach, LeRoy Coleman, and told him I’d be coming there from Marlin. I said, ‘Coach, I’m a running back.’ He said, ‘We have enough running backs. You’re going to play fullback and outside linebacker.’ So for my next two years I played fullback and outside linebacker. I didn’t know if I had what it took to be a running back because I averaged probably five or six carries a game. My senior year comes around and my head coach, LeRoy Coleman, says, ‘OK. You’ve played fullback for two years, it’s your turn now. You’re going to be the running back. I’m going to give it to you as much as possible. Well, he did.”

Walter Brown, running backs coach at University: “I remember there was a playoff game and LT had just run for like a 76-yard touchdown or something like that, a long run. He was exhausted and laid down on his back on the sideline. Well, the other team scored and I went over and got him off his back. I remember telling coach, ‘LT is tired. He’s tired.’ Coach said, ‘Put him back in there.’ He went back in there and ran another one for like 76 yards. He always performed. We won that game.

“But every game he played was the same way to be honest. We knew he was special. His senior year we were just up and down the field and he set all kinds of records for us.”

LaDainian Tomlinson: “The very first game that I started was against Austin LBJ in Austin and I had a really good game. I had like 200 yards, six touchdowns and that following week TCU comes to my school and offers me a scholarship. My first offer. Then after that Baylor came in and others started to really notice me, so it wasn’t until my senior year that I kind of knew that I have at least D-1 talent.”

Loreane Tomlinson: “Baylor wanted him for basketball, but his heart was football. I’m glad he chose TCU because my husband and I moved to DFW his senior year of high school.”

Walter Brown: “I think he was destined to be at University and destined to be at TCU.”

Tomlinson went to TCU during the Pat Sullivan era. The Frogs went 1-10 his freshman season and Sullivan was fired. Tomlinson stayed at TCU and went on to lead the NCAA in rushing two consecutive seasons with 1,974 yards as a junior and 2,158 yards as a senior. The Frogs had winning seasons his final three years, including a 10-2 mark his senior year.

LaDainian Tomlinson: “It was a gradual climb to national prominence [at TCU]. I had a pretty good freshman year. I was able to play in every game from the jump … but at the end of the day we won one game so it really didn’t mean much.

“The new coach comes in my sophomore year and he leaves it an open competition. He walks in the room and says, ‘You guys won one game last year. Every position is up for competition.’ So I was thinking, ‘OK, this is my time to win a starting job.’ 

Basil Mitchell, incumbent RB starter at the time: “Initially, I really liked LT on the recruiting trip as a person. I really liked him and wanted to help him and was hoping he would choose TCU. I remember one day in two-a-days I hurt my hamstring. So I was out watching practice and, man, me and the coaches were debating how fast he was. He looked strong, but you couldn’t tell how fast he was. We said 4.5 and I was like, ‘He looked like his form was pretty good.’

“The one thing I prided myself on was I felt like I was the smartest person on the field when I stepped on it. That was my thing, being very savvy about the game. I knew what everybody was doing on the field. LT was like that as a freshman. He’d ask a whole lot of questions and he was a sponge. I was like, ‘This kid understands the game like I understand the game.’ This kid is really legit, which made me work a lot harder on other parts of my game for me to keep playing and for me to keep starting.

“This kid was young, hungry and built like a warrior. This kid could do everything I could, so I had to get stronger. I had to get faster. He made me a better player just from a physical standpoint. I had to raise my game.”

LaDainian Tomlinson: “I beat Basil Mitchell out and became the starting running back as a sophomore. Here we are going through fall practice, getting ready for our first game, and coach calls me in the office and he says, ‘LT, I hate to do this to you, but our fullbacks aren’t playing very well and I need you to play fullback. You two are my best ball carriers, you and Basil, I want you both on the field but I think you’re big enough to play fullback.’

“I played fullback to start the season and about halfway through the season, it wasn’t going as I expected it to go like the conversation that we had. I was supposed to play both. Play some fullback, play some running back. I found myself playing all fullback. So I went to coach and said, ‘Coach, I’m going to transfer. I’m not a fullback.’

“The idea for me was I was going to leave. I hadn’t reached out to any schools yet and after I talked to the coach and went to tell him my plans I was leaving, it was going to be over for me. I thought I was truly done at TCU.

“[Coach Dennis Franchione] said, ‘Well, before you go too far, we’re moving you back to running back.’ So halfway through my sophomore year, I moved back to running back and I continued to switch in and out. My junior year is when I took over and the rest is history.”

As a junior, Tomlinson set an NCCA single-game rushing record on Nov. 20, 1999, rushing for 406 yards against UTEP. He had TD runs of 70 and 63 yards. The record stood until 2014 when Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon broke it with 408 rushing yards.

LaDainian Tomlinson: “I remember going into halftime and I just fumbled the ball and it was a close game. I think I had like 113 yards or so, and I remember Coach giving it to me at halftime — hold onto the ball, you’re missing runs out there, you can have 200 yards right now. I went out the second half pissed off, and 280-some yards later, I was setting the record.

“I remember I was a few yards from the record and the game was intact and I was coming off the field. Coach grabbed me and said, ‘You’re a few yards from the record, most yards in a game. Do you want to get it?’ I said to him, ‘Coach, I’m good. The game is over.’ He said, ‘Oh, no. Go get the record.’ He threw me back out there and I got back in the huddle and my teammates said, ‘Let’s go get it.’ And we went and got it.”

Tomlinson finished his TCU career with 5,387 rushing yards and 56 touchdowns — both of which are still school records. He was a Heisman finalist and consensus first-team All-American as a senior.

Basil Mitchell, who played two seasons with the Green Bay Packers (1999-2000): “I was home for the off-season and I remember my brother went to a party LT was having. LT was in his room hanging up a picture of Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders and my brother joked with LT, ‘You’re going to be one of the best in college football, too.’ LT said, ‘Nah, I’m going to be the best ever.’ This was going into LT’s senior year and my brother said, ‘Watch LT this year. That look in his eye, I believe him.’ That made an impression on me just because of my brother’s reaction. You knew this dude was a special guy.”

Gary Patterson, TCU coach who served as defensive coordinator during Tomlinson’s career: “What he did is he put a mark on TCU and established the understanding that this kind of player can come from TCU. I think that’s where we had to start 20 years ago when I came with Dennis Franchione, and they were 1-10. No facilities, no anything. To where we are now, to where it’s hard to match, we’re as good as anybody else in the country, and really it all starts with this is the kind of guy who can come to TCU and be successful.”

Tomlinson began his professional career as the fifth overall pick of the San Diego Chargers in the 2001 draft. The Chargers traded the top overall pick to the Atlanta Falcons, who selected Michael Vick.

LaDainian Tomlinson: “I don’t [think I was traded for Michael Vick]. I see how people get that, but I really don’t. I feel like, sometimes teams have who they really want in the first place. I think Atlanta always really wanted Michael Vick and probably the Chargers really wanted me. So I think they just made the move to make that deal happen, but people always say we were trade guys.”

Tomlinson made the transition from college to pro ball look seamless. He rushed for 1,236 yards and 10 touchdowns as a rookie. He scored two touchdowns in his first career game, against the Washington Redskins, and three in his third pro game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Lorenzo Neal, Tomlinson’s HOF presenter and future Chargers teammate: “Corey Dillon is a great friend and I was playing with him on the Bengals when LT was a rookie. LT made a move and me and Corey were on the sidelines and I’m like, ‘That dude is real,’ Corey said, ‘That’s the truth. That boy’s a rider.’ Those were his exact words — a rider. I signed with San Diego that off-season and I remember telling LT, Corey really likes you. LT says, ‘Don’t tell me how great I am. You watch and be the judge of it.’ 

The Chargers went 1-15 the year before they drafted Tomlinson. With Tomlinson leading the way, they were in the playoffs four years later. The Chargers won four straight AFC West titles from 2006-09, capping a six-year stretch with five postseason berths.

LaDainian Tomlinson: “It was really taking pride in the process of building a team. The one thing that I’ll say is, the way I approached it, the way I worked, when I set the example with my teammates, I was truly there grinding, sweating with them. I think there’s a culture that you develop, which we developed, because of the way we worked and the way I went about things. My success led to the whole team being successful.

“I was the type of guy where I tried to challenge all of my teammates. If we’re in the weight room and one of our defensive ends is lifting and we’re playing Seattle and he has to go against Walter Jones that week, I would kind of make my way over by him and say something like, ‘Why are you lifting weights, man? You’re facing Walter Jones this week. You’re not getting any sacks.’ Just motivate him a little bit.”

Tomlinson’s play on the field motivated plenty of his teammates. He started his career with eight straight 1,000-yard seasons, including winning MVP honors in 2006. That season he rushed for 1,815 yards and set an NFL record with 31 touchdowns from scrimmage.

Lorenzo Neal: “He was lightning in a bottle. I remember playing against the Raiders [on Oct. 16, 2005] and LT threw for a touchdown, he ran for a touchdown and he caught a touchdown. There was nothing that he couldn’t do. We were in overtime against the Washington Redskins [on Nov. 27, 2005], going against a defense with Sean Taylor — the gone-too-soon but fierce safety. We get the ball and the second play, we run power, LT, 41 yards later, game over. Walk off. The guy was absolutely amazing.

“He could cut on a dime and leave 10 cents change. That’s just the kind of running back he was. As a player you marveled and sometimes you got caught up watching his greatness.

“On his single-season-setting record of 31 touchdowns [from scrimmage], one touchdown came on the play 77 toss. I come out of the huddle and I’d tell LT all the time, ‘Get on my hip and go get ’em.’ He said, ‘Let’s ride.’ I see the play, they’ve got safety down there, corner down there. We don’t check out of the play. We’re still going to run it. I’m like, ‘OK, I’m going to make this block, I’m going to kill someone.’ I come out of my stance, I see my guy and I get Jell-O legs and fall down. I’m crawling on the ground like a freaking blind mule trying to scratch and claw, make a block. I fall down. My helmet is in the dirt because I’m like it’s over. This guy, LT, makes not one, not two, but three guys miss and he’s in the end zone. The linemen are over there picking him up and pointing. I look at him, I point at him and say, ‘Thank you for making me look good.’ He made me look good. He made Marty Schottenheimer look good. He made the organization look good. He wouldn’t let you lose because of the man he was. One of the best athletes I’ve ever been around and I played with Eddie George, Corey Dillon, Mike Alstott. … LT could have been like Deion [Sanders]. He could run punt returns, kick returns. He probably could’ve started in the league as a safety or a corner. He’s a transitional player. He transcended the game.

“I mean, how was he on the field? It was like watching poetry in motion. You saw a guy who was so fluid on the field you never seen one guy who could bring him down. You’ll never see this guy take a big shot. No one could hit him. It was amazing to watch this guy perform and the way that he performed, the level he performed on.”

Tomlinson ranks fifth on the NFL’s all-time rushing list with 13,684 yards and second with 145 touchdowns. Tomlinson and Payton are the only players to have 13,000 career rushing yards and 4,000 receiving yards. Tomlinson threw seven touchdown passes, one shy of Payton’s record of eight for most by a non-quarterback since 1970. Of course, Tomlinson had a signature TD celebration with a finger roll once he crossed the goal line.

LaDainian Tomlinson: “I enjoy basketball. The first shot you learn is the layup. Well you start to get fancy when you can do the finger roll. Basically I was saying when I did the finger roll that it was simple. I only did it when I went in standing up. If I went in and I fell down, I couldn’t do it. You have to do it when you’re only standing up.”

Tomlinson never reached a Super Bowl in his playing career. He had several chances, but it never worked out. His teams were 5-5 in the playoffs, going as far as the AFC Championship game with the Chargers in 2007 and New York Jets in 2010. He battled injuries in the 2007 championship game against New England and missed a divisional round game in 2008 with a groin injury.

LaDainian Tomlinson: “The one thing that I realize, in order to win a Super Bowl championship, man, so many things have to go right. You have to be a little lucky with injuries. There were times I didn’t stay healthy, wrong time of getting injured, tearing my knee, bruised knee, ligament, MCL injury and then tearing my groin one year. At the end of the day, getting there and winning games and division titles is gratifying. I always tell people when they say, ‘How do you feel not winning the Super Bowl?’ I say, ‘I would’ve loved to win the Super Bowl. Absolutely. But I don’t know if there’s anyone who’s won more fantasy championships than me. [Laughs]. I’ve got the most fantasy championships.”

Loreane Tomlinson: “He always wanted to make it to the Super Bowl. That would’ve been nice, don’t get me wrong. But the Hall of Fame is icing on the cake. I was at the post office the other day and someone said, ‘Mrs. Tomlinson, are you going to Canton for the Hall of Fame?’ I said, ‘Of course.’ She said congratulations and so did the people behind me. It means a lot for the people of Fort Worth and our hometowns of Marlin and Waco. It’s just an exciting time.”

One playoff game in particular — the 2007 AFC Championship game against the Patriots — Tomlinson was shown on the sidelines often on national TV wearing his helmet. He started the game, but exited after only two carries and one reception after re-injuring his MCL.

LaDainian Tomlinson: “It’s the most helpless feeling ever because here it is, the biggest game of my life, the biggest game of the guys on my team’s life, and I can’t play. Here’s the thing — I had to give it a go. I knew it was going to be tough. When you sprain your MCL, that’s a four-to-six-week injury. Running backs it might take longer because we’ve got to cut and we need our legs. I knew going into the game it was going to be tough, but I had to try it. I had to see if I could get out there. I remember the first play, [New England linebacker] Tedy Bruschi went right for my legs and hit me right on my knee again, so I sprained it all over again. Tried to fight through it, got through the first quarter and then I was done. Sitting there, so many thoughts were running through my head. Why? Why did we get here and this happened? It was a helpless feeling, it really was.

“[I kept my helmet on] because it was minus-5 degrees. It was extreme cold. I had on a jacket and I kept my helmet on. It was really cold. It was really at a low moment of not being able to help my team. But it’s weird because people speculate, they got mad I left my helmet on. Why leave his helmet on? Why does it matter? It was cold and who cares about leaving your helmet on?”

The helmet was among very few controversial moments in Tomlinson’s career. The other? When Tomlinson took a shot at New England coach Bill Belichick after a 2006 playoff game. The Chargers were 14-2 that season with Super Bowl dreams, but fell to the Patriots 24-21 in San Diego. Tomlinson wasn’t happy with how the Patriots celebrated the win, mimicking Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman’s “Lights Out” dance. Tomlinson got into a shoving and screaming match with a few Patriots and said this after the game: “I would never, ever, react in that way. You guys know me — I’m a very classy person. I wouldn’t have reacted like that. ... I was very upset — just the fact that they showed no class at all. Absolutely no class. And maybe that comes from their head coach. So you know, there you have it.”

LaDainian Tomlinson: “There was a history with our teams. There was some back and forth history of talk before that. People want to stand out and they want to signify that I was the one that kind of instigated the whole situation. But in fact there was some stuff before that Belichick had said about our team through his players that ended up coming back to us. That’s why I said, ‘They show no class and maybe they get it from their head coach.’ Because of something that I heard he said about our team in the first place. See what I’m saying? So people didn’t even know that part. There’s always an underlying story. I didn’t just say it to say it.”

By and large, though, Tomlinson kept his nose clean throughout his playing days. He never made headlines for the wrong reasons, and has given back to the community through his Tomlinson’s Touching Lives Foundation.

Loreane Tomlinson: “Out of everything he’s done and every record he broke, I’m very, very proud of him for that. I’m most proud because he’s a very good person, a very good man, a very good father, a very good husband and one of the best sons a mother could ask for. He was always a rule abider. He doesn’t break rules. Records? Yes. Rules? No.”

Lorenzo Neal: “I have a sister named Twila and she’s 37 years old, born with disabilities and special needs. And LT always made it a point to see Twila after games. He’d always go out of his way, and tell her, ‘How you doing Twila? I love you.’ He puts his arms around her and for those couple minutes, she feels like she’s the most important person in the world, like she’s an angel or a queen.

“For him to do that for my sister, and not just one time, not just when people are around, in the parking lot after the game, he will go seek her out. And I’m like, ‘People don’t do that, especially not people of his stature.’ And still to this day she’s like, ‘Where’s LaDainian?’ LaDainian is my favorite player even though he’s five or six years removed. … I saw him write a $100,000 check to a hospital. … I’m honored to even be able to talk about him at the Hall of Fame. One of the top-five running backs — arguably the greatest — in the history of the game. He’s always going to be a great. Millions of people, whether they were Chargers fans or whether fans of other teams, they got to see greatness. But they don’t know the man. I got to meet the man. I got to walk with him. I got to talk with him. It’s still surreal that I’m going to present him on one of the biggest stages. I’m just so happy and honored that he considers me a friend and a brother.”

Walter Brown: “Perfect athlete. Perfect student. I can’t say enough good things about him. The kids at University have a new big-screen TV, donated by LT. He gave 10 scholarships for $1,500 for several years. He’s always given back to the community.”

Tomlinson has written his Hall of Fame induction speech, which is supposed to stay in the 15-minute range. He’s been working on the delivery of it and says it’ll have parts that are serious and lighthearted. It’s a moment he’s been working toward his entire life.

LaDainian Tomlinson: “It was a very enjoyable career. It really was because you put so much work into it. Every day the constant grind of working out and preparing yourself just to be the best. At the end of the day, what you try to do is be the absolute best that you can be for your team and hopefully everybody else feels like that so that we can all be good as a team. So I think about the time spent preparing yourself, then when you see the success, that’s what’s enjoyable. You put the work in. For me to finish fifth all-time in rushing yards and second all-time in rushing touchdowns, it’s really gratifying because I know I put the work in.”

Drew Davison: 817-390-7760, @drewdavison

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