In a New York minute, Tomlinson became a Charger

San Diego Chargers RB LaDainian Tomlinson

All is forgiven, L.T., and congrats on the honor.

The truth is I gave LaDainian Tomlinson a pass long ago. Why not, as few Chargers electrified this city like this incomparable running back, and yep, those “L.T., L.T., L.T” chants still ring in my ears, too.

It’s clear he’s one of the all-time greats, but not just among those wearing bolts.

That’s why L.T. was at Chargers Park on Thursday, with the team announcing his No. 21 will be retired on Nov. 22 against the Chiefs.

It’s no surprise and it’s among the few good-vibe moves the Chargers produced in this haunting offseason that could be their last in San Diego.

The back of L.T.’s football card shows numbers others dream about, including his 145 rushing scores, second only to Emmitt Smith. L.T. finished as the NFL’s fifth all-time leading rusher and no one can match his 28 rushing touchdowns in 2006. He set or tied 28 Chargers records and when in the dumps contemplating the team leaving, thoughts turn to L.T. being hoisted on his offensive linemen’s shoulders when he set the rushing touchdown standard.

But long before that milestone, L.T. had me muttering his name in not the best of lights.

Let’s rewind the Chargers’ time machine, setting the dial at 2001. With the Chargers coming off their dreadful 1-15 season, the first pick was theirs, Virginia Tech’s Michael Vick was available and I was in New York to cover it.

In the draft’s lead-up, I interviewed Vick, his relatives and even his old coach at the Boys and Girls Club.

An extensive Vick story was crafted — not bad, really — on how the scrambling quarterback reached the pinnacle of being the draft’s top pick. And what his arrival would mean to the woeful Chargers, still reeling from the fallout of taking Ryan Leaf No. 2 in 1998.

But No. 1 on my list was getting the Vick copy to the North County Times sports desk and sprinting from Midtown to the Bronx. The Yankees were wrestling with the Boston Red Sox that night and few pairings match the drama those teams present.

Then came the call that changed my evening and the Chargers’ franchise.

Then-general manager John Butler had traded out of the top spot. The transaction had a lot of moving parts, but the biggest one was Butler going down to the fifth overall selection, where he drafted Tomlinson.

Great move for the Chargers; bad move from someone trying to reach 161st Street and River for the first pitch.

Those Yankees tickets stayed put as my fingers started moving, writing a story which trumped the Vick copy. At that time, I was ticked. Over time, I was tickled to call L.T. a friend.

Maybe referring to L.T. as more than a professional acquaintance is a stretch. Maybe not. Don’t friends do whatever you ask, when they can, and tell it to you straight? That’s L.T. to the ‘T’ and I’m a richer man for knowing him.

L.T. was in all his glory on Thursday, proving good things do happen to good people. L.T. was a shinning light on the field, but his work in the community deserves more than a passing mention.

From helping those ravaged by wild fires, to delivering Thanksgiving turkeys to families in need. L.T. made sure those with little would have a little more, all done with a smile that always brought grins to others.

L.T., the 2006 MVP, was so much more than a player and that was affirmed when he shared the 2006 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award with Drew Brees — another member of the Chargers’ amazing draft class of 2002.

L.T. was a dedicated member of the San Diego County landscape, never shy about lending a hand. After every home game, win or lose, L.T. returned to the battered Jack Murphy Field. Often he was limping; other times nursing the wound which accompanies another close loss.
But L.T. always came out because that’s where the kids where. Kids that got a chance to attend an NFL game, all because L.T. picked up a tab.

Class act, L.T.

Even that offseason when then-GM A.J. Smith mocked him, L.T. always took the high road. Hopefully those thousands watching him on Sundays took notice of how L.T. conducted himself, Monday through Saturday.

I watched every one of L.T.’s carries as the Chargers’ beat guy, and what a thrill. Cliche to say a running back can score from anywhere on the field? Sorry, but that was L.T.

His nose for the end zone when perched near the goal line had no peer. Although he always worried his lovely wife, LaTorsha, when taking flight over the pile, knowing a jarring blow to his body and another touchdown would be the result.

L.T.’s career and impact are staggering, but Thursday really shouldn’t be about his jersey digit.

We know it reads No. 21, but to many Chargers fans, L.T. will always be No. 1.
 

+ Contact Jay Paris at jparis@bcaradio.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jparis_sports.

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