In my daydreams, the equipment manager made an honest mistake. While trying to balance seven different things at once, he simply grabbed the wrong helmet out of a cluttered locker room.
Tomlinson slipped on the wrong headgear and for a moment, no one recognized the error. Heck, everything from LT’s trademark visor to the clean white helmet fit the script.
Then quarterback Philip Rivers discovered the issue, everyone on the field chuckled, LaDainian borrowed some correctly labeled gear, and practice went on as normal.
That’s where my wild thought ends and I snap back to the sad reality.
I think of all the NFL greats who built their splendid reputations with one franchise, only to quietly bow out with another. Emmitt Smith spent his last two unremarkable seasons running behind a patchwork line in Arizona.Joe Montana played his final game in a Chiefs uniform. Jerry Rice’s curtain call came with the Seahawks.
The world’s greatest league has never cared much for sentimental relationships between special individuals and the teams they impacted. The occasions where cities and their franchise players live happily ever after, until bad knees do they part, are extremely rare.
There’s no love lost in these proceedings, whether the actions behind the scenes are amicable or messy. Whenever a superstar and his old bosses part ways, three words often make everything okay.
It’s just business.
Why’d the GM stop returning your phone calls? It’s just business. Why did player X call the owner a gutless coward? It’s just business. Why did player Z flip the bird after learning he was cut? It’s just business.
"It’s just business" could pass for a team slogan on most NFL organizations. Do front office decision makers slap an overhanging board, as Notre Dame players do with their “Play like a champion today” sign before every home game, with the go-to phrase scrolled across the surface?
To hear them tell it, you’d think the brief sentence could end every major world conflict in an instant. We resolved our differences, it’s just business, the war is over boys. Get home safe, everybody.
From a pure football standpoint, Tomlinson’s departure from San Diego fit the business model. He needed a fresh start and the organization sought out a new identity. Time for all parties to move forward.
But that doesn’t cut it after all the bonds, unions, and time invested between Tomlinson and the people who root for him. Emotions clearly factor in the equation.
The San Diego brass and Tomlinson are the high school couple who started dating freshman year, then broke up two weeks before the prom. After all the great times spent together, they should have shared the last dance before happily sprinting to the limo line.
Instead, Tomlinson looks like he’s having a blast with his new squeeze while Chargers fans are a little bit jealous, forcing a peak across the floor while trying to play it cool around friends. The whole thing’s a bit tedious and awkward. And the feelings are still there.
Tomlinson left himself completely vulnerable and open while holding a press conference to discuss his release. His tear ducts shifted into fourth gear as he poured out every personal memory he experienced while with San Diego. In that moment, the end of the LT era finally felt real.
Sure, he’s lost a step, his cuts aren’t as sharp, and he slips on ankle tackles he once breezed through on every carry. The future Hall of Famer’s body may have wore down over nine grueling seasons, but his commitment to the Chargers registered a clean bill of health.
The Texas native simply won two rushing titles and resurrected a dump of a franchise in less than a decade. He ushered in a winning mentality in San Diego for a team that realistically should have jumped ship to a different city when local blackouts, general fan disinterest, and miserable losses defined Chargers football.
LaDainian laid the foundation for a hip title contender.
And now he’s gone.
Come early September, the NFL season will hit the ground running and we’ll all settle in to a new routine. San Diego quickly hand picked Tomlinson’s successor, Ryan Matthews, in the draft. LaDainian hopes to pitch in on a New York team that’s already drawing Super Bowl buzz.
It’s a shame that San Diego and their icon didn’t make it to the finish line. The city and the player grew so much together over their long and successful partnership. Chargers fans can’t help but keep an eye on their old horse as the year unfolds. LaDainian wasn’t just their running back, he was their friend.
It’s more than just business.