CULVER CITY, Calif. – LaDainian Tomlinson is back to leaping and running at full speed, displaying his skills during a shoot for his latest series of commercials and ads last week.
The Grade 2 sprain of the medial collateral ligament in his left knee – which sidelined him for most of the San Diego Chargers AFC title game loss to the New England Patriots in January – has healed on its own. Back then, Tomlinson never let on how badly he was hurt, going so far as to say it was "nothing serious." That's part of the creed in the NFL at playoff time, nobody tells the truth about injuries.
Last week, Tomlinson sat down with Yahoo! Sports to talk about his health, his emotional flare-ups the past two seasons and several other issues as he took a break from his side job as a pitchman for Campbell's Chunky Soup.
Question: In each of the past two seasons, you've had moments that seemed uncharacteristic for you: displaying anger at the end of the loss to New England in the playoffs in January 2007 and exchanging heated words with quarterback Philip Rivers during the regular season game against the Tennessee Titans last season. What's happening with that?
Tomlinson: I think it's fair to say that (I've been more emotional) because you start to taste it. Before, when we weren't winning and we couldn't taste even getting to the playoffs, it was different. You were just hoping to get to the playoffs. … Now, it's different. … You're expected to win games in the regular season, so getting to the playoffs is not an issue or a factor that we're striving to do.
Right now, we're so close and we're in the playoffs with a chance to win (the Super Bowl), so of course emotions are going to come out because you know every opportunity you have is not always going to be there. So you want to take advantage of every opportunity you have.
Question: Do you feel like you have to control your emotions more?
Tomlinson: I never focus on if I'm showing too much emotion or not. To the media and the people there's a no-win situation. At times when you do show a lot of emotion it's, "Oh he's showing too much emotion." Or like in the New England (playoff) game (when I couldn't play), "Oh, he's not showing any emotion, he kept his helmet off." So you can't really win with that and I just focus that whatever way it comes out, that's how it comes out and that's my emotion in that situation.
That's the way I deal with it. But it would be wrong for a person not to show his emotions because this is an emotional game. It's something that drives people crazy, athletes just trying to win and you go through so many ups and downs that sometimes you are just going to want to just scream and get it out.
Question: Some players have described playing on game day as feeling like they were shot out of a cannon. Fair description?
Tomlinson: For me, I try to have it be more of a controlled emotion. Back in my early days, I used to feel that way, like I was shot out of a cannon. But nowadays, I try to control it so that I can withstand through a whole game. What I have found is that when you do that (play with so much emotion early in the game), by the fourth quarter you have expended all of your energy so it's hard in the fourth quarter to give that extra effort you need. So that's why I try to control myself a little more now so that I have that extra effort I need in the fourth quarter.
Question: You tried to play in the playoffs against New England with a Grade 2 sprain. Most players miss 4-6 weeks with that injury and it's really hard for running backs because the injury makes it hard to cut. Plaxico Burress of the New York Giants played in the Super Bowl with a Grade 1 sprain, but had to shoot up with painkillers to get through the game. Did you ever consider shooting up the knee?
Tomlinson: That's one thing that they tell you, don't shoot up your knee. But in that situation (with Burress), what do you do? It's a once-in-a-lifetime situation to play in the Super Bowl. I don't know what I would have done. But in that game against New England, I didn't even think of shooting up the knee. But I had to at least try to play.
Question: In the past couple of years, you've had a lot more advertising opportunities. Is that part of a concerted effort on your part the way Emmitt Smith put so much effort into marketing at the end of his career?
Tomlinson: I think it's just coming to me. I don't care how much you want to do it, it's not going to come to you if you're not performing on the field. If you are performing on the field, that can help you out. But I also think you have to be somewhat marketable because there are some guys who do great things on the field but it doesn't translate off the field. The thing people are always saying is, "he's just not marketable," so I've just been blessed to have success on the field and be pretty marketable off it.
Question: But this is seven years into your career and you've averaged more than 1,500 yards a season and 16 touchdowns. Why had it taken so long? Is it because you play in a small market like San Diego?
Tomlinson: I think there's no question that that plays a big part. If I was in a place like New York, it probably would have happened a long time ago. But it didn't and everything happens for a reason so I don't really worry about it. I just figured that if I continued to play at a high level, it would take care of itself.
Question: In a recent interview, you said weren't sure if you'd be around long enough to break Smith's career rushing record. You're on pace to do that in five years. Why not? You're 28, are you thinking about retirement already?
Tomlinson: I think I'll just know it in my own mind how I feel and by talking to my family about it. But, you know, there comes a time that you have to think about retiring and doing something else. The game has been good to me and as long as I'm healthy, I love the game and I'm ready to compete, then yeah, I'm going to continue playing. But the question was, in five years I'm going to have the opportunity to pass Emmitt. I said in five years, I may not be playing. Now, in three years? Definitely. In four, probably. But I can't tell you if I'll be playing in five years. I'll be 33, almost 34, years old. So there will be a time that I have to walk away from the game and I would like to do that on my own terms. I would like to do it in the prime of my career when I'm on top.
Question: So is breaking Smith's record important to you?
Tomlinson: No, I'm not concerned. It's not one of my main goals like it was for Emmitt. I've never set out to say I want to break the all-time rushing record. That's not me. I want to win championships. That's the special thing that you want to enjoy as you go through the journey. Just to stay to break a record, I don't see myself doing it. But if it comes along and I get close to it and I'm contemplating (retirement), I may say I'll give it one more year to break the record just 'cause I'm so close. I won't sell myself short. But just to stay in to say I got the record, that's not it.
Question: Smith was lucky because he won three championships in his first six seasons.
Tomlinson: You kind of envy him a little bit because you look at it and you realize, "Man, he won championships early" and he won three of them. That's a heck of a career to say you have won three championships and you have the record. Amazing, man.
Question: At this point, would beating the Patriots on the way to a championship be the perfect script?
Tomlinson: I don't know if it's the perfect situation, but you do feel like if you want to create a rivalry with a team, it starts with beating the Patriots in the playoffs. Not beating them in the regular season, but beating them in the playoffs. I feel that if we keep progressing the way we're progressing and the Patriots stay the same team that's been winning, it's going to happen where we're going to meet again and it's going to have to be that we gotta win some of those games. It would be great to do that, but I wouldn't say it would be perfect to beat them on the way to a championship. If somebody else gets them before we do, then that's fine as long as we win a championship.
Question: Do you think Rivers will be ready for the regular season?
Tomlinson: I believe he is, but I'm not the doctor and I don't know how Philip is feeling physically. But just knowing how he is as a competitor and as an athlete and being a quarterback, I think it helps him to be able to come back.
You look at the quarterbacks who hurt their knee late, they've been able to come back at the beginning of the next season and they've been OK. Most of them aren't running quarterbacks, they're pocket passers and Philip's not a runner, so that works to his advantage. Now, if we were bringing in somebody like Daunte Culpepper, Donovan McNabb or Michael Vick, somebody who runs a lot, then you never know.
Question: Rivers is not particularly fast. Is there anybody besides an offensive lineman who he could beat in a race?
Tomlinson: That's a tough one. Let me see, there's gotta be somebody he can beat. You didn't throw out the defensive linemen.
Question: Him against Jamal Williams?
Tomlinson: That would be a good race, real good race. I don't know, that would be a tough one.
Question: Grady Jackson?
Tomlinson: Sam Adams.
Question: How much progress did Rivers make last season when he played through that knee injury?
Tomlinson: You know, the thing about it is, his first year (as a starter), he was a Pro Bowl quarterback. I think he didn't get much of the credit because of our running game and the things we did on the defensive side of the ball. Last year, there was a point where we had a new coach and the whole process of starting over, starting out late, starting slow. But by the end of the season people started to appreciate what he brought to the team. That was probably because of the Indianapolis game, the Patriots game, even the Tennessee game in the playoffs. That's where people were really able to see him play, see the guts he plays with, the competitiveness he has. For the outside world and the fans, maybe they think he made great progress. But for the guys in the locker room, he was doing that already.
Question: Yeah, but that was a serious knee injury and he had the surgery on the Tuesday before the AFC Championship game.
Tomlinson: I was thinking it was amazing that he was able to play and do as much as he could, especially because sometimes he scrambled. I was thinking he would just drop back and stay there. But to be scrambling, I didn't think he would be able to do that. Then, to have surgery earlier that week. To have that meniscus (cartilage) to have surgery on that and to see him when he came in the next day, it didn't look good at all. It was ugly.
Question: Your father died a little more than a year ago. How have you been dealing with that?
Tomlinson: You do come to kind of a comfort level, but there's never a time you don't think about him. Special days, like his birthday (April 4) … the day of his passing (Feb. 23). Days like that remind you all over again. He's going to be with me the rest of my life. He's part of the reason I'm here and you hold him close in your memories. He'll always be with me."