LaDainian Tomlinson, though he grew up dreaming of being enshrined in it one day, had never visited the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, before last March.
Neither of his National Football League teams, the San Diego Chargers or New York Jets, played in the annual Hall of Fame preseason game while he was a member.
But come Aug. 5, the former Texas Christian University running back who reached legendary status as both a Horned Frog and a member of the NFL, will be among this year’s class of inductees.
Tomlinson, 38 and known to many as simply LT, rose from his youth in the Waco area to play in the NFL for 11 seasons, nine with the Chargers and two with the Jets. He won two rushing titles in 2006 and 2007. At the time he retired after the 2011 season he ranked fifth in career rushing yards (13,684), seventh in all-purpose yards (18,456), second in career rushing touchdowns (145) and third in total touchdowns (162).
“There’s no honor like going into the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” Tomlinson said. “It signifies my journey.
“I went for the first time in early March, to get a lay of the land. It was so surreal, to come to grips with me being in there forever with the likes of Jim Brown, Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith.”
Tomlinson grew up idolizing Payton, the late legendary Chicago Bears running back. He was also an avid fan of the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Hurricanes as a youngster.
Tomlinson began his career at Waco University High School as a linebacker. However, as a senior he shifted position, gained 2,554 yards and scored 39 touchdowns and was on his way to career greatness in the backfield.
In 2006 he set NFL records for most touchdowns in a season (31), most rushing touchdowns in a season (28), most points in a season (186), most points scored in a single month (78), among others.
His pro resume includes five Pro Bowls and six times selected All-Pro. He was voted into the Hall of Fame in his first season of eligibility.
Prior to the NFL, however, Tomlinson made his mark as the greatest running back in TCU history. His college career foreshadowed the beginnings of TCU’s current run of football – and sports – success. During 1997-2000 he rushed for 5,387 yards (sixth in NCAA history) and scored 56 touchdowns.
If that wasn’t enough to put Tomlinson in the spotlight, as a junior, he set an NCAA single-game rushing record with 406 yards against the University of Texas-El Paso in 1999, a record that stood until 2014. That same season he led the NCAA with 1,974 yards rushing and 18 TD.
As a senior, he again led the nation in rushing with 2,158 yards and 22 TDs. He was a unanimous first-team All-American, won the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top running back, and was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.
Tomlinson’s No. 5 jersey was retired by the Horned Frogs in November 2005. A month later he fulfilled a promise to his mother by earning his degree in communications from TCU.
“LaDainian Tomlinson represents what’s right about intercollegiate athletics,” TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte said. “It was an incredible statement for him, in the prime of his Hall of Fame NFL career, to return to school and earn his TCU degree in 2005.
“LT is a great ambassador for TCU. He loves his alma mater, and we’re most certainly proud to call him one of our own.”
Tomlinson’s success at TCU mirrored the school’s return to football prominence. Before he arrived at TCU, the Horned Frogs had been to one bowl game in 12 seasons and only two in the previous 34 seasons. In 1998 he helped them to their first bowl win in 41 years, defeating the USC Trojans in the Sun Bowl.
Current TCU Head Coach Gary Patterson was the defensive coordinator when Tomlinson was making history as a Horned Frog. He was his head coach for one game, the 2000 Mobile Alabama Bowl.
“I am so happy for Gary and what he has accomplished at TCU,” Tomlinson said. “It’s kind of cool that I was at least there for the start of his great head coaching career.”
The two are close friends still, even golfing buddies. Patterson, in fact, was one of the happiest folks to be found when news was released about his friend entering the Hall of Fame. He cannot be in Canton in person for the induction but he will definitely be there in spirit, Patterson said.
“That’s the day of our first major scrimmage,” Patterson said. “I think half of the rest of the town is going.”
Tomlinson is also a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. He was inducted in 2014.
Today, Tomlinson still works with the Chargers, who have moved to Los Angeles, as special assistant to owner Alex Spanos. He and wife, LaTorsha, met at TCU and married in 2003. Together they own Snug Pet Resort in San Diego’s Sorrento Valley, a state-of-the-art facility that includes an animal hospital, boutique and boarding services.
LaTorsha is also the CEO and co-chairman, with her husband, of the Tomlinsons Touching Lives Foundation, which works to enhance the lives of families with programs to promote education, social and cultural awareness, and self-esteem.
Tomlinson has also been working with the NFL Network as a broadcaster since 2012.
As the moment approaches for his enshrinement in Canton, LT took some time to speak with the Fort Worth Business Press about his past and what lies ahead.
Do you have a favorite game while playing for TCU?
The UTEP game my junior year. I proved to myself I was good enough to go to the next level.
What did coach Fran [former TCU coach Dennis Franchione] have to say about your upcoming enshrinement?
He was so excited to be a part of this. One conversation I will always remember having with him came when I was starting to have some notoriety. He called me up and asked if I’d ever heard the phrase, “All glory is fleeting.” I had not. It was just enough to keep me humble. I’ve always kept that.
What did Gary [Patterson] have to say to you?
He was just elated. We’re good friends. We play golf together. Just like a friend, he’s so happy for me. I’ve been able to stay connected to the program at TCU because of Gary.
Why did you choose TCU?
It came down to TCU and Baylor. My mother had moved up to the Metroplex the summer of my senior year and I stayed in Waco. At the end of the day it was about staying close to my mom and my brother. Really, it was about home cooking.
Do you have a favorite NFL game?
There was one game against the Raiders in which I had a receiving TD, rushing TD and a passing TD [only the seventh player in NFL history to do this]. Or maybe it would be the game in Denver when I set the touchdown record [in 2006]. That was a double whammy because we also clinched a spot in the playoffs.
When did you start thinking you might make the Hall of Fame?
When I passed Jim Brown on the rushing list. You have to eclipse some of the legends who are already in if you want to get there yourself.
Why did you choose your former fullback Lorenzo Neal to introduce you Saturday?
He was my favorite teammate ever. He sacrificed so much so I could shine. For a guy to block for seven different thousand-yard rushers in his career, I owe him that.
As much as you loved running the ball, you also loved catching passes, didn’t you?
Catching passes is something I really enjoyed doing. I wanted to be like Walter Payton. He was great at all facets of the game.
How do you like working with the NFL Network?
It gives me an opportunity to stay involved and share my opinion.
What are your duties with the Chargers now?
I help with community outreach programs, work with corporate sponsors, several things to help promote the team. Football has been my life. It’s allowed me to go places I never imagined. It’s truly my passion, so the perfect thing for me to do is what I’m doing.
What are your thoughts about the Chargers moving to Los Angeles?
Business-wise it makes the Chargers a more attractive brand. The opportunities in that market are endless. Of course, there are risks. You must win or you won’t get support in that market. It has to start with a new stadium, and when that was voted no [in San Diego], the writing was on the wall.
Would you like to own a team yourself some day?
I think it’s every player’s ultimate goal. I would love that opportunity.
Among the many special memories from TCU, none are sweeter than meeting your wife there, I assume?
I always felt I would meet my wife in college. When I saw Torsha, I knew I had to take this beautiful young woman on a date, and then it happened. She is a very smart woman [a Bill Gates Millennium Scholar].
You’re still a young man. What lies ahead?
I have young kids and I’m fully involved as a father and husband. I love the work I do with the Chargers and with our foundation, working with kids. Our greatest impact we can have is educating our next generation of leaders.
Finally, who will you be thinking of when you are on that stage Saturday?
My mom. I think about her sacrifices. She saw something in me a long time ago. I told her when I was 6 or 7 years old I wanted to go into the NFL. She drove me to every game as a kid, was always there for me. She nurtured my passion. Now, as a member of the Hall of Fame, how could I think of anyone else?