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The Best of 2006
Michael Silver
December 25, 2006
Of all the year's spectacular performers, no one had the finishing touch of Mr. Touchdown, LaDainian Tomlinson
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December 25, 2006

The Best Of 2006

Of all the year's spectacular performers, no one had the finishing touch of Mr. Touchdown, LaDainian Tomlinson

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He is at the forefront of history, charged with clearing a path for progress--one collision at a time. As the best player in the NFL at his position, he is a man who takes pride in his craft and understands the fine line between proficiency and excellence. Yet as he takes his spot in the San Diego Chargers' backfield, here's the most frustrating thing about being Lorenzo Neal: Though typically two steps ahead of the action, the 14th-year fullback has the worst view in the house.

His helmet lodged underneath an opponent's shoulder pads, Neal knows when LaDainian Tomlinson has done something exceptional only from the fans' collective gasp or roar. "It's hard sometimes," Neal says. "You make a block, and you hear the crowd go 'Woooo' and you want to watch. When the play's over, sometimes you sneak a look at the JumboTron and go, 'What did I just miss?'"

What Neal has been missing in 2006 is one of the most stupendous seasons ever by a running back--and Tomlinson's elevation from 21st-century star to legend in the making. Six seasons into a career that's already being compared with those of Hall of Famers Jim Brown and Barry Sanders, Tomlinson is speeding, powering and feinting his way into the record books and leading San Diego toward what could become its first championship in a major professional sport. When New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor, one of the NFL's alltime best, retired following the 1993 season, it seemed unfathomable that another LT would take hold of the national consciousness to the same degree scarcely a decade later. Yet here is LT 2.0, with a single-season-record 31 touchdowns and counting, carrying a team with an untested quarterback and an embattled coach while blasting through seemingly any and all obstacles. "When we really need something," Neal says, "he gives it to us every time. It's like he wills it to happen."

Tomlinson, the league's leading MVP candidate, has been so special so often in 2006 that listing his most memorable moments is a draining exercise. From vicious stiff-arms to beguiling hip wiggles, he has fed the highlight reels with indelible images like no one else in his profession. It took LT just 13 games to break the NFL's single-season record of 28 touchdowns, set by Seattle Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander last season, and in doing so Tomlinson made some of the league's best defenders look as though they were trying to tackle an imaginary friend. But Tomlinson is much more than a star ready-made for the YouTube generation; because he's so good at so much, he is the running back's running back, a player revered by even his most esteemed peers. "He's phenomenal," says the St. Louis Rams' Marshall Faulk, the future Hall of Famer generally regarded as the best multipurpose back in history. "He's the one who blows us all away, because he does everything."

Doing everything, in this case, extends beyond the playing field, where Tomlinson runs, catches, blocks and even throws like a consummate pro. The 27-year-old comports himself--in the end zone, in interviews, in his time away from football--in a manner you'd want your kid to emulate. Whether he's respectfully handing the ball to an official after a score or rising before dawn with his wife, LaTorsha, to hand out Thanksgiving turkeys to the less privileged, Tomlinson seems neither needy nor greedy. "The way you behave is a product of who you are and what you're all about," he says. "And I'm very careful about that, because no matter how much we don't want to be, we are role models to so many kids. What they see us do, they will do. As athletes we can't be selfish and worry about only ourselves."

For a few fleeting moments Neal once had a small sense of what it would be like to be LT. The second-leading rusher in Fresno State history when he left, Neal, then a 5'11" 228-pounder, was a fourth-round draft pick of the New Orleans Saints in 1993. "I used to tote it," recalls Neal, who began his rookie season as the Saints' starting fullback. In his second NFL game he busted a 74-yard touchdown run against the Atlanta Falcons and for a few moments led the league in rushing. Late in that game, however, he suffered a broken ankle, ending his rookie season and changing his career path. He remembers being told by Jim Mora, then the New Orleans coach, "Son, find your niche and you can be in this league a long time."

Thirteen years, 27 pounds, five teams, one Music City Miracle (in that memorable January 2000 playoff victory in Nashville, Neal fielded the fateful kickoff and handed the ball to Titans teammate Frank Wycheck) and 10 consecutive seasons of blocking for a 1,000-yard rusher later, Neal still enjoys moments of jaw-dropping wonderment. Earlier this month, on the long flight home from Buffalo following the Chargers' 24--21 victory over the Bills, he and his backfield mate settled into their side-by-side seats in first class and began talking about everything but Tomlinson's on-field exploits. At one point, Neal says, "I was having one of those out-of-body experiences. It's like I was watching the scene and saying, Man, look who I'm sitting by. Everyone in the NFL has a certain amount of ability, and sometimes guys don't really understand the greatness they're around. I mean, here we are playing the most-watched sport in America, a sport people have been playing for decades, and for this guy to rewrite the record books and still be meek and humble.... It just gives you goose bumps."

Three times this season LT has scored four touchdowns in a game; on the latter two occasions, in mid-November, he sparked back-to-back second-half comebacks that led to wins at Cincinnati and Denver. His other four-TD game, against the San Francisco 49ers in mid-October, featured a mind-blowing scoring leap over Marcus McNeill, the Chargers' 6'7", 336-pound left tackle. Two weeks later, against the Rams, Tomlinson had 240 combined rushing and receiving yards and three touchdowns, one of them on a 38-yard run that featured a stiff-arm so fierce it dislodged St. Louis safety Oshiomogho Atogwe's helmet. And when the Rams tried to mount a last-gasp rally, guess who recovered an onside kick?

The list of feats goes on ... and on ... and on. Philip Rivers, San Diego's first-year starting quarterback, isn't the only accurate passer in the Chargers' huddle: Twice Tomlinson has thrown touchdown passes off the halfback option, including a 19-yard floater to tight end Antonio Gates that tied the score in the fourth quarter of a comeback victory over the Oakland Raiders on Nov. 26. Tomlinson is proudest of his performance the previous weekend in Denver, where his 51-yard touchdown scamper on a screen pass was the signature moment in a game in which the Chargers erased a 17-point deficit to beat the Broncos 35--27 and take control of the AFC West. "Winning there was something I'd never accomplished before," says Tomlinson, who also cracked the 100-yard rushing barrier for the first time in six tries in the Mile High City. "We never hung our heads, and the way it played out was magical."

For Tomlinson the year's most magical moment occurred not on grass or artificial turf, but on asphalt. Turning a corner just outside the locker room at Qualcomm Stadium before the Chargers played the Cleveland Browns on Nov. 5, LT found himself face-to-face with one of his idols: Jim Brown, now an adviser to his former team. Tomlinson introduced himself, and the two talked for several minutes, a chat that seemed surreal to LT. As Brown returned Tomlinson's praise by telling him he'd had a great career so far, recalls LT, "I was like a kid in Willy Wonka Land."

Even more unreal is Tomlinson's sustained statistical assault on Brown and some of the game's other greats. He already has 111 touchdowns, passing Sanders for 12th alltime. When he scored his 100th career TD in just his 89th game, he overtook Brown and alltime rushing leader Emmitt Smith as the quickest player to that milestone. ( Brown and Smith each took 93 games.) In September, in his 81st NFL game, Tomlinson surpassed 10,000 career yards from scrimmage, tying Brown as the third-fastest player to that mark. He's the second player, after Eric Dickerson, to have rushed for at least 1,200 yards in his first six years in the league. And on Sunday, in his 14th game, Tomlinson broke Paul Hornung's 46-year-old record of 176 points in a season.

It is Tomlinson's reverence for the game's history that enables him, more than most of his peers, to appreciate his accomplishments beyond their superficial statistical context. He truly understands that the yards and touchdowns are not just his. "It's not like basketball, where you can just take over," he says. "It takes 11 people to accomplish something, and sometimes there's a sense of urgency that when I do get an opportunity to make a play--when all 10 of my teammates are doing what they're supposed to do--I have to come through."

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