L.T., who always seemed to be in control, whether it was on a dazzling, slashing run, or going airborne over a pile of bodies into the end zone, began to choke up. He needed a few minutes to compose himself.
“Sorry,” he said, as he fought back tears. “It’s probably because I was all prepared and said I wasn’t going to do this. Sometimes emotions are what makes a person and as you guys know, I’ve always worn my emotions on my sleeve.”
Had Tomlinson won a Super Bowl title or two with the Chargers, he may very well have been announcing his retirement.
He didn’t even make it to a Super Bowl, though, and said he plans to keep pursuing his goal with whichever team will give him a chance.
As Chargers fans remain painfully aware, some of their biggest stars have been tossed aside and found success elsewhere. Tomlinson said he recently spoke with Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees, who less than three weeks ago led the New Orleans Saints to their first NFL title. Tomlinson and Brees were acquired with the Chargers’ first two picks in the 2001 draft.
He also mentioned learning the ways of the NFL early in his career from defensive stars Junior Seau and Rodney Harrison. Harrison went on to win two Super Bowls with New England. Seau came close before the Patriots were upset by the New York Giants in the Super Bowl following the 2007 season.
“I’m very excited about the future and the opportunity that’s ahead,” Tomlinson said. “I’ve always said my No. 1 goal is to win the championship, so it gives me, I guess, confidence and relief to know guys have gone on to win championships.
“This is not the end of the road at all. I’m not retiring. So I am very excited. I really believe I am going to have that opportunity to win a championship.”
Tomlinson thinks he still has a lot left, and that he can play for as many as four more seasons.
He said the Chargers didn’t give him an explanation for his release, and really didn’t need to. He appreciated being let go this week so his agent, Tom Condon, could look for a job for him during the NFL combine. Condon said he has several meetings set up during the next five or six days.
Injuries and age were taking their toll, and Tomlinson was due a $2 million roster bonus early next month, which all but guaranteed he would be cut loose, as well as a $5 million salary for 2010.
Tomlinson ranks eighth on the NFL’s all-time rushing list with 12,490 yards. His 138 career rushing touchdowns rank second, and his 153 total touchdowns rank third.
Tomlinson, who turned 30 last summer, was injured early in the 2009 season and finished with 730 yards on 223 carries for an average of 3.3 yards per carry, all career lows. He became less and less the face of the franchise as his role was reduced in a pass-happy offense.
“I don’t want to blame it on the system or anything else,” he said. “I don’t know. But what I do know is that when I’ve been given the opportunity, I’ve had the people around me that can run the football, I’ve been successful at doing it. I think my track record speaks for itself. I’m a guy that still works very hard and really can do anything out of the backfield. I think that’s maybe something that teams are looking for. I just want an opportunity. I’m like a guy coming into the league again. I just want an opportunity to prove that I can play.”
Tomlinson was the NFL’s MVP in 2006, when he set league single-season records with 31 touchdowns, including 28 rushing, and 186 points. He ran for a career-high 1,815 yards that year, giving him the first of two straight league rushing titles.
Coincidentally, that was Marty Schottenheimer’s last season as coach before he was fired due to a personality clash with general manager A.J. Smith. Schottenheimer, who loved to run the ball, made way for Norv Turner and a passing game in which quarterback Philip Rivers has blossomed.
“I would say, just being honest, since Marty left, the focus of running the football the way it was, every year my numbers have dropped. Every single year it has dropped,” Tomlinson said. “For me, I look at the numbers. Did I get old the year after I won the MVP? I don’t think so. What about a couple years? I certainly don’t think so.”
Tomlinson blossomed during his five seasons under Schottenheimer, from 2002-06.
“I was very fortunate because it was a time where he allowed me to kind of prove what I could do in this league,” Tomlinson said. “He put the ball in my belly. That’s all I could ask from a coach. He believed in me and I appreciate that.”
Tomlinson said he’ll still be part of the San Diego community.
“I just won’t be playing football here,” he said.