The people of Fort Worth have never seen anything quite like the 2000 election campaign. Television, Internet, public appearances, endorsements, old-fashioned billboards—it's an onslaught that won't stop. On a balmy afternoon last week, TCU tailback and Heisman Trophy candidate LaDainian Tomlinson walked past a parked SUV decorated with a purple LT FOR HEISMAN bumper sticker, complete with website address. "There are so many of these," he said, tapping the van's back window with his index finger, "that I've started to notice the cars that don't have one."
Two days later Tomlinson ran for 200 yards on 41 carries in a 37-0 victory over Rice. That performance enabled the 5'11", 220-pound senior from Waco to remain the leading rusher in the nation (184.7 yards per game) and 7-0 TCU to win its 12th consecutive game over two seasons, the longest streak in the nation. The ninth-ranked Horned Frogs have ascended from the ashes of a 1-10 season in 1997 and given fans of a once-proud program reason to celebrate.
At the center of all this mojo is Tomlinson, whose Heisman run has been imbued with significance that goes far beyond football. Tomlinson runs not only to win the Heisman and earn TCU a long-shot BCS bowl invitation, but also to help the Frogs hold on to miracle-working coach Dennis Franchione; to push the university toward its goal of national academic prominence; to educate the schoolchildren of the Dallas- Fort Worth metroplex about the value of good teachers; and, on a personal level, to please the mother who raised him and the father who deserted him. "It's a lot to think about, so I just try not to think about it," says Tomlinson.
Instead, he simply performs as well as any running back in the country. Last season, as a junior, Tomlinson led the nation with 1,850 yards rushing and broke the NCAA single-game record with a ridiculous 406 yards on 43 carries against UTEP. In August, when Franchione presented Tomlinson with his plaque for winning the NCAA rushing title, LT gave it to his offensive linemen, who hung it in their meeting room. "How often is your best player your best teammate?" asks senior offensive tackle David Bobo.
This season Tomlinson is on pace to rush for 2,032 yards—not bad for a guy who didn't play tailback in high school until his senior year and who, in his first two years at TCU, ran for a total of only 1,255 yards. On Sept. 16 he shredded the defense of Big Ten contender Northwestern for 243 yards on 39 carries, and three weeks later he beat up Hawaii for 294 yards and four touchdowns on 49 carries. Tomlinson attracts more attention than free shrimp yet hasn't been held to fewer than 119 yards in a game this fall. Talk about targets: In the second half of a rainy 17-3 TCU victory over Tulsa on Oct. 21, a linebacker yelled at Tomlinson, "We're going to tear your ACL."
Most opponents, though, are more respectful of this quick, durable yardage machine who plays much larger than his listed size. "He's real quick and real hard to tackle," says Hawaii linebacker Chris Brown. "He's got strong legs, and he's elusive." Rice linebacker Jeff Vanover says Tomlinson is "just as strong" as Michigan tailback Anthony (A-Train) Thomas but has "more finesse."
NFL personnel people are less certain. Tomlinson "is not a big-time inside runner," says Ted Sundquist, the Denver Broncos' director of college scouting. Tom Dona-hoe, the Pittsburgh Steelers' director of football operations, will say only, "I think he'll play in the league and be a good back. I'm eager to see him in a bowl and in the all-star games."
What Donahoe and his NFL colleagues will find is a back who looks squat but stands only an inch under six feet, bench-presses 450 pounds and runs the 40, according to Franchione, in 4.37, not the 4.5 that NFL scouts have estimated from videotape. And if Tomlinson has not been a strong inside runner, he's fast becoming one, according to Northwestern defensive coordinator Jerry Brown. "That was the big difference between Tomlinson last year and this year," says Brown. "He was outstanding running inside [on Sept. 16]. He ran inside on us with power and evasiveness."
None of this makes LT a Heisman favorite. Purdue's Drew Brees, Oklahoma's Josh Heupel and Florida State's Chris Weinke play tougher schedules on larger stages. Yet Tomlinson has justified the campaign that began last winter, when TCU assistant sports information director Trey Carmichael proposed to Franchione that the school aggressively market LT to a public that might otherwise never get to know a running back from the Western Athletic Conference. Franchione agreed, and so, reluctantly, did Tomlinson. The machinery was set in motion.
Word of the plan reached university chancellor Michael Ferrari, who saw an opportunity to expose the country not only to a TCU football player but also to the university as a whole. Ferrari wants to raise TCU's national profile closer to those of schools such as Northwestern and Vanderbilt. "People want to associate themselves with winners," Ferrari says. "Why not bring together the university's goals with LaDainian's goals, even if some risk is involved?"