LaDainian Tomlinson stood in front of America last Saturday night to make his Pro Football Hall of Fame acceptance speech. A national TV audience tuned in, and the crowd at Tom Benson Stadium in Canton, Ohio, watched. The former Chargers running back spoke for 25 minutes, dressed in his gold Hall of Fame blazer, white shirt and gold tie, with a white rose in his lapel. He never got emotional. With a little more than five minutes left in the speech—quite probably the last time he will have such a large platform in his life—he uttered a line that jolted more than a few people to attention.
If this was my last day on Earth, and this my final speech, this is the message I’ll leave with you.
Those were the first of 578 words (including “slave ship” and “slave plantation”) capping his speech, in which he also conceptually urged the United States to stop working to shutter its borders. Tomlinson is not a political person, but he managed in those five-plus minutes to capture sports fans and non-sports fans. The first three-quarters of the speech was good but essentially Hall of Fame boilerplate. The fourth quarter, the time Tomlinson had so many great moments as a player, was captivating, whatever your politics.
In a 57-minute conversation with me on Monday, Tomlinson went line by line in the climactic moments of the speech, and explained how it came to be. Here, I’ll annotate the speech: his words on Saturday in italics, and his words of interpretation on Monday.
“I wanted to start it so people would stop what they were doing and just listen. This was a huge moment. I wanted to shock people a little bit, maybe something profound. I have a voice and speech coach I have worked with for a while, Arthur Joseph, who helped me with the speech. One day I said, ‘Arthur, I feel I should say something like, If this is my last day on earth, and he said, ‘Absolutely.’”
The story [is] of a man I’ve never met, my great-great-great-grandfather George. One hundred and seventy years ago, George was brought here in chains on a slave ship from West Africa. His last name, Tomlinson, was given to him by the man who owned him. Tomlinson was the slave-owner’s last name. What extraordinary courage it must have taken for him to rebuild his life after the life he was born into was stolen. How did he reclaim his identity, his dignity, when he had no freedom to choose for himself?
“I ran from that for a very long time.
“Chris Tomlinson, who is on the white side of my family, is a writer, and he wanted to write about this for a long time. His grandfather, and his ancestors, always told him his family was something it wasn’t. Chris had no idea they owned slaves. He was searching in the basement one day and ran across some evidence. He wanted to start writing about it, and I ran from it. He had conversations with my mom. She called me once and said, ‘Hey, Chris Tomlinson would like to talk to you about this.’ I’m playing, I don’t want to talk about this stuff. It kept coming up. Right around year six, my MVP year [in 2006], I was really starting to get attention because of the touchdown record [28 rushing TDs, 31 overall, both all-time single-season marks], and I didn’t want to run from it anymore.
“I met Chris at a Starbucks in Texas. He came with all these papers and artifacts, proving it.”
I grew up on the land of a former slave plantation. And although I didn’t know this as a child, it is where my great-great-great-grandfather tilled the soil. A few years ago, I visited that same plantation in central Texas with my family and stood in the slave quarters where he lived. It’s now named Tomlinson Hill.
“It is … it is … really my birthplace. I was born about five miles up the road, but, you know, it is my birthplace. As a child, I ran around on that land, not knowing. And then coming back as an adult, looking around, all I could think: ‘My great-great-great-grandfather tilled this soil!’ I tried to envision what he must have felt. Here I am, a free man, a blessed man, so appreciative, even of my last name. I would think, ‘What was his life like, without the freedoms I have, that we all have?’ It was so emotional. It still is.
“My story is America’s story, and we are a lot alike. Initially, I didn’t know if I wanted to [talk about it] in the speech. I started thinking about that when I got in. Could I do it? Would I do it?
“For a while I thought, ‘Why me? Why at this time in history am I chosen to do this?’ I felt like I’d been chosen. Finally, around the end of March, I said to Arthur, ‘I have to do it. I have to share this.’ It hit me like a ton of bricks. I didn’t tell anybody—not even my wife. Many a time, she’d want to see the speech, and I’d say, ‘No babe, still working on it. Not quite done.’ It was hard to keep it from her, because we are so close. Usually, like with everything, I want her approval. But I couldn’t. Not with this.”
My name began with the man who owned my great-great-great-grandfather. Now it’s proudly carried by me, my children, my extended family. People stop me on the street because they know me as L.T. the football player. But after football, people have begun to recognize me as LaDainian Tomlinson, not simply for what I did as a football player, but for who I am as a man. The family legacy that began in such a cruel way has given birth to generations of successful, caring Tomlinsons.
“I badly wanted people to know his name. George. He never got the recognition. He had a name. Most black people today, they don’t know their family like that. After the speech, Terrell Davis said to me, ‘I don’t know that part of my history.’ But people had to know his name. He’s a person. And I had to use the words ‘in chains, on a slave ship.’ It had to paint a picture.
“For a long time, nobody in the family wanted to talk about it. My father never wanted to talk about it. He told me one time his father worked on the plantation. My dad was born in 1935. When he was young, there was still the black side and the white side. It was nothing like the civil rights era.
“I never honestly cared about the records, the stats. Never been about that for me. Always been about the impact you can have on others. Passing it down to younger generation. I want people to know me for the man I am. That’s what was in my mind as we wrote this.”
I firmly believe that God chose me to help bring two races together under one last name, Tomlinson. I’m of mixed race, and I represent America. My story is America’s story. All our ancestors, unless we’re American Indian, came from another country, another culture.
Football is a microcosm of America. All races, religions and creeds living, playing, competing side by side. When you are a part of a team, you understand your teammates—their strengths and weaknesses—and work together toward the same goal, to win a championship. In this context, I advocate we become Team America.
In sports, we’re evaluated on our desire, ability, and given a chance to compete. America is the land of opportunity. Let’s not slam the door on those who may look or sound different from us. Rather, let’s open it wide for those who believe in themselves, that anything is possible, and are willing to compete and take whatever risks necessary to work hard, to succeed. I’m being inducted into the Hall of Fame because my athletic ability created an opportunity for me to excel in the sport I love. When we open the door for others to compete, we fulfill the promise of one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.
“I started playing football when I was 8, retired at 32. That’s 24 years of football. Different locker rooms every year. You don’t know these people in the locker room at first. But because of your common goal, the opportunity to win something together, you get to know so many different guys and their backgrounds. For so long, you didn’t discuss religion, politics, in the locker room. Then as the years go by, you get closer to guys, the barriers go down. You can say anything to each other. We all can learn from football, from sports in general. We can compete side by side. It’s all merit.
“No one would have ever heard of me if I wasn’t given a chance. One chance. We are all connected. Let’s not close the door on people who are different. Closing the country off on people who want to come here ... I am not a political person, but we have become more and more divided. We should be more and more accepting.
“Here I am in the Hall of Fame, giving a speech, with a message. This is the message: I was afforded an opportunity, a basic opportunity. Let’s give everyone the chance. We all deserve a chance.”
On America’s team, let’s not choose to be against one another. Let’s choose to be for one another. My great-great-great-grandfather had no choice. We have one. I pray we dedicate ourselves to be the best team we can be, working and living together, representing the highest ideals of mankind, leading the way for all nations to follow.
“ ‘Had no choice.’ That had to be in there. A reminder. George Tomlinson did not have a choice. We have a choice, and we have to make the right one.”
One of the most eloquent orators of our time said it best in his farewell address. Paraphrasing and humbly building upon what President Obama said, we all have to try harder, show up, dive in and stay at it. I am asking you to believe in your ability to bring about change. To hold fast to the faith in the idea whispered by slaves: “Yes, we can.” Thank you very much. Thank you for this honor. God bless you.
“I love the end. ‘Yes we can.’ This idea … what these slaves did, coming on the ships, how they all had hope, aspiring to be free. They thought, We can overcome. They yearned to be free. So I wanted to end like that.
“For me, the speech wasn’t about the football stuff. I wanted to say what I wanted to say. In the Hall of Fame, this bust will last 40,000 years. My kids’ kids’ kids will see me in the Hall of Fame. But this is what’s important. My wife said it: ‘One day, when your kids grow up, they’re gonna want to rewind that speech and see what you said, what you stand for.’
“That means everything to me.”
End of speech.
“I don’t remember thinking anything [afterwards].
“I was embraced by so many gold jackets. When I walked off the stage, walked around the corner, I lost it. I cried for 15 minutes, uncontrollably. My emotions … just amazing. I could not stop. I had a towel in my hand I was crying on. What’s supposed to happen is your whole family comes so you all can take a picture with the bust. I couldn’t make it for 20 minutes.
“Finally, I saw my wife. The emotions … She said, ‘Oh my God, baby. Now I know why you couldn’t tell me. You touched so many people tonight.’
“Since then, I’ve seen so many people. Black people, white people, sharing a hug, crying. Emotional. Walking through the airport in Cleveland on the way out of town, so many pictures. People stopping me, saying, ‘That’s what this country needed. Thank you. Bless you.’ Today [Monday], driving away from a store in Texas, a guy speeds up to catch me in the parking lot and says, ‘Bless you. God bless you!’
“People have said, ‘You should run for office.’ No thank you. But I would like to continue Team America. Maybe there is hope we can come together. I hope the speech reaches Washington.”
On Aug. 20, NFL Network will present a show documenting the speech, “NFL 360: Tomlinson” at 7:30 p.m. ET.