College rushing yards: 5,387
NFL rushing yards: 13,684
LaDainian Tomlinson Preparatory Academy
You still see them around Fort Worth here and there, bumper stickers plastered on walls, usually sharing space with other relics of the past – in your neighbor’s garage, on your co-worker’s shed, adorning the undisturbed bedroom of someone who has long since left for college and come out the other side. You might even see one now and again on an actual bumper, maybe on a car stopped at a red light on Camp Bowie.
The bumper stickers read: “LT for Heisman.”
It has been a decade and a half since LaDainian Tomlinson put together one of the greatest individual seasons in Texas Christian University football history. When Tomlinson arrived at TCU in 1997, the school’s football program was a train wreck. During his stellar career, the Horned Frogs embarked on the road to respectability that culminated in recent years with TCU’s emergence as a national football power under Coach Gary Patterson.
In his senior season, the 5-foot 10-inch native of Rosebud, Texas, gained recognition as one of college football’s best running backs as he rushed for 2,158 yards and 22 touchdowns while winning the Doak Walker Award given to the nation’s top running back. Hence the bumper stickers.
But the Heisman Trophy was awarded to Florida State quarterback Chris Weinke. Tomlinson finished fourth in the Heisman voting. Some LT backers grumbled that Tomlinson was short-changed because the Horned Frogs played in the unheralded Western Athletic Conference and TCU football was not seen as a big-time program.
After leaving TCU, Tomlinson was selected by the San Diego Chargers as the fifth overall pick in the NFL’s 2001 draft. Over the next 11 seasons, he became one of the most prolific running backs in the league’s history. A five-time Pro Bowler, he won two NFL rushing titles and in 2006 was the league’s Most Valuable Player and the NFL Offensive Player of the Year. His ability to catch passes out of the backfield and accelerate with breakaway speed made him one of the most versatile running backs of his era.
He spent nine of his eleven seasons with the San Diego Chargers and during that time they emerged as an American Conference power, in no small measure because of their leap of faith in selecting a small player out of TCU. The Chargers have announced that on Nov. 22, Tomlinson will become the fourth San Diego player to have his jersey retired by the team.
“Few players, if any, have meant more to this franchise than LT,” Chargers Chairman Dean Spanos said in a statement. “He was the heart and soul of this team through one of the most successful decades in our history.”
The announcement comes at no surprise, but it also points toward something unique about the football journey of Tomlinson, whose jersey was retired by TCU in 2005. Tomlinson never came close to a national championship in college, and the Chargers never got to the Super Bowl during his tenure. But he nonetheless became an icon with two football programs that desperately needed one.
Both TCU and San Diego had been struggling when Tomlinson arrived, and neither program has looked back since first giving him the ball. No matter what heights they achieve without him, both can credit Tomlinson with re-energizing their weary fan bases.
Despite heading off to play pro football in Southern California and later in New York with the Jets, Tomlinson has maintained ties to Fort Worth. He founded the LaDainian Tomlinson Preparatory Academy, which focuses on sports training, academic assistance and character development for young athletes, and with his wife LaTorsha started the Tomlinson Touching Lives Foundation with numerous platforms to support families in need. Both organizations are headquartered in downtown Fort Worth.
Tomlinson, now 35, never forgot his roots. When he started his scholarship fund as a Charger, he awarded 30 scholarships to high school students: 15 to San Diego students and 15 to his alma mater, University High School in Waco.
LaDainian, LaTorsha and their two children now reside in Colleyville. He works for the NFL Network as an on-screen analyst.