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J.A. Adande

Your Attention Please, Tomlinson Is the Best

August 18, 2005|J.A. Adande

The best player in the NFL is right down Interstate 5, but the view is blocked by a big head 3,000 miles away.

The best player in the NFL speaks in a soft voice, but even when you're nearby he's drowned out by the cacophony generated from the other side of the country.

Two men were standing a few yards from the BPITN as he practiced the other day, but he wasn't the subject of conversation.

"What do you think of T.O.?" one said to the other.

"He's an idiot," was the reply.

And that -- Terrell Owens' desire for a new contract and the loony way he's seeking it -- sums up the discussion of NFL Preseason 2005.

Owens has helicopters flying over his house, reporters camped outside his door, cameras filming every step he takes, newspapers printing his free-throw percentage when he takes a break to shoot some hoops.

And San Diego Charger running back LaDainian Tomlinson is all by himself, just the way he prefers.

"I just like to go about my business without a lot of controversy," he says. "It's the way it's always done. I'm a little bit old-school in the way of earning mine on the field. I never want to be the person who gets notoriety going around and talking."

When he does talk big numbers, it's about statistical goals, not contract renegotiations.

And you won't hear him say he has been treated unfairly, even though he has a right to.

Unfair is waiting with his wife for their first child, thinking about names for their daughter-to-be, only the baby never arrives. She was lost to a miscarriage in February. And yet somehow, even though he lives in a city of endless sunshine, Tomlinson has been able to find the positive in his darkest day.

"I kind of looked at it as what if we would have had the baby and the baby would have gotten 2, 3 years old and would have passed?" Tomlinson said. "That would have been very hard for my wife and I to deal with. It's better that it happened now. It's going to hurt, but we didn't get to know the baby's personality.

"I always try to look at things in a positive situation. I never said, 'Why has this happened? It's not fair.' There are people that go through worse situations than what I've went through. At least my wife can still get pregnant."

Somehow it's Owens, not Tomlinson, who has become the face of the NFL. If anyone wants some perspective, head out to San Diego and listen to Tomlinson's take on contracts.

"There's a lot of unfortunate people in this world," he said. "A lot of people feel that life is not fair to them. For what we do? I mean, come on. We entertain. And we make a good living.

"Sure, players deserve more money, what you put your body through, when you look at the long-term effects of the game, yeah. But there's a certain way to go about doing it. I'll never say not getting a new contract [means] players are getting treated unfairly. You're already being paid good money, for the most part."

Tomlinson is getting great money -- he signed a $60-million contract last summer. But he made a commitment too -- six more years with a franchise that had won 17 games in three seasons at that point.

Of course, Tomlinson had already rushed for 4,564 yards at that point and was coming off the first 1,600-yard rushing, 100-reception season in NFL history.

So not only does Tomlinson get it, he gets it done.

But he's getting the proper credit only from the fantasy football geeks, who rank him as the top draft pick. (Tomlinson's recommendations: "It would be tough to go against Peyton [Manning]. Shaun Alexander too. Those guys, they put up numbers too.")

Tomlinson isn't shy about talking numbers. He thinks he can break Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards. He wants to crack Emmitt Smith's all-time record of 18,355 yards.

He's put it out there already, and has yet to back off.

And it hasn't generated a single talk show call or online poll.

It's partly because football doesn't cherish its statistics the way baseball does.

It's partly because LT is so low-key -- or "Marvin Harrison-esque" as teammate Roman Oben says -- he couldn't attract attention if he ran through the airport waving a gun. The Chargers held a conference call for the national media to chat with Tomlinson this week and he took about half a dozen questions. Thanks, gotta get back to the T.O. watch.

The task of spreading the word has fallen to his teammates and coaches.

"He's definitely the No. 1 skill player in the NFL," says Oben, an offensive tackle.

"I think, barring injury, he'll rewrite the record books," fullback Lorenzo Neal says.

"I think he's the best [back] who's ever played," says Marty Schottenheimer, his coach.

What makes him the best?

"Just take a look at him out here now," Schottenheimer says, gazing at the practice field where the last five players left include Tomlinson and quarterback Drew Brees working on pass routes. "He's got a great work ethic and a great perspective, works extremely hard, and he's been blessed with lots of ability and he's not shortchanging anybody on that."

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