For a decade, there weren’t many better running backs than Tomlinson, the fifth overall pick in 2001. Whether he took the carry from a young Drew Brees or a reliable Philip Rivers, Tomlinson grew into one of the greatest running backs in league history.
Tomlinson’s success shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone who saw him as a young child, especially when he scored at ease in Pop Warner.
LaDainian Tomlinson is one of the NFL’s greatest running backs
When LaDainian Tomlinson was on his game, there may not have been a better running back in the NFL.
What Tomlinson, the fifth overall pick in 2001, did in his prime with the then-San Diego Chargers still pops off the page. Tomlinson began his career with 1,236 yards and 10 touchdowns on 3.6 yards per carry in 2001.
A workhorse back despite standing 5 feet 10 inches and 215 pounds, Tomlinson ruled the league over the next six seasons. From 2002-07, Tomlinson ran for 9,414 yards and 105 touchdowns on 4.6 yards per carry in 95 games for the Chargers.
Tomlinson also turned 399 catches into 3,008 yards and 14 touchdowns during that span. The versatile running back even completed eight passes in 11 attempts for 143 yards, seven touchdowns, and no interceptions.
In 11 NFL seasons, the first nine he spent with the Chargers, Tomlinson rushed for 13,684 yards and 145 touchdowns in 170 games. Tomlinson had an NFL-record 28 rushing touchdowns in 2006, the same year that he won the league’s MVP Award.
LaDainian Tomlinson had an elite prime with the Chargers
The San Diego Chargers ran LaDainian Tomlinson into the ground, often without any hesitation.
Tomlinson had at least 375 touches per year in his first seven seasons, and had over 310 carries in all of those campaigns. In 2004, when Tomlinson earned Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro honors, he only averaged 3.9 yards per carry in large part because he had 339 attempts that year.
Tomlinson added 468 rushing yards and six touchdowns, along with 176 receiving yards and a touchdown, in 10 career playoff games.
Through Dec. 23, 2020, Tomlinson’s 13,684 rushing yards rank seventh in NFL history. Only Emmitt Smith, who ran for 164 touchdowns in his career, has more touchdowns on the ground than the 145 that Tomlinson scored.
Tomlinson’s first Pop Warner carry foreshadowed everything
LaDainian Tomlinson retired after the 2011 season, his second year with the New York Jets.
Tomlinson entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2017, his first year of eligibility. Anyone who saw Tomlinson play as a young child in Rosebud, Texas, wouldn’t have been surprised.
According to LaDainian Tomlinson, a 2009 book by Jeff Savage, Tomlinson scored a rushing touchdown on his first Pop Warner carry. Talk about foreshadowing at a young age.
The topic of Tomlinson and Pop Warner football came back in 2017. Longtime NFL running back and analyst Marshall Faulk spoke with the NFL’s official website about the impact Tomlinson had on young football fans.
“When I would go to Pop Warner games, watching kids doing the little flip of the football, teardrop, the way LT did. And there is one thing about him: He did everything with class, worked hard, worked his butt off to be the player that he was. … And made sure that the responsibility of being a role model and having little kids look up to you — it was a challenge for him and he met the challenge. There are so many kids playing football down in San Diego that are wearing No. 21 because of LaDainian.”
The Chargers retired Tomlinson’s No. 21 in 2015, the same year they inducted him into the team’s Hall of Fame.