Is it possible that one of the most accomplished running backs in football history missed his calling?
Given his 18,456 all-purpose yards and 162 touchdowns in an 11-year NFL career, probably not. Consider, however, that before he made a name for himself for eluding tackles that LaDainian Tomlinson took special pride in delivering hits instead.
“I was an outside linebacker, and I guess you could say I was a late-developing running back, in terms of really showing my skills,” said Tomlinson, one of nine men who will be inducted into the Texas High School Football Hall of Fame Saturday in his hometown of Waco. “I really liked defense. I was pretty aggressive, really would go get it when it came to making plays on the ball. That was one of my passions.”
So much so, that even after Tomlinson broke out as a star tailback for the University Trojans his senior year of 1996, he’d still lend his services to some of University’s defensive sets.
If it had been up to LT, he would have never come off the field.
“That last game of my senior year we played Calallen (in the playoffs),” Tomlinson recalled. “The week before we had beaten Gregory-Portland. I had, like, 300 yards that game and had played on defense, too. Then the week of the Calallen game Coach (LeRoy) Coleman changed the defense, and I was furious. I said, ‘Come on, Coach!’ He said, ‘We need you to be fresh,’ but that’s just how much I wanted to play defense.”
Tomlinson’s family called Marlin home until his second-grade year. His family had lived there for generations, near a place called Tomlinson Hill. Tomlinson’s great-grandfather was a slave who picked cotton in Falls County, but Tomlinson’s parents shielded him from that history until he was older.
When the family moved to Waco, LaDainian made friends through every activity involving a ball, whether organized or not.
“We moved to South Waco, to the Primrose Apartments, not sure what they’re called now,” Tomlinson said. “I played every sport out there. We were always going outside, playing sports with friends. All kinds of different games.”
The family’s passion for football ran deep. LaDainian’s older brother Terry had been a standout player at Rosebud-Lott. His father, Oliver Terry “O.T.” Tomlinson, loved the Chicago Bears and “ingrained us early” with a respect for the game, LaDainian remembered.
During his Pop Warner days, LaDainian played quarterback, though the offensive game plan mostly consisted of snapping little LT the ball and letting him run. Just before LaDainian’s freshman year of high school, the Tomlinson family moved back to Marlin. He had come into his own as an athlete, and played varsity football, basketball and baseball as a freshman for the Bulldogs.
Then, prior to his sophomore year, came another move, back to Waco. In the short term, the change in schools meant that LaDainian would do his fair share of blocking.
“I walked in to register for football and talked to the coaches, and they said, ‘What position?’” Tomlinson said. “I said, ‘Running back.’ And they said, ‘No, no. You can play fullback. We’re set at running back.’ It was a shock to my ego. But in the long run, it was best for me.”
Turned out that University had some experienced running back options in Lawrence Pullen and Eric Nobles. So Tomlinson toiled away as a blocking back – and a hard-nosed linebacker – until being cut loose as the Trojans’ primary ball carrier his senior year.
The switch to LT proved beneficial to everyone. Tomlinson rushed for 2,554 yards – a Waco city record at the time – and 39 touchdowns while winning Super Centex Offensive Player of the Year honors. Moreover, he helped carry the Trojans to unprecedented success, as they went 12-2-1 and made the Class 4A state quarterfinals for the deepest playoff run in program history.
“It was one of the most fun times I’ve ever had playing the game,” Tomlinson said. “You’ve got to imagine, in high school, that’s when football is its most innocent. You’re just playing for the love, playing for you friends, your buddies. You want to go all the way (to state). … We knew we had talent, and that year we were able to put it all together. It was magical.”
Tomlinson was overlooked by many college scouts, but not those at TCU. He signed with the Horned Frogs and put together a brilliant college career, twice leading the NCAA in rushing. His junior year, he piled up 406 yards in a win over UTEP, an NCAA single-game record that stood for 15 years until Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine surpassed it.
In the NFL, the visor-wearing LT displayed a certain tunnel vision when it came to the end zone. His 162 career TDs are third on the NFL’s all-time list. He made five Pro Bowls for the San Diego Chargers, and won MVP honors in 2006, when he ran for a league-best 1,815 yards and 28 touchdowns.
Every summer, he’d return to Waco, to put on his annual “Camp LT” summer camp for area kids. It was an idea born when he was a middle school student himself. He never forgot it.
“I’m not too disconnected with the community that I don’t remember the need to serve the community,” Tomlinson said. “I always felt like it was my obligation to help with kids. Because I remember being a kid in Waco, and I didn’t know any NFL players, I’d never seen any. Then I got the chance to go to Emmitt Smith’s camp, went up from Waco to Dallas, and it changed my life.
“I saw that the NFL dream was possible. I was able to size Emmitt up, and I thought, ‘If he can do it, I can do it.’”
Since his retirement in 2012, Tomlinson has worked as an analyst with the NFL Network. He said he enjoys broadcasting as a part-time gig, because “I’m able to stay connected to the game.”
More recently, he’s been trying out his acting chops, as he’ll play a pastor in a faith-based film, “God Bless the Broken Road,” that is scheduled to be released in 2017. It’ll be his movie debut.
Also in 2017, Tomlinson will become eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He’s a no-doubt, first-ballot choice. Yet one can’t help but wonder if he could have made it to Canton even if he’d stayed on defense.
“My size would have probably kept me from playing linebacker. I would have probably moved to safety in college,” said Tomlinson, who measured 5-foot-10 and 210 pounds during his playing days. “But I have no question that I could have played safety in the NFL.”