The San Diego Chargers do not have one of the NFL's longest and proudest histories. There are a few moments fans can cling to, but the Chargers are not the Green Bay Packers. They're not the Steelers or the Giants. The Chargers' team Hall of Fame would not require a large amount of real estate.
So when they get one of the all-time greats in lightning bolts, he is treasured by fans. LaDainian Tomlinson retired on Monday as one of the all-time greats, and was so treasured by San Diego fans that even though Tomlinson and the Chargers have spent the last two years sniping at each other, immediately upon his retirement, both sides knew what had to happen. Tomlinson had to get back in Bolts before he officially hung up the cleats.
This is certainly arguable (especially by Chargers fans older than me), but I'd say there have been three Chargers good enough to claim their own "era." There was the Fouts era, also known as the Air Coryell era. Then came the Seau era, which delivered the Chargers to their only Super Bowl appearance. Then the Tomlinson era.
Early on, the Tomlinson era was a lot like any other period in Chargers history: Not great. Tomlinson was great, but the team wasn't, managing 17 wins in his first three years. This was coming off the Ryan Leaf years and the Chargers were not thought of as an NFL powerhouse. At that point, Tomlinson was a beautiful lady with a thick, lustrous beard, but was unfortunately traveling with the world's worst circus.
But he never saw that as a reason to leave. He could have, but he didn't. He could've played out his rookie contract and spent his prime years with some other team more likely to surround him with Super Bowl talent. But he valued his relationships with the people in San Diego, and he chose to stay. He wanted to play for a winner, but thought it would be more rewarding to turn San Diego into that winner. He committed himself to the lightning bolt.
It is for that reason that Tomlinson had to be brought back into the Chargers organization. His greatness is undeniable, and his on-field exploits are legendary, but it's his commitment to the Chargers organization that made his eventual return a necessity. The other things made him great. The commitment is what made him beloved.
So, with Marty Schottenheimer and Tomlinson's close friend Drew Brees helping out, Tomlinson turned the Chargers into the winner he wanted to play for. It happened quickly as Brees developed and Tomlinson continued his run as the best runner in the game, and the Chargers had 12, 14, 11 and 13-win seasons with him as the focal point of the offense. It is the winningest six-year stretch in Chargers history, and it happened, in large part, because LaDainian Tomlinson chose not to abandon San Diego.
Which brings us to the past couple of years, when some Chargers fans will tell you that the Chargers abandoned Tomlinson. Fans can be sentimental. A.J. Smith, the Chargers general manager, is not. Smith and Tomlinson clashed, which happens sometimes with star players who aren't what they once were. If the winner of that feud were to be determined by current popularity in San Diego, Tomlinson is your winner in a rout. Many fans routinely call for the head of Smith, but No. 21 jerseys are still omnipresent in San Diego.
And that's as it should be. The bickering back-and-forth since Tomlinson's departure isn't anything more than that ‒ it's just noise, and it's behind them. The bond between Tomlinson and the San Diego fans remains, as do all of the memories that Tomlinson created in Qualcomm Stadium. It's not about Tomlinson's relationship with someone in the Chargers' front office; it's about his relationship with the San Diego community. That's intact.
As for Tomlinson's place in NFL history, and reputation as one of the best of all time, that's intact, too. It is extremely unlikely that the Chargers will ever have another running back on Tomlinson's level. In fact, I don't believe it's likely that anyone will ever have another running back on Tomlinson's level. The greatness and the longevity? With the way the game is trending now? It may happen, but it's a tall order, and it's certainly not going to happen frequently.
With the way teams split carries among running backs, the rate at which running backs are injured now, and the way teams so eagerly discard running backs when they near the age of 30, it'll be an uphill battle for anyone to match Tomlinson. Think about this: Tomlinson led the Chargers in rushing in all nine of his years there, from 2001 to 2009, and played in all 16 games a remarkable eight years in a row.
For comparison's sake, of last year's top-10 running backs, no one has a streak of having played in all 16 games in a season more than two years in a row. It's hard to imagine anyone even getting the opportunity to do that now.
Clearly, Tomlinson is one of the all-time great running backs in NFL history, and he did it in an era where it was getting harder and harder to even be a franchise running back. He not only accomplished that, but also made himself a franchise icon. It's a positive thing for him, for San Diego football fans, and for football that he was able to retire with the same franchise that he spent nine years elevating.