Tomlinson never bristled when, during his first two NFL seasons, he was best known as the Guy Who Got Traded for Michael Vick. (The Chargers dealt the No. 1 pick in the 2001 draft to the Atlanta Falcons, who selected Vick, then took Tomlinson with the fifth choice.) He rushed for a total of 2,919 yards those two years, but Vick had a breakout season in '02, leading the Falcons to an upset of the Green Bay Packers in an NFC wild-card game. Says Tomlinson, "The way I look at it is, if Michael Vick and I both become Hall of Famers, everyone should be happy."
Assuming his body holds up, the 5'10", 221pound Tomlinson is on his way to Canton. With his quick burst, exceptional vision, unearthly cutback ability and aptitude for juking and shedding tacklers, he strikes fear into the hearts of defenders every time he touches the ball. Citing two of his electrifying teammates, Chiefs safety Jerome Woods says Tomlinson is "like Dante Hall and Priest Holmes rolled into one. It's unbelievable to say that about a back, but that's the truth. When he gets the ball in his hands, you're always thinking, Get him inside to the help." Then, referring to the SportsCenter theme, Woods adds, "If you don't get help, it's dadada, dadada."
It's likely that opposing defenders will continue to face the music in 2004, but his teammates hope that Tomlinson's highlight-reel runs can also fuel a San Diego surge into playoff contention. "We need to win," says Neal, "because the world needs to see this superstar and put him on the platform he deserves, instead of saying, Who's LaDainian Tomlinson?"
The world got a better idea on Aug. 14, when Tomlinson signed an extension--eight years, $60 million, including a $12.4 million signing bonus--that made him the highest-paid running back in the NFL. "I would love to spend my whole career in San Diego because I accept the challenge of turning this team around," Tomlinson says. "I don't think there's a person who thinks we have a chance. But I do."