He swoops in without warning, arriving as suddenly as a lightning bolt from the heavens, and LaDainian Tomlinson doesn't stand a chance of escaping. The San Diego Chargers running back isn't used to being caught from behind by anyone, especially a middle-aged man decked out in a yellow blazer, navy slacks, blue Oxford shirt and official Chargers necktie, a man who on this July afternoon has jumped out of his shiny black Bentley and into Tomlinson's path a few steps from the entrance to a restaurant. "Joey Langlois," the man says by way of introduction. He vigorously shakes Tomlinson's hand, then suspiciously eyes an approaching stranger who's clutching a pen and notepad. "Are you with him," Langlois asks, nodding toward Tomlinson, "or trying to get at him?" ¬∂ Tomlinson's new pal Joey isn't so much anxious as needy. That's the way all Chargers fans are when it comes to the player known as LT. Mindful that their lovely coastal city has turned into an NFL wasteland, they cling to Tomlinson like a bunch of NBC executives clustered around Donald Trump at the wrap party for The Apprentice. "You're not going to leave us, are you?" Langlois says nervously. "We really love you here, and things are going to turn around, so keep the faith." Langlois reaches into his pocket and pulls out his wallet, proudly producing a Visa card bearing the Chargers' logo. "I've had it since '95," he says, "right after the Super Bowl season."
Smiling, Tomlinson checks out the plastic, then politely excuses himself from the conversation and heads into the restaurant, where he'll spend the next two hours explaining what it's like to be the NFL's least appreciated superstar. Playing for a franchise that's still reeling from its disastrous 1998 predraft trade for quarterback Ryan Leaf, the tough-minded Tomlinson has established himself as one of the league's best players despite enduring 31 losses in the 48 games since he arrived in 2001. But unless you live in a region where fish tacos are popular or participate in a fantasy football league, you probably have no idea how scary good this 25-year-old runner is. "He's a combination of Walter Payton and Barry Sanders," says Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer, a 28-year NFL veteran who turns 61 this month. "For a time I said he was one of the best backs I'd seen, but two thirds of the way through last season I took the caveat out. He's the best I've seen, period."
Last season, while San Diego staggered to a 4--12 record, Tomlinson accounted for 46% of the team's offense. His 2,370 yards from scrimmage were the second most in an NFL season (Marshall Faulk had 2,430 with the St. Louis Rams in 1999), and he became the first player ever to rush for 1,000 yards and catch 100 passes in the same year. Yet last February, as the league's best and brightest congregated in Honolulu for the Pro Bowl, Tomlinson was in his hometown of Waco, Texas, playing dominoes at his aunt's house. (Jamal Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens, with 2,066 rushing yards; Clinton Portis of the Denver Broncos, 1,591; and Priest Holmes of the Kansas City Chiefs, 1,420, were the running backs voted by their peers, the coaches and the fans to play for the AFC.)
Given the Chargers' four national-TV appearances in the last three years and their extended run of futility (San Diego last had a winning season in 1995), Tomlinson viewed the Pro Bowl snub philosophically: If a player for a team at the bottom of the AFC West runs for 1,645 yards on 313 carries (5.3 average), catches 100 passes for 725 yards and scores 17 touchdowns, does it happen? "Some people say I'm the best back in the NFL, others say Priest Holmes or Jamal Lewis," Tomlinson says. "That's what drives you: You want everyone saying there's no doubt who's the best."
The bold words are out of character with Tomlinson's agreeable nature. He's a passionate man who moves through life grinning, a homebody who'd rather turn in early than get love up in the club. "He says, 'It's too loud, too hot and so packed you can't even walk around, so why go?'" says his wife, LaTorsha. "But I like to dance, so sometimes he gets dragged out." He is constantly chided--"Man, you should've come"--by friends and teammates who have returned from events such as the NBA All-Star Game and the Super Bowl. The reasons for his absence from the NFL title game go deeper than his aversion to socializing at big events. "Honestly, I've been running from questions like, So what's going on with the Chargers?" he says, "because I don't have any answers."
If it sounds as if Tomlinson might unload on his organization, don't be fooled: It's not his style. "Sometimes it's tempting to tell [management] my opinion," he says. "But in the long run, it's really not up to the players to give their input." Last November he bit his lip when the Chargers benched his friend, quarterback Drew Brees, and replaced him with veteran Doug Flutie for six games. Tomlinson may have been frustrated about the predictability of the offense--as fullback Lorenzo Neal says, "Guys on defense were calling out plays before we ran them, putting nine guys in the box"--and the lack of receiving threats. If so, LT kept it on the Q.T., and stayed loyal to the exacting Schottenheimer. To borrow from rapper Jay-Z, he's got 99 problems but a coach ain't one. "Everybody close to me took the Pro Bowl thing pretty hard," Tomlinson says, "but Marty might've taken it the hardest. Man, was he pissed when he found out."
As if the snub and the indignity of a 4--12 season weren't enough, the Chargers experienced the sting of rejection just before the draft in April, when word leaked that Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning had warned San Diego not to select him with the No. 1 pick because he had no intention of playing there. The Chargers ultimately chose Manning and traded him to the New York Giants for the fourth selection, North Carolina State quarterback Philip Rivers (who didn't agree to contract terms until Aug. 23). As he monitored the Manning saga, Tomlinson, like many fans, thought, Shoot, don't draft him. If he doesn't want to be here, who needs him?
"I'm kind of an old-school guy," Tomlinson says, "and the way the league is set up, the draft is designed to help the worst teams. It's not right when someone pulls something like that. Just to be drafted is a dream come true. Don't walk around acting like, My father was this; my brother is this, so I've got the power. It's kind of sad. I mean, is he going to come in as a rookie and be Dan Marino? Probably not. I don't see him being as good as his brother."
Tomlinson's mental toughness is based largely on personal experience. "I've been dealing with being overlooked my whole life," he says, noting that he played fullback until his senior year at Waco University High, then finally got his shot as the featured ballcarrier and excelled. By then many of the region's prominent schools had homed in on other tailbacks, so Tomlinson went to TCU in Fort Worth, where in his sophomore season new coach Dennis Franchione moved him from starting halfback to starting fullback to backup halfback. Given another chance to shine as a junior, Tomlinson led the nation in rushing with 1,850 yards in 11 games, including a Division I-A record 406 yards against Texas--El Paso.
He considered declaring for the 2000 draft until learning that scouting services had projected him to be a third- or fourth-round pick. Printouts of those unflattering reports went up on the wall of Tomlinson's condominium during his senior season, when he again gained more yards than any other Division I-A runner (2,158) and then finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting. Also that year he met LaTorsha, winning her heart with the mushy cards he left in her dorm room and, when she'd answer his calls, the sappy songs he played into the phone's mouthpiece. "Most guys are afraid to talk about their feelings, but he's very affectionate and genuine," LaTorsha says. "He's so nonchalant about adversity; I don't think he can get mad."
Tomlinson never bristled when, during his first two NFL seasons, he was best known as the Guy Who Got Traded for Michael Vick. (The Chargers dealt the No. 1 pick in the 2001 draft to the Atlanta Falcons, who selected Vick, then took Tomlinson with the fifth choice.) He rushed for a total of 2,919 yards those two years, but Vick had a breakout season in '02, leading the Falcons to an upset of the Green Bay Packers in an NFC wild-card game. Says Tomlinson, "The way I look at it is, if Michael Vick and I both become Hall of Famers, everyone should be happy."
Assuming his body holds up, the 5'10", 221pound Tomlinson is on his way to Canton. With his quick burst, exceptional vision, unearthly cutback ability and aptitude for juking and shedding tacklers, he strikes fear into the hearts of defenders every time he touches the ball. Citing two of his electrifying teammates, Chiefs safety Jerome Woods says Tomlinson is "like Dante Hall and Priest Holmes rolled into one. It's unbelievable to say that about a back, but that's the truth. When he gets the ball in his hands, you're always thinking, Get him inside to the help." Then, referring to the SportsCenter theme, Woods adds, "If you don't get help, it's dadada, dadada."
It's likely that opposing defenders will continue to face the music in 2004, but his teammates hope that Tomlinson's highlight-reel runs can also fuel a San Diego surge into playoff contention. "We need to win," says Neal, "because the world needs to see this superstar and put him on the platform he deserves, instead of saying, Who's LaDainian Tomlinson?"
The world got a better idea on Aug. 14, when Tomlinson signed an extension--eight years, $60 million, including a $12.4 million signing bonus--that made him the highest-paid running back in the NFL. "I would love to spend my whole career in San Diego because I accept the challenge of turning this team around," Tomlinson says. "I don't think there's a person who thinks we have a chance. But I do."
"For a time I said he was one of the best backs I'd seen, but last season I took the caveat out. He's the BEST I'VE SEEN, period."