Community Sports

Jay Paris: No. 21 was always No. 1 among Chargers fans

In a Chargers season that is so unforgettable, we remember the unbelievable.

LaDainian Tomlinson, the spotlight is yours.

Tomlinson, the Chargers’ icon, gets his due this weekend. The reeling Chargers (2-7) play out the string against the Kansas City Chiefs (4-5) but Tomlinson is Sunday’s real draw.

The shifty running back with moves, moxie and a mind-set focused on success is being honored. He becomes the 38th Charger entering the club’s Hall of Fame, but more impressively, just the fourth player to have his number retired.

He joins other Chargers legends in the club’s version of Mt. Rushmore. It’s hard arguing about a carving that includes Lance Alworth, Dan Fouts, Junior Seau and now, Tomlinson.

(A quick pause here: that celebrated Chargers tackle Ron Mix, the second AFL player behind Alworth inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, hasn’t had his No. 74 placed in the rafters should be an embarrassment to the Chargers’ organization.)

Back to L.T. and that’s always a pleasant place to return.

Tomlinson’s was sensational in San Diego, scoring touchdowns and setting records with the regularity of another stunning San Diego sunset. He was the focal point of a Chargers era in which they advanced to an AFC Championship Game and won five AFC West titles.

The chant of “L.T., L.T., L.T.,” which once ricocheted Qualcomm Stadium remains a soundtrack, which thankfully won’t fade away.

That John Butler didn’t let Tomlinson get away is how his Chargers stay began. Butler, then the general manager, orchestrated a blockbuster trade on the eve of the 2001 draft, which brought Tomlinson’s spectacular talents to American’s Finest City.

Butler’s swap had a lot of moving parts, but the main pieces ended up being Michael Vick to the Falcons and Tomlinson to the Chargers.

The Chargers had their worst year in franchise history in 2000, but with L.T. aboard, the future got brighter.

“It was the building of the organization, the foundation that was set in place early on,’’ he said.

“When I got here, the previous year they were 1-15. But walking into the locker room, Junior Seau and Rodney Harrison are present. Guys that have played at a high level and had been leaders of teams.’’

Mr. Butler, rest in peace and thank you again for your keen football vision in adding Tomlinson to the mix.

It was clear Tomlinson saw things on the field that others struggled to see on film. His anticipation of where the crease was going to be instead of where it was separated him from other backs. We know the phrase “stop on a dime” was around before L.T. But after he did it while cradling the football, he would jump into an open area, often not stopping until reaching the end zone.

With Marty Schottenheimer as coach, the Chargers made no qualms about being a running team. While the league was morphing into the pass-happy product it is today, the Chargers played “Marty Ball” and why not with L.T. carrying the goods.

Nothing trumped 2006, when Tomlinson had a season for the ages. He scored a record 31 touchdowns, while also setting the mark with 28 rushing scores. He led the league in rushing and he even added two touchdown passes.

He was the NFL’s MVP as Mission Valley rocked on Sundays like it hasn’t since.

“That was a very special moment,’’ Tomlinson said, recalling his milestone performance against the Broncos in 2006. “We never won a championship, well a Super Bowl championship, I mean. We won a lot of championships.

“But the one thing I remember Marty saying to me is that you had a lot of championship moments and breaking that record, with the fans and your teammates, that was a championship moment.’’

That Tomlinson’s San Diego stay didn’t produce an NFL title stings to this day. Bad breaks, bad injuries and bad decisions left the Chargers short.

Ultimately Schottenheimer was fired after going 14-2 in 2006 and my two cents is the Chargers veered from being a running team to a passing one. Tomlinson’s role slowly gave way to a throw-first offense and eventually he got on the wrong side of then-GM A.J. Smith.

It remains unfathomable that L.T. was treated in such a distasteful manner by Smith. The “Lord of No Rings” wasn’t shy about displaying his power by mocking Tomlinson and letting him go as a free agent.

Tomlinson spent two years with the Jets, but he never lost his love for San Diego.

“The plan was always for me to come back and retire as a San Diego Charger,’’ he said, and we commend Chargers boss Dean Spanos for keeping his word. “But you don’t think about having your number retired, especially with the greats of Dan Fouts, Lance Alworth and Junior Seau. For me, it is amazing.’’

For us, it’s a thrill to have those L.T. snapshots in the memory bank. Those were the days, my friends, and after this dreadful Chargers season, on and off the field, we embrace the greatness of one LaDainian Tramayne Tomlinson.

Or simply, L.T.

Contact Jay Paris at Follow him on Twitter at jparis_sports.

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