When I watched the “Celebration Of Life” for Junior last month, I was highly interested in how the crowd would react to the return of LaDainian Tomlinson. Initially, I was anticipating Rodney Harrison (who famously thanked AJ Smith for releasing him and allowing him to win two Super Bowl rings with the Patriots) to make an awkward reintroduction to the home crowd as well. I never got the full story as to why Harrison didn’t appear, actually. But what I didn’t expect was how quickly I “forgave” LT. With arguably the most recognizable Charger of all time having taken his own life, I think we all needed something to hold on to. More specifically, we needed something we could identify as the soul of the San Diego Chargers right now. The current team, having slipped even beyond their first-round playoff meltdowns, is still looking for an identity. The frustration over Dean Spanos still seeming to support the status quo continues to temper any enthusiasm I feel for the moves made in this offseason. Plus, the greatest TEAM in Charger history will now be remembered more for the heartbreak and tragedy that seemed to stalk it than its accomplishments on the field. Having witnessed it first-hand, it’s particularly disappointment (and weirdly appropriate for the Chargers) that the singularly greatest moment they’ve ever had is almost wiped out by sadness.
Wow, I really know how to bring down a crowd, huh? But this was all that made LT’s taking of the podium in his powder blue sweater such a catharsis. In that moment, all bitterness over his departure melted away. On a far more important level, it was touching that he reminded Junior’s mom of all the good her son did. But looking on from 3,000 miles away via the internet, I was really reminded of how it feels to root for a player that seems to transcend the team he played for. This was why I was so hurt when LaDainian played his two seasons right in front of me here in New York, even though I tried my best to never see him on television. I joked that seeing him in that uniform was like getting a pop up ad for gay porn. But it definitely wasn’t easy to accept LaDainian as an ex-Charger. I openly campaigned for the Chargers to keep him for 2009. I also truly believed that he’d show us all his heart and legs in that first-round of the playoffs. The photo of him in that game against Philadelphia truly was his last stand as a Bolt. That was the he day he gained 96 yards, had his last real great touchdown run in San Diego, and revealed that his wife was finally pregnant. It was an absolute lovefest and Jim Trotter ended up writing a piece on it for Sports Illustrated. Even though LT said he was finally OK with his reduced role in the Chargers offense, we’d later hear quite to the contrary.
The night that the Bolts eliminated the Titans from playoff contention in Tennesee, and practically sewed up the #2 seed for themselves, Tomlinson was also all smiles. Decked out in the old school horsehead shirt, he joked with Deion Sanders about Prime Time’s jacket and seemed ready for one last shot at “chasing the dream” of a Super Bowl win. He sat with Kevin Acee at that sushi place where they were filming those one-on-one interviews in 2009 and giving away Jersey Mike sub coupons. The fact that LT appeared at all seemed to similarly suggest that he was finally OK not having the offense structured around him. He did mention in his interview with NFL Network from Nashville that the Bolts were now known for throwing downfield. It had only been two seasons before that Tennessee, with a halftime lead, dared Philip Rivers to beat them through the air. With Antonio Gates injured on a highly dubious play, they called Rivers out and paid the price. Rivers stepped up and the Chargers had finally gotten out of the first round for the first time since that ’94 season.
You can’t blame a guy for injuries. There has been a lot written over the last year about the Chargers mis-reporting LT’s status for the 2007 AFC Championship game. Perhaps that snafu was the reason why Tomlinson himself leaked out that he would not be able to go in the next playoff game against Indy the following January. I remember reading that AJ was none too happy to have that info out the afternoon of the game. The Chargers have never officially responded to suggestions that their “erronoeous” reporting of his status that Sunday in Foxboro left LT exposed to a barrage of criticism. But there is no question that his stature suffered as a result, especially after it came out that Philip Rivers had a secret surgery just to play without an ACL. Sadly, LT wouldn’t really contribute in the postseason until he went to the Jets. He scored a pair of touchdowns in Indianapolis and another back at Gillette Field. Before he was stopped on fourth down in Pittsburgh, I am sure he felt some measure of redemption. But we got to experience none of that; none at all. I wasn’t watching either game. In fact, I never watched his press conference after the Chargers announced his release.
I openly stressed about LaDainian getting a ring with the Jets. The fact that I am a lifetime New Yorker was only part of it. This was a player I thought was more important than the other 51 guys on the roster. He made me believe in something I couldn’t prove or justify. I believe the religious term for it is faith. He made me proud. He made me feel all the things that Junior Seau once had. It hurt to hear the Jets call him out on the field as he was dropped to the turf yet again in our last playoff game. Watching Shonn Greene mimic his TD celebration made me sick, even though I liked it better when LT would just give the ref the ball after scoring. It bothered me to hear that the Jets were mocking his “Electric Glide” video on the way home from San Diego. When LaDainian ended up playing for that very same team, it seemed too much too bear at times.
In Monday’s press conference, where he looked like Damon Wayans in “The Wrath of Farrakhan,” LaDainian said that none of the stuff we heard was said was true. Did he really through the offensive linemen under the bus. He called them his best friends on Monday. Kevin Acee told us that the holes were big enough that Sunday against the Jets. If the line took umbrage at LT’s comments, they didn’t exactly look to be playing with a chip on their collective shoulders these past two seasons. It seemed like the Jets did a better job of using LT and his diminished skill set. But he also accepted a role that it seemed like he never would have in San Diego. He was on the open market after leaving and neither the Vikings or Jets would promise to use him as their featured back. They had Peterson and Greene, respectively. Even if he had been willing to become a role player on a team he carried on his back so many times, the Chargers didn’t even have someone else to carry the load on first and second downs. Darren Sproles was not going to take the punishment every down between the tackles as he did on that magical Saturday night against the Colts. However, it seems like his current team is also doing a better job of harnessing his skills as well. But that’s a subject for another day.
What made LaDainian so special? I don’t need to recount his skills or accomplishments. If you’re reading this you have witnessed them countless times. I saw him first-hand bail the Bolts out in 2005 with a game-winning run in OT. Drew Brees’ late interception was just one of many miscues which could have done them in earlier. LT made me proud to be a Charger fan again. He was great, but he carried himself even in an even greater fashion. I watched him unsuccessfully try to chase down Brian Dawkins for 49 yards in the freezing cold of Philly in 2001 after coughing up the ball. Yes, he did actually have a bit of a fumbling problem in his rookie season. But even though Dawkins returned that one for a touchdown, the fact that LT tried so frantically to tackle him told me all I needed to know about him. After the 4-12 season of 2003, he explained that he wouldn’t leave San Diego just because the team had sucked. “That’s what losers do,” he explained. It was LaDainian who took the most offense at Eli Manning’s (or Archie’s) shunning of the Bolts. When he appeared on Stephen A. Smith’s now-defunct “Quite Frankly” show in 2005, I took the train in just to sit in the audience. I was the one who told him on air that I’d drive him to Eli’s house to egg it. If anyone has that clip, please pass it along.
Given how closely he kept in touch with Marty Schottenheimer and Drew Brees after their departures from San Diego, I’m sure it hurt him a lot more than he let on to see them go. Just as I had with Junior, I got rid of all my Tomlinson memorablia when he was sent packing. It wasn’t his decision to go, but it hurt too much to have that stuff around. I feared that if the Jets won the Super Bowl that I might cut open the autographed ball Jim Steeg had been nice enough to secure for me and take a shit in it. I then planning to flim myself throwing it into the Hudson River. Yes, I know how sick I am. For the anguish having those momentos would have caused me, I am glad I got rid of them. But it’s nice to be able to appreciate LT again. Many Charger fans were able to compartmentalize their emotions during his two-year exile in New Jersey. I wasn’t able to. Some fans made fun of guys like me for behaving like a scorned lover. I won’t argue with that. It’s rare that a player makes me care so much. It’s hard to believe, but some fans only know me as the 41-year old grouch who always complains about Norv. Our latest playoff flame out, LT’s exodus and this two-season slide we’re on has done that to me.
But LaDainian’s return to Chargers Park last month after Junior’s suicide reminded me of how passion can inspire passion. I fully supported signing LaDainian as a 3rd down back for 2012. But this is probably the best way for his career to end. He joked about getting frustrated watching Ryan Mathews from the couch. I hope that he can guide Mathews a little. I’m not sure exactly why Eric Weddle needed to play reporter at the press conference. I felt like we weren’t really in on the joke. It was nice to see Antonio Gates joke around with LT, especially after he was quoted at being surprised by some of LaDainian’s parting comments. Philip Rivers, on the other hand, looked pissed during the press conference but I think I read something about him cancelling a charity appearance to be there. I know he, Norv and Gates were all interviewed about LT’s legacy afterwards on xx1090.
I know LaDainian claimed that Junior’s suicide and subsequent memorial didn’t really influence his decision. But it definitely influenced my re-embracing him. Finding out that he was retiring as a Charger was a nice little touch on Father’s Day. My two-year nightmare is over. It sounds like his number will be retired this season, so LT better stay retired. Now I can move on and maybe this team will establish a real identity this season. In closing, I’d like point out my recent contributions over at Bleacher Report. Essentially, it’s a trial as a Featured Columnist on the Bolts. Eric Stangel, who originally distributed JIC 17 years ago, deserves a lot of credit for pushing me to expand. Daniel Chang, Scott Scharer and Denis Savage have similarly helped get JIC more exposure over the years. You’ll notice that my style over there is more concise and ”fuck and shit” free. Hopefully, this relationship will benefit everyone involved. My wife likens it to Howard Stern (of who she’s a big fan) being a judge on America’s Got Talent. I’m furthering the Justice Is Coming brand, I suppose. Regardless, I’ll have a piece up over teh weekend on 5 things Norv must do to keep his job. My first inclination is to start off with “anything but shanking a drifter,” but I’m sure I’ll hold that one back. Here’s some summer tunes for you.
Yours In Justice,