The moment LaDainian Tomlinson sat down in the rocking chair at Vaquero Club, he offered a hearty laugh at the symbolism.
The former running back — retired for five years after an 11-year NFL career — hardly spends his days whiling away his time. Tomlinson works for NFL Network; he runs his Touching Lives Foundation; he oversees the building of a new house in upscale Westlake; he is a devoted husband, father and son; and he regularly works out. Instead of being “bored out of his mind” as he expected, Tomlinson stays busier than ever.
“I’m living my life,” he said. “I’m enjoying retirement. I don’t think I would have it any other way.”
Tomlinson, 37, is younger than some active NFL players, including Tom Brady, and he still looks the part. Tomlinson’s playing weight was between 215-220 pounds; he weighs 227 these days.
But his playing days are behind him, disappearing in a blur.
Only days from finding out if he will become a first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer, Tomlinson insists he has no nerves. He said he believes fans, former teammates, former coaches and former opponents have validated his greatness already.
“You knew Day One he would be really special,” said Norv Turner, who served as offensive coordinator in San Diego during Tomlinson’s rookie season and returned as the Chargers head coach in 2007. “…It’s hard to project a guy is going to be a Hall of Famer, because there are so many things that go into it — being healthy and playing over a long period of time is a big part of it. Once he did that, you knew.”
Forty-eight selectors meet the day before Super Bowl LI in Houston to select the Class of 2017. Tomlinson joins Brian Dawkins and Jason Taylor as first-year eligible finalists among the 15 modern-era candidates. Only 73 players have earned induction on the first ballot.
“I think he’s a first-ballot no-brainer,” said former NFL safety John Lynch, in his fourth year as a Hall of Fame finalist. “When you look at first-ballot guys, you see a guy who’s just, ‘Uh, huh! Duh!’ Unfortunately, I think some people remember him as the guy with the Jets. That’s not who he was. He was the guy with the Chargers that was ridiculously talented and on top of it was a guy who was great for the league.”
Tomlinson, who played nine seasons with the Chargers and two with the Jets, ranks fifth in NFL history in rushing yards with 13,684. Only Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders and Curtis Martin rushed for more. Smith, Payton and Sanders earned induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility, and Martin made it his second year of eligibility.
But Tomlinson has an MVP award that Martin doesn’t, having won it in 2006 after rushing for 1,815 yards while setting NFL records for rushing touchdowns (28) and total touchdowns (31). His 186 points surpassed the previous single-season record of 176 set by Green Bay Packers halfback Paul Hornung in 1960.
Only two other non-quarterbacks — running backs Shaun Alexander and Adrian Peterson — have won the MVP award the past 15 years.
“I think anytime you talk about greatness, you talk about individuals like LaDainian Tomlinson, Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Adrian Peterson,” said Lorenzo Neal, a former NFL fullback who blocked for Tomlinson from 2003-07 with the Chargers. “There are a lot of guys that have a great game, that have a great season, but greatness is doing something over and over and over again. I think that’s what made LT among the greatest of all time.
“And he showed his greatness with his consistency in an era where the quarterback is the focal point. They’re throwing the ball 40 times a game, but because he was so explosive, and what he did in the passing game as well as the running game, you have to shake your head and marvel and say, ‘Wow!’ He was special.’ ”
Tomlinson had the jump cut, the stiff arm and the touchdown leap. He also could catch and block, rarely leaving the field in his prime.
In 2003, Tomlinson caught 100 passes. Only two other running backs in NFL history have 100 or more receptions in a single season. (He also threw seven touchdowns on halfback option plays.)
“He would have been a Hall of Fame back just on his ability to run the football,” Turner said. “But his true greatness came in his versatility. He caught a hundred balls and then led the league in rushing and then broke the all-time [single-season] record for touchdowns. He was obviously very unique.”
The Chargers went 1-15 the year before Tomlinson arrived as the fifth overall choice; they went to the playoffs five times in his nine years in San Diego. The Chargers have returned to the postseason only once in the seven years since Tomlinson left, with Ryan Mathews their only 1,000-yard rusher post-LT.
Tomlinson impacted an organization and a city that recently lost its NFL team. Tomlinson said that’s the point he would make to Hall of Fame selectors if he made his own presentation instead of San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Kevin Acee.
“I’m most proud of changing the culture of their organization and making it relevant again where we won five division titles,” Tomlinson said. “… I think you could say I was the main catalyst of an entire franchise, the guy who is the only MVP in franchise history. At the end of the day, the 2000s were my decade. That was the decade I dominated.”
Tomlinson’s career misses only a diamond-studded ring for his right hand. He accepts voters will discuss his failure to win the game’s biggest prize, bringing up the topic without prompting.
“The one [negative] thing that I think is totally honest and true about my career is: I never won a championship,” Tomlinson said. “That’s totally fair for people to judge me on that. But I know eventually, with my numbers, I’m a Hall of Famer.”
Tomlinson played in 10 playoff games and averaged 3.6 yards a carry and 46.8 yards per game. Although he played 170 of 176 possible regular-season games in his career, Tomlinson’s biggest injuries came at the worst times.
A sprained medial collateral ligament held him to only three touches in the 2007 AFC Championship Game, a 21-12 loss to the New England Patriots. He missed a divisional-round loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers the next season with a groin injury.
But Tomlinson swears he is content with what he did and where he is.
“I feel like I truly gave it my all,” said Tomlinson, who already is in the College Football Hall of Fame. “I did everything possible to win it, but there are so many things that have to go right. I’m not the type of person to kick myself for the things that didn’t go right in terms of injuries and coaching changes and all the different things that happen to a team.
“Certainly, you think about ‘what ifs.’ What if I wouldn’t have gotten hurt? I know we were the best team. Or what if Marty [Schottenheimer] hadn’t gotten fired? I know we could have done it that next year. At the same time, what good would that do at the end of the day? Thinking about the ‘what ifs’ [is meaningless] because it didn’t happen, and to me it didn’t happen for a reason. It wasn’t meant for me to win a Super Bowl championship.”
A Hall of Fame ring and gold jacket will have to do instead.