If you ask any San Diego Chargers fan who is the franchise’s all-time best player, you’ll get a different response from each individual.
The older fans from the days at Balboa Stadium are torn between Paul Lowe and Lance Alworth, while another faction will choose from one of the three Hall-of-Famers (Dan Fouts, Kellen Winslow and Charlie Joiner) from the Air Coryell years. The next era of passionate Charger fans will glowingly talk about the 1994 Super Bowl team that played with the same passion as their iconic leader, Hall-of-Fame linebacker Junior Seau.
For me, there is no better choice than running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who will receive the highest honor bestowed upon any professional athlete: having his No. 21 jersey retired at halftime of Sunday’s game with the Kansas City Chiefs. He becomes the fourth player in team history to receive this honor.
This weekend’s ceremony is a fitting end to one of the most successful sports eras that ever took place in San Diego. The Chargers accumulated 84 wins during Tomlinson’s tenure with the team, which included five AFC West Divisional titles (2004-06-07-08-09) and one appearance in the AFC Championship game in 2007.
But more importantly, LT brought the Chargers back from the dark days of Ryan Leaf, as San Diego suffered through another miserable 1-15 season before his arrival. Tomlinson was selected with the fifth-overall pick in the 2001 NFL Draft and suddenly the skies above Qualcomm Stadium were much brighter. He set the tone for the next decade in his first professional game, as LT rushed for 113 yards and scored two rushing touchdowns.
Tomlinson embodied the skills (speed, agility and power) envied by every top running back from his day. He could hurt a defense in any down situation, as LT could run by or through a defender. How fast he ran was dictated by his ability to squeeze through a tight running lane before side-stepping to the outside and delivering a crushing stiff arm on a safety that would stop them in their path as he headed into the end zone.
Being a product of TCU’s option running style, scouts questioned Tomlinson’s ability to run between the tackles, which is odd to say now because he’s considered one of the top inside runners to ever play in the NFL. If the Chargers offense was setting shop inside the red zone, the probability of them scoring was high. LT seemed to be a magnet for the end zone, as he scored a touchdown from inside the 20-yard line a remarkable 54 percent of the time. Tomlinson used his leg strength to break tackles and bounce off defenders on his way for the score.
One blemish to his career was seeing Tomlinson sitting on the bench at the 2007 AFC Championship Game in New England after being ruled out of the contest with a knee injury. The Charger fans wanted see him cheering for his teammates along the sidelines instead of sitting alone and far away from the field. The moment had a Darth Vader feel to it, as LT kept his helmet on with the dark visor and a navy blue cape draped over his shoulder pads while showing no emotion at all.
This defeat left a bad taste in San Diego’s mouth, as this was the year the Chargers had a legit chance to dethrone the mighty Patriots juggernaut. Unfortunately, injuries derailed this ride, besides LT’s injury; Philip Rivers was literally playing on one leg. He had a MASH-style, arthroscopic ACL surgery on his right knee, which allowed him to stay upright all game, but not very effective in throwing the football. The offense had three possessions inside the 10-yard line and could only score three lously field goals. You have to believe a healthy Tomlinson would have scored at least one touchdown against a good, but aging Patriots defense that was slowing down in the playoffs.
Everyone on the Chargers all-time best player list are attractive candidates, but LT managed to be one of the best running backs for nearly a decade, while the other names in the conversation changed from year-to-year. He was the constant and better than his contemporaries at a position whose lifespan is shorter than any other on the field.
So, we say thank you for all of the great memories.