SAN DIEGO -- Two quick stories tell much about LaDainian Tomlinson: where he has been and where he wants to go.
The first is a tale going back almost 20 years. LT was a running back then as he is now, scoring touchdowns then as he does now. In a Pop Warner League in his hometown of Waco, Texas, he could run into the end zone as well as anyone. And when he did, Tomlinson would simply do a finger roll with the football and hand the ball to the referee.
But one time, at the urging of his sister, he did a dance, which immediately brought a scolding from his mother, Loreane, and advice from an official who told him such dances were reserved for players in the National Football League, not Pop Warner, no matter how big their ambitions or dreams.
Fast-forward to an opulent room in a large house in an upscale San Diego suburb, featuring sports memorabilia, including autographed helmets of Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, and Jim Brown, whom Tomlinson regards as heroes and role models.
Now six years into a career in which the final stop will be the Hall of Fame, Tomlinson can call his heroes peers.
A stretch? Listen to Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer, who as a player and coach has witnessed the best the NFL has had to offer the last 25 years: "I believe he is the finest running back to ever wear an NFL uniform."
A stretch? Tomlinson's vitals this season -- 348 carries for 1,815 yards, 5.2 yards per carry; 28 touchdowns; 56 receptions for 508 yards and 3 touchdowns; NFL Offensive Player of the Year; MVP; and record-holder for touchdowns in a season (31) and points in a season (186), a record that stood for 46 years. (The Golden Boy, Paul Hornung of Green Bay, had 176 points in 1960.)
The Chargers media guide devotes 15 pages to Tomlinson, compiling every yard since he was a first-round draft pick in 2001 out of TCU. He has rushed for more than 1,200 yards in each of his six seasons. He has done everything an NFL running back can do.
The records do not matter much now, Tomlinson says. Maybe later, but for now, "To be honest, they all kind of run together at this point. I can't keep track of them. I leave that to you guys."
Right now it is about winning a playoff game, which hasn't happened to the Chargers since they beat the Steelers in the 1994 AFC Championship game. "It's about this team," says Tomlinson.
"Defenses are taught, 'Don't let 21 beat you,' " said Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers. "Watch where he is. If he's catching swings and stuff wide open, then they're getting ripped. I think he has a great effect, even when he doesn't touch the ball. Obviously, when he does, he has an even bigger one."
It's been that way since Tomlinson joined the Chargers, who were coming off a 1-15 season in 2000. As the primary back on a bad team, the Chargers won five games in LT's first season, largely because Tomlinson picked up 1,236 yards and scored 10 touchdowns.
It has always been that way for Tomlinson, tracing to his days in Waco, where his mother raised five children largely on blood, sweat, and tears. Tomlinson's father, Oliver, left the family when LaDainian was 7.
In football, Tomlinson was too small only in size. At University High in Waco, Tomlinson was a linebacker, then a blocking back. But at the start of his senior season, Tomlinson's mother had landed a better job, in Dallas, and was moving 90 miles north of Waco.
Tomlinson remained in Waco, spending his senior year with family friends. He rushed for 2,554 yards, scored 39 touchdowns, and University High was a force in the state playoffs.
Tomlinson also got noticed by college recruiters, and TCU in Fort Worth was closer to Dallas -- and his mother.
In Tomlinson's first season, TCU was 1-10. Two years later, Tomlinson was the leading rusher in college football and TCU was a bowl team. In his senior season, Tomlinson broke the 2,000-yard rushing barrier (2,158) and finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting.
Although the Chargers had the first pick in the 2001 draft, they needed depth. They swapped picks with the Atlanta Falcons, who took Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick. The Chargers took Tomlinson with the fifth pick, then drafted Purdue quarterback Drew Brees -- who finished third in the Heisman balloting -- with the first pick in the second round.
The Chargers thought they had their future secure on offense, although that changed this season because Brees opted for free agency (and the New Orleans Saints) and Rivers, in his third season, took over the starting role. But Tomlinson was the primary reason for the Chargers' 14-2 record.
Tomlinson knows he will be the focal point for the Patriots' defense Sunday.
"What he shows on film is just that he is a running back with good vision, with good feet, and is using the scheme, the opportunity, the timing of the game, the positions they put him in and he takes advantage of it," Patriots linebacker Rosevelt Colvin said this week. "I think that's what you want from anybody that has an opportunity to make a play when their number is called, and this year he's done a lot of that. He's been successful at making plays for his team."
Tomlinson says the team is all that counts. Not his records, not his individual success.
Tomlinson is mindful of the helmets on display in the trophy room of his house. He says he has learned from his idols. He talked to Emmitt Smith about taking care of his body. He talked to Sanders about diet. He talked to Brown, who told him that football was also a business and he should protect himself.
It is all filed away in a master plan that is as direct as it is ambitious. Tomlinson wants to win multiple Super Bowls and be regarded as the best running back to play the game, the tag Schottenheimer has already given him.
Tomlinson knows he has established credentials, and he knows the road to the Super Bowl has to go through the Patriots.
Like always, Tomlinson says he will do whatever is necessary.
Mark Blaudschun can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.