San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson has heard all the talk about his turning 30. In fact, even his younger brother LaVar recently got in on the act. When LaDainian reached that milestone age on June 23, LaVar called to say his brother had just become an ancient old man in NFL eyes. LaDainian laughed at the joke but also knew something else: He really is entering the most critical stage of his nine-year career.
For all of Tomlinson's success -- which includes five Pro Bowl appearances, 11,760 rushing yards and 141 touchdowns -- he fully understands what happens to running backs once they hit 30. Their explosiveness fades. Their speed declines. Their time in the training room also is apt to increase dramatically as their productivity wanes. These are all issues that Tomlinson hopes to avoid now that he's joined the club.
He already realizes that people view his career-low 1,110 rushing yards last season as a sign of his drop-off. To some, it didn't matter that Tomlinson was plagued by a lingering injury to the big toe on his right foot and a torn groin that limited him to just five carries in two playoff games. The same man who won league MVP honors in 2006 with an NFL-record 31 touchdowns was slowing down in the eyes of his detractors. That's why Tomlinson is using that skepticism as ample motivation now.
Said Tomlinson during a recent interview, "A lot of people are throwing the jokes out there about me turning 30. It's something that is definitely talked about a lot because history shows us that running backs at the age of 30 start to slow down … or most of them anyway. So that's the big question about me, especially with my injury situation. I'm hearing those questions a lot."
Tomlinson recognizes that the key to answering those questions is staying healthy. After all, it's obvious that his toe injury kept him from consistently displaying the trademark brilliance that has been part of his game for years. Tomlinson said his running style is based on staying up on his toes, both when he's sprinting and cutting. He admits that his right foot -- which he injured in a season-opening loss to Carolina -- was so painful that he couldn't dart to his left with the same quickness that made him so dangerous in the past.
The upside for San Diego was that Tomlinson's problems opened the door for backup Darren Sproles to emerge as a legitimate weapon in the Chargers' backfield. The downside for Tomlinson was that his down year hovered over key moments during his offseason. It was there when Chargers general manager A.J. Smith made some condescending remarks about Tomlinson's future with the team back in January. And it remained there after Tomlinson restructured his deal earlier this offseason.
That's one reason Tomlinson has been more focused than ever about taking care of his body this offseason. He has seen more doctors and even visited with a physical therapist that Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith recommended. Because Smith ran for nearly 5,800 of his NFL-record 18,355 yards after age 30, he offered Tomlinson plenty of advice on how to stay productive during the downside of one's career. Tomlinson paid special attention to the suggestions on training.
As Tomlinson admits, he didn't know much about his body when he was a younger player. Now he understands the little tricks that make the difference between extending a career and becoming the next Shaun Alexander.
"One of the biggest things [Smith] told me was obviously staying in shape and making sure you're seeing the correct people to put yourself back together," Tomlinson said. "What happens with the accumulation of hits is that you can get over them early [in your career], but they never really go away. You just deal with them better. But as you get older, those hits linger longer. That's why most running backs start to slow down."
Tomlinson already is able to see the possibilities that still await him in the coming years. For one thing, the presence of Sproles will make life easier. Tomlinson appreciated being able to share carries with current Atlanta Falcons running back Michael Turner when he was in San Diego and sees the same value in Sproles. As Tomlinson said, "Nobody can carry the entire load by themselves."
That doesn't mean the Chargers won't use Tomlinson as much as possible. Head coach Norv Turner has talked about getting Tomlinson at least 320 carries this season, which suggests the Chargers' coaches still believe in his playmaking ability. Tomlinson also has been adamant about wanting to make a run at Smith's NFL records for rushing yardage and career rushing touchdowns (164). That first mark won't be easy to reach, but Tomlinson also senses he has a decent shot at making more history.
The irony here is that there once was a time when Tomlinson didn't want to hang around for records. When he came into the league in 2001, he had the same attitude that kept him motivated as a lightly regarded college recruit at TCU: He just wanted to prove himself and be consistent. Now he's done just about everything possible except win a Super Bowl. And he realizes age is the only thing that could keep him from reaching those goals.
That doesn't mean now that he's older that Tomlinson believes he can regain all the same breathtaking ability that made him great. He just understands that it will require more effort and determination than ever before to maintain his productivity. That's why this season will be so revealing for Tomlinson's future. It ultimately will be the first indication we'll get of whether he can defy the odds that are steadily aligning against him.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.