SAN DIEGO -- The guy who owns a gas station a few minutes away from Qualcomm Stadium won't let go. Week after week, pride and points be damned, he started LaDainian Tomlinson and sat Adrian Peterson -- you know, the NFL's regular-season touchdown leader -- on his fantasy football team. One of these days, Eddy Brikho says, LT is going to bust loose. Never mind that he's 30 years old with high miles and plummeting stats. LaDainian Tomlinson is San Diego, Brikho says. He'll deliver.
"When you love somebody, you stick with him," Brikho says. "No matter what."
There is somewhat of a reverence in Southern California for sunsets. Joggers and tourists stop along Mission Beach every night as the sun melts into the Pacific Ocean. It's short and beautiful, and in a blink it's gone, kind of like Tomlinson's career. Ask any Chargers fan, and they'll tell, in great detail, a story of that season opener in 2001, two days before Sept. 11, when Tomlinson made his rookie debut and every San Diegan knew he was special. It's as if it were yesterday.
After that, it seemed inevitable that LT was going to touch the ball 30 times a game, pile up a bunch of yards and forever be the visored face of the franchise. Now the only thing that seems certain is that Tomlinson's days in San Diego might be numbered.
Tomlinson, known as one of the most approachable players in the NFL, doesn't want to talk about it. He says he believes he can still be a productive running back in the NFL and would be willing to play elsewhere in 2010 if management decides to move on without him. He says he's thinking only about the playoffs, and a season that is shaping up to be his best shot at a Super Bowl ring.
"I've always been a person who's lived in the moment," Tomlinson says. "I don't think of the what-ifs. I just don't do it.
"[If it ends], well, I've had a great time here and I've enjoyed it. I can't say that I wish I would've done something differently. I played like I wanted to, as hard as I could. I have no regrets."
The short life span
The life span of an NFL running back is roughly two years, and the end rarely comes with flashing signals or even a slight nudge. Shaun Alexander carried the ball 370 times for Seattle in 2005, was named league MVP and promptly signed a $62 million contract. He broke his foot in Week 3 of the following season, never rushed for 1,000 yards in a year again and is currently out of work.
Statistics and logic say it can't be done for a prolonged amount of time, bouncing a 220-pound body off 300-pound tackles more than 300 times a season. But for the first seven years of his career, that's exactly what Tomlinson did, plus pulling double duty as a receiver.
His tally is a mind-numbing 3,410 touches over the span of nine seasons.
"That's not just 3,400 hits," says former Kansas City Chiefs running back Christian Okoye. "Because one touch is equal to about four hits sometimes. If you're an elite running back like LT, you tend to bounce off hits and keep going. And then when you're down, somebody falls on you. One touch is equal to five hits."
So it was inevitable that this would happen, right? The season-low 730 yards in 2009, the 223 carries. Two seasons ago, Tomlinson led the NFL in rushing and averaged 4.7 yards a carry. Now he's 29th and has just 3.3 per snap. But if Tomlinson is feeling it -- he has to be feeling it, Okoye says -- he wouldn't dare say anything. He briskly walks into the Chargers' locker room and says he is as fresh as he's been in years, the result of sharing time with Darren Sproles. He says he's at peace and content and ready for whatever coach Norv Turner has planned for him in the postseason.
"I feel good," Tomlinson says. "Glad to be healthy going into the playoffs."
The way Turner spins it, Sproles' emergence is the key to Tomlinson's postseason success. Turner dodges questions about whether Tomlinson has lost a step, saying that the Chargers are lucky because this time, they get a fully charged LT for the playoffs. The past two years, Tomlinson has watched the end of the season from the sideline with an injury. The first one, a sprained knee in January 2008, is what some say started his slow fade. The second, a groin injury, kept Tomlinson out of a loss to the eventual-champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
"I'm excited to have him fresh and healthy," Turner says, "and we will still lean on Darren for the things he does well. I like the mix we have there."
The veteran's view
David Binn is the graying, scruffy-faced model of longevity. He's a long snapper who has been in a San Diego Chargers uniform for so long he remembers the 1994 Super Bowl season. So LT is 30? Heck, that's nothing. Binn will be closing in on 40 when his contract expires in 2011.
"I think age is just a number," Binn says. "I know that's clichéd, but it's true. It's been proven."
Later in the conversation, Binn says one year in the NFL is the equivalent of five years of life. He's asked about that; LT being well beyond middle age, according to those calculations. OK, maybe it doesn't apply to him.
But Binn's opinion is important, because he's the only true link to Tomlinson's past. He was a veteran in '01 when the quiet kid from Texas arrived in San Diego and bought himself a green Mercedes-Benz with spinning rims. Tomlinson didn't say much back then -- still doesn't -- but when he talks, the locker room gets quiet and people listen. He's a team player, Binn says, whom he's never heard grouse about his diminished role.
And here's the thing, Binn says. Tomlinson's changing role, for the most part, is a good thing because it means the team upgraded its talent. Back in the early days, Tomlinson was asked to do just about everything. Then the Chargers added Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates, drafted quarterback Philip Rivers and slowly evolved into a dominant passing team.
"I think the majority of people who don't know the Chargers don't understand that he's not asked to do the same thing," Gates says. "Over time, you don't have to do as much when you get guys around you that are stepping up and making plays. He's surrounded by a ton of talent. He doesn't have to make 100 catches. He doesn't have to take every carry.
"It's a situation where he's trying to give to get. It's like he's giving up a little something as an individual to get something collectively, which is a championship. For a guy like LT, like myself and Philip, guys who have done everything you can do individually, go to Pro Bowls, be named MVPs what else is there for him to do at this point but win a championship?"
In March, Tomlinson showed that desire when he restructured his contract. He said he wanted to finish what he and the Chargers started eight years ago. He said the team was primed to win a championship.
"My heart has always been in San Diego," he said at the time. "I couldn't imagine putting on another uniform."
The former coach
Marty Schottenheimer might hesitate to answer his cell phone these days. It could be a reporter on the other line, asking if Schottenheimer is interested in the latest NFL opening. Three years ago, he was a 14-2 coach whose San Diego team stumbled in the divisional round of the playoffs. He lost his job, and has done a lot of golfing since then. Things happen quickly in the NFL, Schottenheimer knows.
But he always finds time to talk when it's about Tomlinson. He's coached some great runners, including Marcus Allen, but calls Tomlinson the best he's ever seen. He loves to tell people about how in practice, most running backs stop 5 yards after a play. But then there was LT, sprinting all the way downfield, days after taking a pounding in a big game.
"People say, 'Well, how come he's not doing better now?'" Schottenheimer says. "It's quite simple. They're no longer a running team; they're a passing team. He doesn't get the opportunities he once did. It's a little bit misleading.
"What happens is that runners go for 3 yards, 4 yards, 2 yards and then 40 yards. All of a sudden they've got four carries and 50 yards. I'm not suggesting they use him more but if he was given the ball 25 times a game, he'd make it over 100 yards quite frequently."
Rivers also balks at the idea that Tomlinson has lost a step. He says he sees the same old LT in some of the cuts and runs he makes. Tomlinson has still been effective in goal-line situations, and has scored 12 touchdowns this season. But the Chargers are 31st in the league in rushing offense.
"It's about winning," Rivers says.
"You want competitive guys who are just selfish enough that they do want the ball, they want to make the plays, but they also have a considerable amount of unselfishness to buy into what we need to get done to win."
As frenzied as life in the NFL can be, Tomlinson has managed some stability. He's been with his wife, LaTorsha, since their college days at TCU. In mid-November, just before the Chargers' game with the Eagles, LaTorsha placed a small gift in Tomlinson's cluttered locker with a note attached that said "Open immediately." It was a positive pregnancy test.
Right after LaDainian received the news that they were expecting their first child, he rushed for a season-high 96 yards and two touchdowns. Tomlinson's life is at a crossroads, with a baby coming and the uncertainty of his future looming. Next season, he is reportedly due at least $5 million, a hefty price for a non-everydown back. Next summer, he'll be a dad.
Tomlinson seems much more focused on the latter development.
"He cries a lot now that he's going to be a dad," Gates says. "That's the only thing that has changed. Obviously, that's something he's probably been wanting for a while. He's actually getting his wish, and I'm happy for him."
Not goodbye, yet
The final practice of the bye week has wrapped up, and Tomlinson is talking to a young boy named Carson. The boy has leukemia, and wants to hang out with two of his favorite players, Tomlinson and fullback Mike Tolbert. Carson shows them a scrapbook of photos from when he was well enough to play football. Tomlinson thumbs through every picture and asks questions about the team.
"Is that a reverse?" Tomlinson asks.
No, the kid says.
"How tall is the tallest guy on the team?" Carson asks.
About 6-foot-8, Tomlinson says.
It's past lunchtime and Tomlinson's hungry, but he keeps talking. He signs some cards and says goodbye. This, Tomlinson says later, is one of the best things about being the face of a franchise: the people. But his face is serious now, and his future is uncertain.
He is good friends with Emmitt Smith, who, years ago, left Dallas to finish out his career in Arizona. It might have looked strange, seeing the old Cowboy in Cardinals red and white, but Smith got to 18,355 yards and finished as the NFL's all-time leading rusher. Tomlinson says he hasn't talked to his friend about what comes next. It's not the right time, he says.
"It's gone by fast," he says. "It seems to get faster. But our time in the NFL is short. It's a breeze. That's why you've got to enjoy every moment you're here."
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.