Tomlinson finished with 31 touchdowns, 28 rushing, in one of the greatest seasons in NFL history. He also ran away with the Most Valuable Player Award.
Those magical days are long gone, as are the San Diego Chargers. They officially ceased to exist on Jan. 12, when chairman Dean Spanos announced he was moving the team to a Los Angeles suburb.
The San Diego Chargers will live on, though, through players such as Tomlinson, who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday.
Many fans are still angry at Spanos for bailing for Los Angeles, where the Chargers will play in a 30,000-seat soccer stadium before moving into a stadium being built by Rams owner Stan Kroenke. Some have been further incensed because Tomlinson, once universally beloved in San Diego, has taken a job as a special assistant to Spanos.
Tomlinson said he isn’t conflicted in the slightest as he prepares to accept his Hall of Fame bust.
“I’m going in as a San Diego Charger because that’s who I played for,” Tomlinson said. “And I recognize that you cannot erase the history of 56 years in San Diego. However, I do realize that I now work for Dean Spanos and the L.A. Chargers, and so there’s no conflict there. I know who I played for, but now in my retirement I now work for the L.A. Chargers, who, in my mind they’re the Chargers.
“To me it’s always been about the lightning bolt. And that’s my thought about conflict and what not.”
But Tomlinson, inspired in his youth by watching Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith, said it hasn’t been easy.
“It’s been a lot of, I won’t say sleepless nights, but tossing and turning sometimes at night wondering if I’m making the right decision,” Tomlinson said. “But at the end of the day, I love both. I have the bolt tattoo on my calf, there’s no secret about that. There’s a part of me that always will be. But the same goes with the community. I came were as a 21-year-old kid and I left a 30-year-old man. So I learned how to be a man in this community. So I’m kind of torn. I can’t have one without the other. The Chargers were here for 56 years and it’s hard to just get over that.
“I completely understand how people are feeling. My hope is that one day they can start to forgive. People want me to choose a side, but that’s not who I am at the core of my soul and spirit. I can’t chose either side. I want to be on both sides. But I understand how people are feeling right now. My hope is they can forgive me because I feel like I’m doing something right.”
According to the Hall of Fame, the only other person to be enshrined the same year that the team he played for relocated was Orlando Pace from the class of 2016. His St. Louis Rams moved back to L.A. last season.
Tomlinson played nine mostly brilliant seasons for the Chargers (2001-2009) before being released for salary cap reasons and because his role had decreased. He played two seasons with the New York Jets before retiring.
He said he still gets nostalgic when he’s in San Diego, “especially when I pass by Qualcomm. It’s something you can never forget. Those old feelings that I have, they’re still there. The interesting thing about it when I’m here, I have a certain smell. It’s really weird. There’s a certain smell like when I used to go to the game, it was game day. I had a certain smell in the air that told me it’s time to play ball.
“I still have that same feeling, that smell, sometimes when I come here. It’s like I’m getting ready for a game but I’m not. There’s so much history here that I can never erase.”
Tomlinson helped the Chargers rebuild after the nightmarish Ryan Leaf years and a 1-15 finish in 2000. The Chargers took Tomlinson with the fifth pick overall in the 2001 draft after trading the top pick to Atlanta, which used it on Michael Vick.
Tomlinson finished his career with 13,684 yards rushing, fifth all-time, on 3,174 carries. His 145 rushing touchdowns rank second and his 163 total TDs are third, behind Jerry Rice (208) and Emmitt Smith (175).