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Lightning Rod

While Chargers star Tomlinson is low key, his wife isn't afraid to speak up

Posted: Friday September 3, 2004 12:13PM; Updated: Friday September 3, 2004 3:57PM
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She will read this column without being prompted -- probably late at night, long after her husband has gone to sleep. Its headline will not escape her intrepid eye, because Tomlinson, after all, is her name, too. So let's all extend a heartfelt SI.com welcome to LaTorsha Tomlinson -- or, as her husband LaDainian refers to her, 'LT-squared' -- a young woman who has made it her job to stick up for a man she regards as maddeningly nonchalant.

If LaDainian is the NFL's stealth superstar, LaTorsha is the league's archetypical spunky spouse. Whereas the 25-year-old running back tends to internalize the frustration of the San Diego Chargers' pathological ineptitude (a 17-31 record in his three seasons), his even younger bride is ready to throw down in fish-taco town.

"A lot of wives work their way into luxury boxes for the games, but not me," LaTorsha says. "I say, 'Gimme the cheap seats.' I want to be right down there with the fans, because I like to talk smack."

So, for instance, when a Qualcomm Stadium fan makes a disparaging comment about one of the Chargers' players, he might hear LaTorsha retort, "I don't see you out there, buddy." If he persists, she's liable to ask, "What are you here for, then? Go home."

The next time I cover a game in San Diego -- at this rate, it'll probably be a Chargers-Broncos tilt in December of 2006, almost midway through President Kerry's first term -- I want to hang out with LT-squared.

As refreshingly interesting as I found LaDainian while reporting a story for this week's Sports Illustrated (in the magazine's NFL Preview Issue), LaTorsha proved to be an even better interview. Her insights into her husband's behavior were downright precious, and it doesn't hurt that she is a budding psychologist, having majored in the subject at TCU (the two met at the Dallas-area school four years ago) and later at UC San Diego, where she recently completed her bachelor's degree.

LaDainian, says LaTorsha, "has a tendency to pretend things aren't there. I tell him, 'Honey, just because you pretend like it ain't there, it's not gonna go away.'" For example, as the Chargers sputtered to a 4-12 record in 2003, LT became more and more withdrawn from his misery. After San Diego fell to 0-2 with a 37-13 defeat to the Broncos, Tomlinson retreated to the locker room and, toward the end of a team prayer, burst into tears for the next several minutes. "A lot of people were probably like, 'Why's he crying? It's only the second game,'" Tomlinson says. "But I was crying because I knew we weren't going to be very good."

He proved to have Dionne Warwick-esque psychic skills, and as the defeats mounted, LaTorsha says her husband shut down emotionally. "He kind of got numb to it," she recalls. "At first, he'd come home and get upset and say, 'I just can't take this anymore.' But toward the end of the season he'd get home and say, 'So, how was your weekend?' It was almost like he felt, 'If I don't think about it, it won't affect me.' As a psych major analyzing his mood, I'd have to say he was in a state of denial."

Part of the reason LaTorsha seems a bit perturbed by her husband's lack of overt ire is that she's his biggest defender. She wants him to enjoy the spoils that a man coming off one of the greatest offensive seasons in NFL history should be due: big-time endorsements; national acclaim as the best runner in the game; a Pro Bowl berth, for heaven's sake. She knows how hard he has worked, how single-minded he has been in his pursuit of his goals. And we're not simply talking about football.

After the two began dating at TCU, the freshman coed then known as LaTorsha Oakley extracted an admission from the Horned Frogs' star senior running back: "He had watched me around campus for two months just to see what kind of person I was. I asked him, 'Were you a stalker?' He said, 'No, I was just trying to observe what kind of girl you were.'"

Tomlinson wasn't the most subtle of sleuths. LaTorsha had gradually begun to notice him smiling at her every time she visited 'The Main,' as the center of TCU's campus is known. They finally met late one Saturday night at a Dallas hotel which was hosting a postgame party following the traditional Prairie View A&M-Grambling game. Tomlinson, returning from a road game, showed up at the party's entrance as LaTorsha was walking out, at which point she heard one of his friends blurt out, "Hey, man -- there goes that girl you were talking about today!"

Their first date was a late-night trip to an IHOP, after LaDainian convinced LaTorsha, who was on the Dean's List, to take a break from her studies. "We were there two hours, and I swear he talked about his mom for the entire time," LaTorsha recalls. "From that moment, I knew he was a sweetheart."

You wouldn't guess it from watching him run so ferociously, but LT is a big Soft-T when it comes to romance. Two weeks after he and LaTorsha started dating, he gave her a huge teddy bear that was, she remembers, "the size of a human. He always would leave me cards around my dorm, or sometimes my phone would ring and instead of him saying hello, a song would be playing instead." Even to this day, LaTorsha is liable to flip open her cell and hear the strains of Luther Vandross, R. Kelly, Jagged Edge or Maxwell and turn to jelly all over again.

"He's just very genuine, very sweet and very nice," she says. "He's very unlike any guy I've ever met. Most guys are afraid to talk about their feelings in a relationship, but he's just really affectionate that way."

He's also somewhat of a homebody, usually venturing out to night spots or parties only when dragged out by his wife. Most nights, she says, "he goes to bed at 10 o'clock. I'm always on the Internet at all hours of the night."

During one of her post-midnight surf sessions a couple of months ago, LaTorsha ran across a missive on her husband that nearly made her strangle her mouse. Says LaDainian: "She pulled up a quote on the Internet that said one of my weaknesses was I'm not a real shake-and-bake guy, that I don't have a quick burst through the hole. I know it's silly, but I'll find a way to use something like that for motivation. As athletes, we're constantly looking for little things to trick ourselves into believing we have everything to prove."

If he needs a psychological explanation for that strategy, LT knows exactly where to go.

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Now's as good a time as any to sample that new Maria Sharapova perfume.

Coming Next Week

I'll tell you exactly who is going to win each and every NFL game of the 2004 season, and by how many points.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Michael Silver sounds off weekly on SI.com.