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Tuesday, January 22, 2008 | The question — as preposterous as it sounds — surrounding LaDainian Tomlinson on Monday was about his toughness.

It was being asked because Tomlinson didn’t return to the Chargers’ 21-12 AFC Championship game loss at the New England Patriots after he re-injured his hyper-extended knee on the first series of the game.

This is what happens in American sports today when television overloads ignorant fans with images of a player beyond repute, such as Tomlinson, sitting on the bench and fails to provide information about his history in the NFL.

We’re all supposed to know from our first trip to the library in grade school that you don’t judge a book by its cover. But television has provided a new twist to that old adage.

Ignorant fans judge a story by its TV cover. They define an athlete’s heart by the images they see flashed over and over.

I know this about American sports: If you want an opinion on how tough somebody is, ask a guy that was an All-American wrestler in college. Wrestlers are the toughest bulldogs in American sports.

The Chargers’ have such a player on their roster. Pro Bowl fullback Lorenzo Neal was an All-American wrestler at Fresno State. You can’t fake being tough around Neal, who has been blocking for Tomlinson the past five seasons.

“This is a guy that has played with a separated shoulder, a guy that has played eight weeks with a strained groin, a guy that has played with bruised ribs,” Neal said. “I think it was the most selfless thing he could do. People ask, ‘What do you mean selfless?’

“Well, a selfish person would have tried to play in the game, even though he knew he was ineffective. A selfless person would say, ‘Michael Turner and Darren Sproles give us the opportunity to win.’”

Tomlinson came out for the first series, but he didn’t return after a third-down screen pass ended with a 1-yard gain when aging inside linebacker Tedy Bruschi forced Tomlinson out of bounds.

“He said he ran a screen and Teddy Bruschi ran him down,” Neal said. “Everybody knows Teddy Bruschi can’t run with LT. When that happened, the guy made a decision for the team.”

Neal said Tomlinson tried to stay warm and get ready before he took a seat on the bench. He said he watched him at halftime as he put his head in his hands at his locker.

“He said, ‘Lo, why this time? Why now?’” Neal said. “He was a like a prize fighter who trained for the biggest fight of his career and then got hurt and couldn’t fight.”

Tomlinson would have had a right to be indignant at suggestions he didn’t take one for the team, but that’s not his way.

“That’s something that’s going to happen anyway,” he said. “I can’t change people’s minds. I know how my body feels. Until you’re in this situation, you can’t say how you’d feel and what you’d do. As a running back, I don’t care what you say, it’s way harder to play with an injury like this to your knee, running in there, banging against people, trying to cut on a dime.  It’s way harder to do that. 

“At any other position maybe because you don’t get hit as much, you don’t have to make sharp cuts. As a running back, I don’t know anybody who can do it. I remember Barry Sanders had this and he missed four weeks. It’s really a tough situation.”

Compare that answer to someone like, say, baseball pitcher Roger Clemens, who started out saying his 25 years in public life should have earned him the benefit of the doubt over steroids allegations. Of course, that was before recent events appear his angry responses have painted him further in a corner.

Tomlinson didn’t snap at anyone because he didn’t have anything to hide.

“The man was in misery,” Neal said. “He was on the biggest stage of his career, and he couldn’t help his team. He didn’t play because he knew it wouldn’t do his team justice to be out there and be ineffective. That’s humility. That’s strong. That’s powerful. That’s a man.”

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions and an occasional writer for Chargers.com. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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