Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The not so short goodbye

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away

Maybe pulling out the Shelley is a bit dramatic, but I couldn't help but think of those immortal words yesterday when I heard the news.

Ladanian Tomlinson's reign as the King of San Diego is officially over. For most of the last 9 years he was the best running back in the NFL. He is undoubtedly the best running back of the last decade, a first ballot Hall of Famer and one of the best to ever play the game. More than that, he was a towering figure in the community, both through his massive charity work and his quiet dignity.

And all that makes this even worse.

I remember the first time I ever "saw" LT, so to speak. I wasn't watching a NFL game. It wasn't the combine or the draft or one of his TCU games either. I was playing some goddawful NFL blitz ripoff game at a friend's house. I'd never played the game before so I sucked pretty hard at it. My friend had selected to play as the Chargers for some reason, which I thought was weird because they were so bad at the time and he wasn't even a Charger fan so there was no team loyalty there. I figured the playing field might be leveled since I would pick a "good" team to play as. Little did I know that there was a method to my friend's madness, and that method was simple: give the ball to (video game) LT.

In whatever crappy game this was, LT was less a man and more a death mobile. He ran so fast on screen that flames came off his shoes. No one on my defense could tackle him, even on the rare occasion that they got within half the screen of him. Naturally I was furious at this shitty game and whatever stoner programmer had created this inhuman football monstrosity wearing number 21 on the screen. Had I not been so ignorant I would have realized that it was just another case of art imitating life.

Four years ago LT had one of the all time great NFL seasons. Not just for a running back or a modern player, but for any position at any time. It was a season which transcended football and ranks with some of the all time sports accomplishments like the Triple Crown or the Grand Slam.

And now he's been released. Ceremoniously to be sure, but that was just window dressing on the ice flow. The decay that wore down Ozymandias over 4 millennia tore down LT in just 4 years.

We all knew this day was coming, sooner or later, and the smart money was on sooner. Still, this is probably the worst of all possible ways for this to happen. Losing a start to free agency or a trade may sting but there is usually compensation of some sort, plus the player can become an object of scorn if emotions get heated. Career ending injuries suck but are part of life. And the ideal situation, retiring into the sunset following a swan song season and possibly a championship, would have been great but sadly it just doesn't happen that often in the NFL. For every Elway or Bettis there are 100 other players who were denied a glorious exit.

Like many Chargers, I feel that LT gets a bum rap from the national media. He toiled in relative obscurity for most of his career, and it seemed like his (supposedly) worst moments were when he was in the national spotlight. The incident with Bill Belichick in 2006 is still being talked about, despite the fact that the two buried whatever beef they back then very quickly. He played and excelled for years with all sorts of injuries which would have kept less tough players on the sidelines, but sadly the few injuries which were severe enough to keep him out of a game came during the playoffs. Somehow this gave some the idea that LT was "soft", which would be laughable if it wasn't so idiotic. LT played 9 years in the NFL and missed only 2 regular season games due to injury. I don't care who you are, that's incredible. By comparison, Adrian Peterson missed 2 games in his very first year!

But never mind that comparison. Playing running back in the NFL is the physical equivalent of being in a car wreck every single week. There's a reason running backs have such short careers and miss so much time do to injury. Despite the odds against him, and despite the fact that he was often playing on bad teams, LT went out every single week and did amazing things. Bad luck and bad timing combined with the relatively low profile of the Chargers kept the Tomlinson that Charger fans know and love from being fully appreciated throughout the nation. Not that media perceptions should matter, but its just a shame how such a great player and person can be such an unknown to a league in which he was one of the best players for so long.

What I've also come to realize is that this is a no win situation as a Charger fan and an LT fan. The team is moving on without him, as every team must, but there are very few scenarios in which everything turns out well for all involved.

If they manage to win a SB finally, it will always be with the knowledge that they did it without the face of their franchise. If they continue to struggle in the running game then there will always be doubts about letting him go and what it accomplished.

On the flip side, whatever LT does from here will be painful to watch. It would awful if he struggles elsewhere and suffers the indignity of being run out of the league as a broken down back. But what if he actually has something left in the tank and has a good year elsewhere? It would probably be even worse to watch him thrive again for another team, knowing that he could still be wearing lightning bolts.

On the long shot chance that he does win the Super Bowl he so richly deserves, it could only come at the expense of the Chargers NOT winning in a particular year. Given the labor problems, potential lockout, LTs rapidly diminishing skills and the huge turnover coming for the Charger roster over the next 2 years, there most likely isn't enough time for both the Bolts and LT to fulfill there ultimate goals separately.

Still, its important to remember that this parting is so hard for us because of all the great memories we have of LT and all the happiness he brought us. So let me just say thank you for everything, Ladanian. And good luck with whatever you choose to do next. You'll always be a fire shooting, tackler swashing Charger to me.