“You can judge a man’s character by the things he loves.” — Unknown
I don’t know who said it, but I’ve always believed it. A person reveals much about his inner motivation by the company he keeps, the goals he pursues, the people he holds most dear.
I have no doubt that LaDainian Tomlinson loved to play football. But even more, he always displayed a great love for children, even beyond his own.
That’s why he represents the ideal person to become the first Waco product to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Tomlinson joined football’s most elite fraternity on Saturday, earning induction in his first year of eligibility. And deservedly so. LT’s career numbers carried more weight than the combined tonnage of all of his offensive linemen.
The longtime San Diego Chargers great rushed for 13,684 yards (fifth all-time in NFL history), scored 162 touchdowns (third) and his 31 total touchdowns in the 2006 season remains an NFL single-season record.
For years, defenses keyed on Tomlinson — and still couldn’t stop him. The Chargers took advantage of Tomlinson’s potent running by putting in a trick play in which they used LT as a decoy and gave him the option of a halfback pass instead. His career QB rating was 146.9 — to put that in perspective, Tom Brady’s is 97.2 — and Tomlinson’s seven career touchdown passes rank second in NFL history among non-quarterbacks, behind only Walter Payton.
But those dazzling digits, even when added all together, don’t measure a fraction of what Tomlinson meant to San Diego. Or what he still means, even today, to his home of Central Texas.
“In the room with tons of family and waiting for either the knock at the door or the call but the knock at the door came and I tell you, it’s like nothing else that I’ve ever experienced,” Tomlinson told reporters on Saturday. “Certainly I just got emotional right away. I just thought about the journey. I thought about being the small-town kid from up the road and to now go to Canton, Ohio.”
I’ve interviewed LT more times than I can remember. He was born in Rosebud and grew up in Marlin and Waco, and even after he hit it big in college at TCU and in the NFL, he never forgot his roots. From his rookie year in the pros forward, he returned to Waco every summer for “Camp LT,” a cost-friendly football camp he created for Central Texas youth to fill a void he had witnessed as a youngster in Waco.
He attended an Emmitt Smith camp in Dallas as an eighth grader, and promised himself that if he ever reached the NFL he’d bring such an experience back to his hometown.
“That’s something that made me want to give back,” Tomlinson told me in 2003, the second year of Camp LT. “I had a chance to meet Emmitt Smith, someone who really inspired me, and I’ll never forget it. Maybe I can do the same thing for some kids in Waco.”
As big-time as he was, Tomlinson never big-timed anyone. He was as gracious with his time as any major sports star I’ve ever seen. In the face-melting heat of June, he’d sprint alongside kids that barely stood taller than his waist. I’ve seen him sign so many autographs that it gave me sympathy carpal tunnel syndrome just watching.
He remembered the people that helped him reach the NFL stage. People like Sue Johnson, a former University High School schoolteacher who was rewarded with a tight bear hug whenever LT returned home. Or LeRoy Coleman, the former Trojan coach who originally used LaDainian as a blocking back and hard-hitting linebacker before cutting him loose as a runner his senior year of high school.
Tomlinson remains deeply devoted to his family. His mother Loreane, who worked at the Waco VA, once recalled that LaDainian told the family he would one day play in the NFL when he was just nine years old. When LT was finally drafted in 2001, Mama Loreane was the first person he hugged.
I remember the summer after LaDainian’s first child was born, chatting with him about fatherhood and seeing his eyes light up. He beamed with pride as he talked about his son Daylen. He and his wife Torsha added a second child, daughter Dayah, in 2011, when Tomlinson had moved on from the Chargers to the New York Jets.
As the story goes, LaDainian refused to let anyone else drive Torsha and baby Dayah home from the hospital. So just hours before a Jets’ game, he drove 45 minutes from the team hotel to the hospital to see his family safely home, then booked it back in time to make it to the Meadowlands for kickoff.
Of all the awards that Tomlinson won in his luminous football career, the most fitting was the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award he claimed in 2006. The honor, named after a player who was nicknamed “Sweetness,” celebrates a player’s charity and volunteer work. Tomlinson excelled in that regard just as much as he did on the field.
So be proud, Waco. LaDainian Tomlinson is a Hall of Fame player.
We already knew he was a Hall of Fame person.