|AP Photos CACL101-102, NY164 of Sept. 5|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 06 September 2007 10:03|
What LaDainian Tomlinson would really cherish, though, is a Super Bowl championship. He's been playing for the San Diego Chargers going on seven years, through rotten seasons and spectacular ones, and has yet to win a single playoff game.
It's been nearly 13 years since the Chargers played in their only Super Bowl, when they were pulverized by the San Francisco 49ers. Coaches, players and front office executives have come and gone, but a playoff void has remained the constant.
The goal still is to get back there - and win it.
``I thought it's been time, you know? I think we're well past due from where we need to be,'' Tomlinson said. ``So hopefully that changes.''
If the Chargers do match their fans' stifling expectations and win the Super Bowl, their star running back will, of course, be the catalyst.
He's surrounded by an incredible supporting cast that includes quarterback Philip Rivers, tight end Antonio Gates, and bookend outside linebackers Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips. He was joined on the All-Pro team by four teammates, and on the Pro Bowl squad by 10 fellow Bolts.
When the Chargers play, everyone from the fans in the upper deck end zone seats to the fantasy geeks are mostly interested in what No. 21 does.
That's usually nothing short of terrific.
Tomlinson set 13 NFL records last year, the biggest being 31 touchdowns - 28 rushing - and 186 points. He won his first rushing title with 1,815 yards.
Numbers are nice, but they're certainly not what drives Tomlinson.
In 2005, he stood in front of a bank of microphones on the opening day of training camp. When asked his goals for the year, he leaned forward and said: ``The Super Bowl.''
And not just getting there.
``Winning it,'' Tomlinson said.
The Chargers missed the playoffs that year.
They dominated last year, winning an NFL-best 14 games, then tanked in the playoffs - again.
With the Chargers' loaded roster largely intact, the expectations for this year are as hot as the weather, including in the locker room.
``Our expectations are really to win the championship,'' Tomlinson said. ``That's always our expectation. Realistically, we think we have a shot at it.
``We're on the cusp of doing something special,'' Tomlinson said. ``Special is doing something that no team in the history of the Chargers has ever done, and we've got to go put in the work to do that.''
Asked if he needs a Super Bowl ring to validate his career, he said: ``I don't think you necessarily need it, but it's definitely a great thing to have on your resume.''
And to think, the Chargers could have been the ones dealing with the Michael Vick mess.
Instead, they ended up with one of the best - and most down-to-earth - running backs the game's ever seen.
In April 2001, the Chargers were at their lowest. They were coming off a 1-15 season, when Ryan Leaf finally flamed out. The day before the draft, the late John Butler traded the top pick to the Atlanta Falcons, who took Vick. Butler, impatient to reverse the Bolts' laughingstock image, dropped down to No. 5 and grabbed Tomlinson.
Vick faces prison time after pleading guilty to a federal dogfighting charge. Tomlinson continues to dazzle, both on the field and with his low-key personality off it.
It hasn't escaped Tomlinson that he could have been carrying the ball for some other team all these years.
``Of course it's crossed my mind, but I don't know what would have happened,'' Tomlinson said.
``I'm very fortunate. This is one of the places that I wanted to be. Obviously when they did it, I was very happy that I was going to be able to come to one of the places that I wanted to come to.''
The Chargers have practically run out of superlatives for Tomlinson.
``I go back to what John Butler said when he drafted him - he's special,'' team president Dean Spanos said. ``I think if John was here, everybody would say, including John, and they do say, nobody realized how special he was really going to be.''
Although Vick has won a playoff game and Tomlinson hasn't, the choice by Butler, who died of cancer in 2003, has long since been validated. Especially when Tomlinson became the first Chargers player to win the MVP.
``That was a pretty spectacular, magical year,'' Spanos said. ``It was great for himself, great for the organization. I know he was disappointed because we didn't get far in the playoffs. He's just one of those guys who's going to continue to be the backbone of this team. He's the heart and soul of this team. Like everybody says, he's as good off the field as he is on the field.''
Tomlinson said his offseason was a ``roller coaster.'' He was more in demand for endorsements. His father was killed in a car accident in Texas.
``Now I think starting back, it kind of gives me a fresh start just being back on the field and really doing what I enjoy doing,'' he said.
New coach Norv Turner was San Diego's offensive coordinator during Tomlinson's rookie season. As San Francisco's offensive coordinator last year, Turner stood on the opposite sideline and watched L.T. score four touchdowns.
``As good as everyone thinks he is, he's better than that,'' Turner said. ``He was very deserving of being MVP of the league and certainly he's one of the best players I've ever been around.''
That's saying something, because Turner was offensive coordinator of the Cowboys during the heyday of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin.
``And he's at his prime. He can take over a game, and there's few guys who've played ever who can take over a game like he can,'' Turner said.
Awards and status aside, he's the same L.T. to his teammates.
``I think just how much of a nice guy he is, how down to earth he is,'' right tackle Shane Olivea said. ``A lot of people just see him on Sunday. We're fortunate to see him during the week and interact with him, hang out with him.
``I always tell people he is a great player, but if your child was ever going to grow up to be someone of his stature and status, you'd want him to be exactly like him and handle things exactly like him,'' Olivea said.
So what does Tomlinson do for an encore?
``Two thousand yards and a Super Bowl,'' Olivea said.
``Well, and I think L.T. can say it best, he wants to win the championship,'' Rivers said. ``I think as much as you can accomplish individually, you always feel not completely satisfied unless you win that championship.''
Rivers knows Tomlinson doesn't care about stats, ``But if he could score 35 this year and win a championship, that would top it, for sure.''
Rivers calls Tomlinson ``a heck of a teammate.''
``Obviously these young guys come in and wonder, 'Who is LaDainian Tomlinson?' Well, they see him out there running 15 yards further down the field than he has to, and things like that,'' Rivers said. ``It's his humble way he goes about it. It's very confident, but it's very humble. It's not like he denies how good he is. But he also does it in a very humble manner.''