BOSTON (CBS) — Ask any truly great competitor whether he’d prefer winning championships or earning individual achievements, and almost all of them will tell you they want titles.
But not LaDainian Tomlinson.
The recently retired, future Hall of Famer who’s unquestionably one of the best running backs in NFL history said that if he had the choice to win a Super Bowl or earn a place in Canton, he’d choose enshrinement in the Hall.
“[I’d choose to be] a Hall of Fame player, just because I feel like you gotta sacrifice so much individually just to be good,” he said on NBC Sports Talk. “Now they draft you. Individually, they draft you. So you gotta back them up and make them right. And so I think at the end of the day, even though I didn’t win a Super Bowl, I felt like I backed them up for drafting me. I backed the San Diego Chargers up for picking me with the fifth pick.”
Tomlinson was also asked if he agreed with NBA star Steve Nash’s assessment that he wouldn’t need to win a championship in order to have a fulfilling career.
“I agree with him,” Tomlinson said. “Because at the end of the day, you do all that you can do individually. It’s a team sport. The only thing you can do at the end of the day is look at yourself in the mirror and say I gave it all I had. You got teammates around you, and I feel like I did that every day.”
If ever you wondered how a man with more than 13,000 rushing yards, 145 rushing touchdowns, another 17 receiving touchdowns and even seven passing touchdowns never even made it to the Super Bowl, you may have your answer: He always had an excuse.
Certainly, if his team fell short, it couldn’t have been his fault. After all, he was doing all he could do for his team.
Oh, sure, there was that whole standing on the sidelines wearing a jacket away from your teammates while your quarterback gutted his way through a torn knee during a winnable AFC Championship Game in New England. His Chargers lost 21-12, but it was a one-possession game for nearly the entire afternoon. Perhaps if Tomlinson could have contributed more than two carries for five yards and one reception for one yard, even if he could have been involved in the offense to help along teammates Michael Turner and Darren Sproles, he could have gotten that ring. Instead he stood alone, helmet on, tinted visor on, jacket on, watching. Philip Rivers played through a torn ACL and MCL that day, and he underwent surgery that offseason. Tomlinson did not.
As it turned out, that was as close as Tomlinson would ever get to the Super Bowl again. In his five playoff games after that loss in New England, he averaged 38 rushing yards. In his next trip to an AFC Championship Game with the Jets, he rushed for 16 yards on nine carries.
And really, for a player of Tomlinson’s caliber, it’s unbelievable that he only had one great playoff performance in 10 chances. That game also came against New England in the divisional round of the ’06 playoffs, when he had 123 rushing yards, two rushing touchdowns, and another 64 receiving yards. Even then, though, he embarrassed himself after the game by flipping out at the Patriots for “disrespecting” him and the Chargers for imitating Shawne Merriman’s ridiculous “Lights Out” dance. (For Tomlinson, only his teammates should be allowed to do disrespectful dances. If your team does that same dance then he won’t shake your hand.) He was so mad he went out and called the whole team classless and said such an attitude comes from head coach Bill Belichick. For good measure, he threw in, “I’m a very classy person,” which is definitely something classy people find themselves saying often.
It’s an attitude that never really changed in Tomlinson. If you talked to him in the locker room after any game, he’d be honest with you, but you’d hear “I,” “Me,” “My,” “I,” “I,” “I” and “Myself” 100 times before you heard the words “We,” “Us” and “Team.” After he and the Jets beat the Patriots in the 2010 playoffs, he spoke about how great it would be for him to play in the Super Bowl in Dallas and practice at his alma mater of TCU. He and his team still had one more game to play before getting there, but he was happy to talk about it that night in New England.
Even his charity commercial is all about him. Don’t believe me? Here’s the entire script:
“I’m lucky. I get to do something I love. It has nothing to do with touchdowns or titles. I get to play the part of someone just starting out. I help keep kids in school, and that’s the name of the game. My name is LaDainian Tomlinson. I don’t just wear this shirt; I live it.”
If you’re keeping track, that’s seven uses of “I” in seven total sentences. Along the way, he managed to push the idea that kids are staying in school because of him and his T-shirt. If only he could have closed things out with, “I’m a very classy person,” it would have been a self-serving commercial perfect game!
Some folks have responded to Tomlinson’s recent comments by saying he’s right, that a bunch of nobodies — special teams scrubs and seventh linemen — are technically “Super Bowl champions” but are definitely not nearly the caliber of player that Tomlinson was. Well, that’s obvious. That’s not a point even worth making. The point is that any great athlete who’s one of the best all time to play his position should want to win a championship more than anything.
Tomlinson just didn’t. If he did, he could have gotten it done. Or, in the case of 2007, he could have at least tried.