Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2007 | Jim Brown traveled from his Hollywood Hills home to San Diego eagerly anticipating last year’s game between the Cleveland Browns and the Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium.
Brown, the Hall of Famer who is widely considered the game’s greatest running back, wanted an up-close opportunity to study Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson, a future Hall of Famer.
He expected to be impressed. After all, Tomlinson was midway through a sixth straight season rushing for at least 1,200 yards. This one would end with 1,815, an NFL record 31 touchdowns and the 2006 NFL MVP award.
What Brown didn’t anticipate, though, was that thanks to a chance encounter in the bowels of Qualcomm Stadium, his respect for Tomlinson would exponentially hours before kickoff.
They crossed paths when Brown was on his way to the Cleveland locker room and Tomlinson to the Chargers’ quarters. It was the first time they had met, and they stopped to chat.
“It was a beautiful experience for me,” Brown said. “This young man gave me more respect than any young person in my life. At the height of his career, he was humble enough to make me feel I had done something great. We exchanged ideas and concepts. I was hugely impressed with meeting him. He has an impeccable attitude.”
Brown is 71 years old now, but Tomlinson knows his football history. His reverence for Brown dates to his youth when he father told him about the great Cleveland running back.
LT didn’t disappoint Brown on the field, either. He rushed for 172 yards and three touchdowns in the Chargers’ 32-25 win. Tomlinson scored on runs of 41, 7 and 8 yards.
Brown, studying with a discerning eye, marveled at LT’s agility that allows him to change directions when he picks holes.
“If they slant him off tackle, he’s got the vision to cut all the way back, and he can do it without changing his stride,” Brown said. “If he has the gap off tackle, he can do that. If he has to slow up but not break stride and go outside, he can do that.”
In other words, Tomlinson’s ability to take an off-tackle play inside or outside stood out in Brown’s mind as equally or better than the game’s best backs that have played before him.
“I said, ‘This guy has tremendous talent that God gave him,’ ” he said. “That quickness and speed and ability to run that type of play and utilize those options is as good as anybody I’ve ever seen utilize them. That’s a rare thing to see. He has strength in his shoulders. He has the ability to throw the ball. He has the ability to catch the ball.”
In 2003, Tomlinson was the first NFL player to rush for 1,000 yards and catch 100 passes. The dual-threat ability was a key reason the Chargers passed on Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick in 2001. They sent their No. 1 pick to Atlanta for a package that allowed them to select Tomlinson with the fifth pick of the draft.
As it turned out, Tomlinson is a triple-threat. He has thrown six career touchdown passes, with five in the last two seasons.
In last year’s Cleveland game, Brown was also intrigued with the manner in which Tomlinson broke the game open in the second half. All three touchdowns came in the third and fourth quarters with 129 yards rushing.
“He has the ability to be patient,” Brown said. “In our game, he didn’t carry the ball much in the beginning. Then, in third quarter, they turned him loose and he broke the game open. They were setting things up. I noticed all of those qualities. I looked at the success of the team. This guy is a superstar. If he was selfish, he would interfere with the fact he wasn’t getting the ball right away. But he understood the value of what he’s doing.”
Brown also likes that Tomlinson isn’t an end zone dancer in an age when NFL touchdown celebrations have become a hackneyed expression.
“This bragging thing is a different kind of concept,” Brown said. “I don’t understand why players dance and shake. The best thing is to give the ball to the referee. Do what you’re supposed to do and come back and run another play.”
That’s what LT does, and it was something else beyond the stat book that impressed the great Cleveland running back on a November afternoon in San Diego.