Monday, Jan. 8, 2007 | The stage was set with national cameras focused on LaDainian Tomlinson upon being named last week the NFL MVP. What did LT do with the football world clearing easy running room before him?
Tomlinson took the handoff and mentioned his teammates first, which was no surprise for the man as humble as he is talented.
“I’ve had a great season, and obviously before I start talking about myself, there are a lot of other guys of course that have a lot to do with it,” said the man who is the Chargers’ first NFL MVP after a season in which he led the league in rushing (1,815 yards) and set NFL records for touchdowns in a season (31) and points (186).
“You talk about Nick Hardwick, Kris Dielman, Marcus McNeill, Mike Goff, Shane Olivea, Antonio Gates, Lorenzo Neal, Brandon Manumaleuna, Vincent Jackson, Kassim Osgood, Eric Parker, Keenan McCardell and Philip Rivers. All of these guys, it’s a tribute to them as well. A lot of times Philip got us into the right play. Then those guys always blocked hard every single Sunday. They blocked hard, receivers blocked downfield and Lorenzo was Lorenzo Neal. A lot of times that allowed us to do that special thing. Now obviously I’m benefiting from what they’ve done for me.”
The Chargers, AFC West champions at 14-2, have the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs entering Sunday’s Divisional Round game against the New England Patriots (13-4) Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium. If they Bolts keep winning, the national spotlight will remain focused on Tomlinson through the Super Bowl Feb. 4 in Miami.
Let’s hope more kids watching on TV and reading on the Internet (kids don’t read the printed forms of newspapers anymore) are learning from Tomlinson’s example. Let’s hope they’re rejecting the loudmouths of the NFL such as Terrell Owens and Chad Johnson that are trumpeted by ESPN as the cable network sacrifices news value for exploiting ratings points.
Tomlinson’s comments weren’t scripted for a press conference with the red light of the TV camera on as they are for some athletes. He is the same before the cameras as he is in the locker room with his teammates.
“If you look around the league, a lot of superstars aren’t always the greatest teammate or guys you like to be around, but he is,” Rivers said. “He’s a great teammate. He practices every day and he does things with the other guys. I imagine it’s not that way in some locker rooms.”
One of the benefits of quiet leadership from a superstar who isn’t the quarterback is that quarterback can exert his leadership style on the team. The Chargers’ are Tomlinson’s team in the locker room, but Rivers’ team in the huddle.
“He’s quiet, but you know what he’s thinking,” said wide receiver Keenan McCardell. “He says something when he feels it needs to be said. It shows up-and-coming stars you don’t have to be boisterous to be a leader.”
But that doesn’t mean Tomlinson is the Chargers’ silent man. Younger players learning their role with the Chargers hear from him. Chargers right tackle Shane Olivea said Tomlinson offered him and center Nick Hardwick encouragement they needed as rookies in the 2004 season.
“When Nick and I messed up, he said things to put us at ease,” Olivea said. “He never yelled, ‘You’re costing me yards or killing my stats.’ He’s never been like that. He would say, ‘You wouldn’t be in there if the coaches didn’t think you can do a good job. I have confidence in you. They might beat you for a play or two, but I have confidence in you in the long run.’ “
New players, whether they arrive by trade, as highly paid free agents, high draft picks or undrafted free agents, quickly find they can fit into the Chargers’ locker room.
Outside linebacker Shawne Merriman and defensive end Luis Castillo arrived as first-round draft picks in 2005. Now the Chargers are gaining an identity around the league as the team with the best front seven in the NFL to complement the high-powered offense.
“I was saying the same thing when I was asked about Shawne,” Castillo said. “When you’ve got a guy who has had the success they’ve had and all the individual attention and accomplishments they’ve had and they still work hard, that speaks for itself. They aren’t ‘me’ guys in the locker room. They’re guys you love to be around.”
Special teams Pro Bowler Kassim Osgood believes Tomlinson’s personality helped the Chargers make the transition from rebuilding team that was 4-12 in 2003 to AFC West championships in two of the next three seasons.
“Another one of his leadership qualities is he never complains,” Osgood said. “If he does complain, he keeps it to himself. That’s a leadership quality a lot of people don’t have. My rookie year (2003), we didn’t do too well, but he maintained his poise. That was the year he caught 100 passes (becoming the first NFL player with 1,000 yards rushing and 100 receptions), but he kept working.”
LT works while others in our celebrity sports culture talk.
Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or to the editor.