The Best of 2006

Of all the year's spectacular performers, no one had the finishing touch of Mr. Touchdown, LaDainian Tomlinson
December 25, 2006

He is at theforefront of history, charged with clearing a path for progress--one collisionat a time. As the best player in the NFL at his position, he is a man who takespride in his craft and understands the fine line between proficiency andexcellence. Yet as he takes his spot in the San Diego Chargers' backfield,here's the most frustrating thing about being Lorenzo Neal: Though typicallytwo steps ahead of the action, the 14th-year fullback has the worst view in thehouse.

His helmet lodged underneath an opponent's shoulder pads, Neal knows whenLaDainian Tomlinson has done something exceptional only from the fans'collective gasp or roar. "It's hard sometimes," Neal says. "Youmake a block, and you hear the crowd go 'Woooo' and you want to watch. When theplay's over, sometimes you sneak a look at the JumboTron and go, 'What did Ijust miss?'"

What Neal has been missing in 2006 is one of the most stupendous seasons everby a running back--and Tomlinson's elevation from 21st-century star to legendin the making. Six seasons into a career that's already being compared withthose of Hall of Famers Jim Brown and Barry Sanders, Tomlinson is speeding,powering and feinting his way into the record books and leading San Diegotoward what could become its first championship in a major professional sport.When New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor, one of the NFL's alltime best,retired following the 1993 season, it seemed unfathomable that another LT wouldtake hold of the national consciousness to the same degree scarcely a decadelater. Yet here is LT 2.0, with a single-season-record 31 touchdowns andcounting, carrying a team with an untested quarterback and an embattled coachwhile blasting through seemingly any and all obstacles. "When we reallyneed something," Neal says, "he gives it to us every time. It's like hewills it to happen."

Tomlinson, theleague's leading MVP candidate, has been so special so often in 2006 thatlisting his most memorable moments is a draining exercise. From viciousstiff-arms to beguiling hip wiggles, he has fed the highlight reels withindelible images like no one else in his profession. It took LT just 13 gamesto break the NFL's single-season record of 28 touchdowns, set by SeattleSeahawks running back Shaun Alexander last season, and in doing so Tomlinsonmade some of the league's best defenders look as though they were trying totackle an imaginary friend. But Tomlinson is much more than a star ready-madefor the YouTube generation; because he's so good at so much, he is the runningback's running back, a player revered by even his most esteemed peers."He's phenomenal," says the St. Louis Rams' Marshall Faulk, the futureHall of Famer generally regarded as the best multipurpose back in history."He's the one who blows us all away, because he does everything."

Doing everything,in this case, extends beyond the playing field, where Tomlinson runs, catches,blocks and even throws like a consummate pro. The 27-year-old comportshimself--in the end zone, in interviews, in his time away from football--in amanner you'd want your kid to emulate. Whether he's respectfully handing theball to an official after a score or rising before dawn with his wife,LaTorsha, to hand out Thanksgiving turkeys to the less privileged, Tomlinsonseems neither needy nor greedy. "The way you behave is a product of who youare and what you're all about," he says. "And I'm very careful aboutthat, because no matter how much we don't want to be, we are role models to somany kids. What they see us do, they will do. As athletes we can't be selfishand worry about only ourselves."

For a few fleetingmoments Neal once had a small sense of what it would be like to be LT. Thesecond-leading rusher in Fresno State history when he left, Neal, then a5'11" 228-pounder, was a fourth-round draft pick of the New Orleans Saintsin 1993. "I used to tote it," recalls Neal, who began his rookie seasonas the Saints' starting fullback. In his second NFL game he busted a 74-yardtouchdown run against the Atlanta Falcons and for a few moments led the leaguein rushing. Late in that game, however, he suffered a broken ankle, ending hisrookie season and changing his career path. He remembers being told by JimMora, then the New Orleans coach, "Son, find your niche and you can be inthis league a long time."

Thirteen years, 27pounds, five teams, one Music City Miracle (in that memorable January 2000playoff victory in Nashville, Neal fielded the fateful kickoff and handed theball to Titans teammate Frank Wycheck) and 10 consecutive seasons of blockingfor a 1,000-yard rusher later, Neal still enjoys moments of jaw-droppingwonderment. Earlier this month, on the long flight home from Buffalo followingthe Chargers' 24--21 victory over the Bills, he and his backfield mate settledinto their side-by-side seats in first class and began talking about everythingbut Tomlinson's on-field exploits. At one point, Neal says, "I was havingone of those out-of-body experiences. It's like I was watching the scene andsaying, Man, look who I'm sitting by. Everyone in the NFL has a certain amountof ability, and sometimes guys don't really understand the greatness they'rearound. I mean, here we are playing the most-watched sport in America, a sportpeople have been playing for decades, and for this guy to rewrite the recordbooks and still be meek and humble.... It just gives you goose bumps."

Three times thisseason LT has scored four touchdowns in a game; on the latter two occasions, inmid-November, he sparked back-to-back second-half comebacks that led to wins atCincinnati and Denver. His other four-TD game, against the San Francisco 49ersin mid-October, featured a mind-blowing scoring leap over Marcus McNeill, theChargers' 6'7", 336-pound left tackle. Two weeks later, against the Rams,Tomlinson had 240 combined rushing and receiving yards and three touchdowns,one of them on a 38-yard run that featured a stiff-arm so fierce it dislodgedSt. Louis safety Oshiomogho Atogwe's helmet. And when the Rams tried to mount alast-gasp rally, guess who recovered an onside kick?

The list of featsgoes on ... and on ... and on. Philip Rivers, San Diego's first-year startingquarterback, isn't the only accurate passer in the Chargers' huddle: TwiceTomlinson has thrown touchdown passes off the halfback option, including a19-yard floater to tight end Antonio Gates that tied the score in the fourthquarter of a comeback victory over the Oakland Raiders on Nov. 26. Tomlinson isproudest of his performance the previous weekend in Denver, where his 51-yardtouchdown scamper on a screen pass was the signature moment in a game in whichthe Chargers erased a 17-point deficit to beat the Broncos 35--27 and takecontrol of the AFC West. "Winning there was something I'd neveraccomplished before," says Tomlinson, who also cracked the 100-yard rushingbarrier for the first time in six tries in the Mile High City. "We neverhung our heads, and the way it played out was magical."

For Tomlinson theyear's most magical moment occurred not on grass or artificial turf, but onasphalt. Turning a corner just outside the locker room at Qualcomm Stadiumbefore the Chargers played the Cleveland Browns on Nov. 5, LT found himselfface-to-face with one of his idols: Jim Brown, now an adviser to his formerteam. Tomlinson introduced himself, and the two talked for several minutes, achat that seemed surreal to LT. As Brown returned Tomlinson's praise by tellinghim he'd had a great career so far, recalls LT, "I was like a kid in WillyWonka Land."

Even more unreal isTomlinson's sustained statistical assault on Brown and some of the game's othergreats. He already has 111 touchdowns, passing Sanders for 12th alltime. Whenhe scored his 100th career TD in just his 89th game, he overtook Brown andalltime rushing leader Emmitt Smith as the quickest player to that milestone.(Brown and Smith each took 93 games.) In September, in his 81st NFL game,Tomlinson surpassed 10,000 career yards from scrimmage, tying Brown as thethird-fastest player to that mark. He's the second player, after EricDickerson, to have rushed for at least 1,200 yards in his first six years inthe league. And on Sunday, in his 14th game, Tomlinson broke Paul Hornung's46-year-old record of 176 points in a season.

It is Tomlinson'sreverence for the game's history that enables him, more than most of his peers,to appreciate his accomplishments beyond their superficial statistical context.He truly understands that the yards and touchdowns are not just his. "It'snot like basketball, where you can just take over," he says. "It takes11 people to accomplish something, and sometimes there's a sense of urgencythat when I do get an opportunity to make a play--when all 10 of my teammatesare doing what they're supposed to do--I have to come through."

He has a specialappreciation for his fullback, whose arrival in San Diego in February 2003 as afree agent boosted the intensity and professionalism in the Chargers' huddle.Neal, says Titans coach Jeff Fisher, "understands blocking angles and knowshow to get the right shot on a defender every time, and he brings a certaintoughness to that offense." It didn't take long for Tomlinson to takenotice. "Lo was exactly what I needed--and what we as a team needed,"Tomlinson says. "He's the most dominant blocker in the game, and therespect he gets from other players is something that strikes you immediately.Before every game, when they're running out for warmups, players on the otherteam always stop and speak to him. That tells you so much."

One lesson Nealhas reinforced to Tomlinson is that the less glamorous contributions to theteam are often what command the most respect. "We see the sense of urgencyLT has on each and every play," says Shane Olivea, the Chargers' righttackle. "Then we look at film, and he's blocking a defensive back 20 yardsdownfield, after the play is over. People don't realize how many little thingshe does, and because of that they don't understand how great he reallyis."

Ask Neal hisfavorite LT moment, and he takes you into the San Diego huddle during a TVtimeout in the third quarter of the game in Buffalo earlier this month, afterthe Bills had scored a pair of touchdowns to close to within three points.Noticing that a Chargers lineman was conversing with a Buffalo defender,Tomlinson angrily ordered his teammate to zip it, barking, "Get your buttback to the huddle. We'll talk to them after the game--after we whip theirbutts."

Says Neal, "Inthe heat of the moment, he's a fierce warrior. You don't want him disappointed.You think, [The guy I'm blocking] can't make the tackle. You don't want to bethe weak link, the guy who doesn't do his job."

So Neal does whathe must--puts his head down, plows forward, clears a path--and, yard by yard,gives the rest of us a sight to behold.

MORE Year in Sports
See a recap of 2006, with Phil Taylor's essay and photo galleries on games ofthe year and breakout players.

Already one of the game's best, Tomlinson soared to new heights withsingle-season scoring and TD marks; if he stays on his current pace numerousalltime marks will tumble.
There's no better reflection on the NFL than LT, whose class and comportmentset an example for all.
When his teammates are doing their jobs, says Tomlinson, "There's a senseof urgency--I have to come through."