Cut above the rest

Jason Cole
Yahoo! Sports

The coaches at University High in Waco, Texas, tried to teach the move for years after LaDainian Tomlinson was gone.

Start as if running a traditional sweep or stretch play, then cut back hard the other direction. But instead of planting with the outside foot, as most runners do, the coaches tried to get players to do it Tomlinson's way: cut off the inside foot.

After many futile efforts, the coaches figured out what NFL fans have discovered during his six-year career with the San Diego Chargers: Tomlinson is a singular talent.

"Every time we'd try to teach it, the kids would fall down," said LeRoy Coleman, University's varsity coach of 26 years. "Human beings aren't supposed to be able to do that running full speed like that. But LaDainian has that amazing strength and balance that he could do it."

And not really even know it.

"I asked him one time when he was visiting, 'How do you do that?'" said Walter Brown, Tomlinson's running backs coach at University. "He just smiled and said, 'I don't know, coach.'

"It's like he's taking an extra full step before he cuts. We'd watch it on tape and tried to figure it out. You're blessed if you get a kid like that once in a career. And when you get a kid like that, you just stay out of the way. Give him the ball and let him do it. Yeah, I was his position coach in high school, but I never really coached him. You can't coach that."

Tomlinson, the NFL's Most Valuable Player, set the NFL's single-season record for touchdowns (31) and points scored (186) this season. He also rushed for 1,815 yards, averaging an impressive 5.2 yards per carry.

He has been so good that Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer has already called him the greatest ever. Premature? Perhaps, but Tomlinson is on that path. More importantly, he hopes to keep the Chargers on the path to the Super Bowl when San Diego hosts the New England Patriots in the AFC divisional playoffs on Sunday.

At 5-foot-10 and 221 pounds, Tomlinson has a subtle smurfish quality to him. In fact, if you take a good look at the side view of him in a recent ESPN commercial, he appears to have the beginnings of a pot belly.

Herschel Walker, he is not. Then again, maybe that's why he's so great.

"He doesn't have to stop like Herschel Walker had to when he made cuts," CBS analyst Phil Simms said.

Perhaps no football player has ever looked so perfect at running back as Walker, the 1983 Heisman Trophy winner at Georgia. Walker had a good professional career, but he hardly lived up to the expectations of a guy some thought could have jumped from high school to the NFL.

Walker's problem? When he cut, his momentum stopped him from getting up field faster. But he had a quality, in addition to speed and strength, that made him and other running backs more coveted than Tomlinson – size.

That's why Tomlinson, even after gaining more than 2,400 yards and scoring 39 touchdowns as a senior at University, only got scholarship offers from Texas Christian and North Texas, Brown said.

And it wasn't until his junior year at TCU that he was given a legitimate chance to play. His senior year, he nearly won the Heisman and was drafted No. 5 overall.

So when Tomlinson was named the MVP last week, he couldn't help but reflect on some of the slights.

"When you come out [of college] they have all [these] different things and the expert books about the draftees that are going to be drafted," Tomlinson recalled. "They always say, 'Skill level: MVP, Pro Bowler, average.' I remember reading a thing about me and it definitely didn't say MVP. So I guess they better go back and put that on there."

Tomlinson has reached an MVP level in part because he seems to keep his speed through the cut. Coleman and Brown noticed it when Tomlinson broke the touchdown record with an 85-yard run against Kansas City last month.

"You see him make the move to the outside and all of a sudden he's through the line and into the secondary like he hasn't even tried to change direction," Coleman said. "It's just amazing."

Tomlinson wasn't touched on that run. It was as if he didn't even need help from his teammates. Maybe so, but he never forgets them.

"All of these guys, it's a tribute to them as well," said Tomlinson, referencing his MVP season. "Now obviously I'm benefiting from what they've done for me."

That's typical for Tomlinson, who insisted that the TCU offensive linemen be included in a picture that accompanied a feature story on him. Tomlinson has been similarly generous with people he didn't know well. When New Orleans Saints rookie Reggie Bush was at Helix High in San Diego, Tomlinson invited Bush to work out with him.

Tomlinson sponsors an annual summer football camp in Waco for about 400 high school players, often covering the expenses for those who can't afford them. At camp's end, 15 recipients from University are awarded $1,000 scholarships following an essay contest which Tomlinson and his wife LaTorsha judge.

"That's his way," Coleman said. "He's never been flashy, never been boastful. We never had to get on him to work harder or to pay attention or to get his work done in the classroom. That's not him.

"It's like when you see him score a touchdown. He always acts like he's been there. Just hands the ball to the ref. I only saw him look like he was celebrating a touchdown once."

After scoring on a long run in a high school playoff game, Tomlinson was sent out on defense to his linebacker position. The opponent fumbled immediately, and a tired Tomlinson raised his hand to come out of the game. He was ordered to stay in for another play.

"It was a play for him and he broke another long run for about 70 yards," Coleman remembers. "He just fell down in the end zone after he scored. I wondered what was going on, but it was just that he was so tired, he couldn't even move."

Then again, with those moves, anybody else would have fallen a lot sooner.

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