After 13,684 rushing yards, 145 rushing touchdowns, 18,456 all-purpose yards, and 11 seasons as one of the NFL's all-time best at his position, San Diego Chargers and New York Jets running back LaDainian Tomlinson called it a career in a dignified press conference Monday. The announcement was hosted by the Chargers, who wanted Tomlinson to retire as a Charger despite the fact that he had left the team in free agency and played his last two seasons for the Jets.
"Today is a special day, and that's because it's not often that a player comes along who defines your team -- and the NFL, for that matter -- for the better part of a decade, like LaDainian Tomlinson," Spanos said. "I remember the Friday before the 2001 draft like it was yesterday -- John Butler, our GM at the time, said we had a deal with Atlanta that included switching first-round picks. I said, 'Great,' and then asked who he liked with the fifth pick. I clearly remember him telling me, 'Well, there's this great running back from TCU who could help us immediately. It's funny now, but I also remember asking, 'Is he any good?' And John said, 'Yeah, he's going to be something special.' I wish John was here today, so I could thank him for making what has probably become the most significant trade and pick in the history of the San Diego Chargers.
"Few players have meant more to the city and the team than LT. He was the very heart and soul of this organization during one of its most successful decades."
The team then showed a highlight video of Tomlinson's greatest plays during his nine years in San Diego. Spanos said that when Tomlinson called him weeks ago and said that he wanted to retire as a Charger, "I was very touched and honored. He will always be a Charger to me, and I know to all the fans here in San Diego. I'd like to ask LT to come up, and make this official, and sign a new contract with the San Diego Chargers."
Tomlinson signed the contract to that rarest of all sounds -- applause from the media during a press conference. Spanos quipped that he forgot to check how much the contract was for, held up a replica jersey with Tomlinson, and introduced him as "The newest San Diego Charger -- a Charger today, and a Charger for life."
"Thank you -- what an awesome day this is," Tomlinson said to begin his speech. "It's been an awesome journey, to say the least. When you stand up and announce your retirement, there are so many people [who] need to be thanked." Tomlinson thanked the Chargers first, and relayed that when he left the Chargers in free agency before the 2011 season, Spanos asked him if he would come back and retire as a Charger.
"Without question, I said yes," Tomlinson recalled. "Because I always felt like I was a Charger. The guys, my teammates -- the bond we built and the battles we won together -- it was special, and I always felt in my heart that I was a Charger."
Tomlinson also thanked the New York Jets and owner Woody Johnson for "two great years in New York, of chasing the dream; of chasing that Super Bowl trophy. So, I want to thank them as well."
He then thanked a host of coaches throughout his career, and moved on to (as any smart running back would) his offensive line. "All those runs you see? A lot of that had to do with my offensive line. They knew how I ran, and I knew how they blocked. I always felt like they were my best friends. I used to always do things for them, just out of the goodness of my heart, because they never got any credit for it. But they battled their butts off in the trenches. I really appreciated them, and that's why I always tried to make them feel special whenever I could."
It's a sign of Tomlinson's sense of the big picture that he also thanked the equipment personnel -- he seemed to go out of his way to recognize those who don't usually get the credit.
Most of all, he wanted to thank his mom. "She really pushed me -- she knew that I had a dream at a young age to play in the National Football League. And what she did as a parent ... she sacrificed, just like parents do. Mom, I appreciate you always being there for me -- always smiling, and hugging and kissing me after every game. Whether we won or lost. There were many times after a tough loss that I'd call my mom, and she always made me feel better about the situation."
Tomlinson then thanked his wife, who "hung in there in the good days, and the bad days - -the days where I don't feel like talking after a loss. She stuck in there with me, and always encouraged me as well. She pushed me, and she also kept me humble. There were times when I started to get a big head -- 'Yeah, I'm the MVP,' and all this kind of stuff -- and she would say, 'You know what? You're still my husband, and you've still got chores to do at home!' That puts it in perspective.
"In the end, the reason I'm retiring is that ... and I've had five months to contemplate and think about retiring. I knew at the end of the season that it may be a possibility that I would walk away from the game. It wasn't because I didn't want to play anymore; that wasn't the reason. It was simply time to move on. That's how I look at it."
Tomlinson was most emotional when remembering the retirement day of former teammate Junior Seau, who recently ended his own life.
"One thing I remember is when Junior Seau retired, he was standing up here giving his speech, and the one thing that stood out to me was that he said, 'I'm graduating today.' That's the way I look at it."
As he did during his NFL career, Tomlinson left the game with his head held high, and with all the class you'd expect.