LaDainian Tomlinson–ONE OF THE BEST TO EVER PLAY THE GAME
Today is a bitter-sweet day. I feel nostalgic. I feel sad. I feel proud. It’s a day I knew was coming but never really wanted to acknowledge.
Today, LaDainian Tomlinson retired from the NFL.
To me, LT was much more than just a football player.
Fitness professionals and young kids often ask me the same questions:
- How did you first start working with professional athletes?
- Who was your first pro athlete?
- Who are some of your favorite pro athletes you’ve ever worked with and why?
Three questions. One answer: LaDainian Tomlinson.
I first met LaDainian when I was a sports massage therapist with the San Diego Chargers back in 2002. He came up to me at the end of the season and said, “I understand you do some ‘different’ training. Some ‘functional training.’ I’d like to call you when the season is over.”
It was January 2003. And the phone rang. A Monday morning and the Chargers season had just ended on Sunday. Yesterday.
It was LaDainian Tomlinson and he said he wanted to start training ASAP. He said he was hungry to get started. He told me he wanted “to be one of the best ever to play the game.” He told me he was willing to do whatever it took to live up to his heroes Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith, and Barry Sanders.
We scheduled a session for the next day.
Man, I remember being so nervous before that session. He was the big-star running back in town. He was adored by ALL San Diego fans. He was often hailed as the future savior of Charger football and the one who would return them back to the promised land.
I don’t think I slept that night. I was still a young trainer, just shy of 32 years old. I was always an athlete myself and worked with a lot of kids. But I had never trained someone of quite the same stature as LaDainian Tomlinson. I remember driving over early that morning for our 8 am session and feeling sick to my stomach. I really thought I was going to puke; I was so nervous.
Everything changed when he walked into Fitness Quest 10. For those of you who have ever seen LT smile, you know he has a million-dollar smile. And then some. He looked so happy to be there and was over-the-top friendly and grateful.
My tension had eased but I was still nervous as heck on the inside.
At the time, Fitness Quest 10 was just about 2,000 square feet. Nothing fancy. Nothing elaborate. Just a lot of passion and energy. And I was really excited. This was like a dream come true for me. I founded my company to work with ALL people under one roof—athletes, kids, older adults, overweight people, out-of-shape folks and people who are injured. This January day in 2003 marked a special day in history.
One of the first things I did with LaDainian after warming him up was a 1-legged balance touch test. 60 seconds on the right. 60 seconds on the left. Compare the sides and see what comes about. 32 on one side. 23 on the other side. And on the weaker side, he was bouncing around on one leg like a flamingo. A light-bulb went off.
As I pointed out the imbalances in his hips and with his balance, it all of sudden just clicked. And for 7 straight years, we forged a relationship that was truly special.
Here are 21 memories, traits, and stories I love to share about #21.
1. Hard Work. It has to be #1. There are hard workers and then there are hard workers. I don’t know if I will ever have the chance to work with anyone quite like LT again. He never missed a session. Don’t really know if he was even late for a session. And when he was training, the pace was furious. It is no mistake why he was great. Hardwork!
2. “Play like a scared rabbit.” I remember once asking LT what he thought about when he was running the ball. He said, “I like to play like a scared rabbit. Have you ever seen a scared rabbit get caught? That’s the way I like to play.”
3. LT was a throwback. Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith, and Barry Sanders were his guys. He emulated them. He watched tape on them. He wanted to train like them. Heck, he even built a hill in his backyard to train on just like the legendary hill Walter Payton used to run on. LT had the heart of a lion, the work ethic of a mule, the body of a thoroughbred and the humility of a young boy still working to make the varsity team.
4. LT loved to train to the Rocky IV sound-track. For years and years, we listened to that music. Something about hanging off the rafters, pushing past barriers, and the desire to be a champion. That music epitomizes LaDainian Tomlinson. And every time it’s played in the gym now, I can’t help but think of #21.
5. He was always trying to learn. Whether it was training or in bodywork, he always wanted to know ‘how’ it was going to help him. And if it made sense to him, he would never question WHY we were doing something. EVER.
6. Trust. LT and I built a unique relationship. In the foreword to my book, he likened our relationship to that of a boxer. It was probably more like that of a “prize-fighter” but he never really saw it that way. LaDainian trusted my judgment and programming. More importantly, he trusted me as a human being.
7. NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year. In 2006, LaDainian earned NFL’s Man of the Year. This is voted upon for “off-the-field” work as much as on the field contribution. That year, LT won the award and his training partner of 3 years at the time, Drew Brees, was his co-recipient. Of all accolades, I know the Man of the Year meant the world to LaDainian.
8. LT Magic. 2006. It truly was a magical year. The year LT broke the NFL record for All-Time Touchdowns in a season (31). It was the year he won the NFL League MVP. I remember being at the stadium that late December day and the crowd was chanting “LT, LT, LT…MVP…MVP…MVP.” I remember thinking to myself, if only I could just bottle this up and capture it forever. It seemed like all his hard-work had paid off and he was at the prime of his career. I remember getting watery-eyed listening to the crowd chant. In some ways I felt like a proud father. In some ways, I felt like his trainer. And in some ways, I just felt like every other one of the 70,000 fans in attendance appreciating the moment. What a memory.
9. Whatever it Takes—W.I.T.. I have already talked about LT’s work ethic. But he did NOT miss training days. In the prime of his career, he had a lot of commercials, appearances, interviews, and commitments. Training came first. If that meant he had to train at 5:30 am or 6:00 am, he would do it. W.I.T. – Whatever It Takes.
10.The headband. Man, so often he would wear that old-school headband when he worked out. And watch out, when he did. That meant he was going into turbo-mode wearing that headband. There was something special about seeing him with that thing.
11. Very few really liked working out with LT. It’s because they couldn’t hang. He trained at an extremely high-intensity pace. There were only a few who consistently trained with him over the 7 years I trained LT and could actually hang—Brees, Justin Peelle, Darren Sproles, and a smattering of guys along the way. LaDainian would invite guys in to workout with them. But they would only last about 20 minutes at his pace. And then they would request a different time slot the next time.
12.A great LEADER. He always brought out the best in his workout partners. Having LaDainian and Drew workout together from 2003-2009 (when LT moved to the Jets) was something else. We had some classic battles. But when either of those two were in a workout, they ALWAYS brought out the best in others.
13.The day LT buried Reggie Bush. Man, poor old Reggie was just in college. And Reggie looked up to LaDainian. So LaDainian brought him in for a workout. I remember vividly telling Reggie, “Go slower today than you think you can or should. You do NOT need to try and keep up with the All-Pro.” Well, I knew my words probably weren’t going to go far and they didn’t. Reggie was out on the front deck within 20 minutes of training letting out his breakfast. He hopped back in the workout but instantly knew what he was in for every time he trained with LT.
14. 15’ x 15’. That is about the size of the sacred space that LT and I trained about 80% of the time. Core work, balance work, plyos, pushups, pull-ups. We didn’t do a lot of weights. We used a lot of bands, cords, med-balls, dumbbells, and Swiss-Balls in the weight-room. On the field, we did a lot of agility and speed work. Ladders, cone-drills, bungee cord drills for assisted or resisted speed. It was all about trying to make him foundationally strong from feet to fingertips, keep him balanced from left-right, and trying to activate as much fast-twitch fiber as possible. It worked!
15. “Friday’s with LT.” While I trained LT for many years, I also did bodywork/sports massage on him on Friday afternoons before all games. I would do a combination of Rolfing, structural work, soft-tissue work, and stretching. I’d load him up with some Arnica, and work on his mind-set a bit. It was a tradition we had for many years.
16.The body is a temple. I reflect back on all that LaDainian did to keep his body in great shape. We trained practically everyday in the off-season. Training sessions, speed sessions, and bodywork. He had his own chef. He got acupuncture. He did A.R.T. He did it all. You name it, he probably did it. And he always did it the right way. Hard-work, dedication, discipline, commitment and the desire to be the BEST.
17.Human being. LT is one of the finest human beings you will ever meet. He cared for people. He would ask about the people he trained next to. He would ask about the kids who asked for his autograph. He would ask about staff members. He was a bona-fide NFL superstar who made everyone feel special. LaDainian is an extremely genuine guy who has taken his blessings and talents as a player and a human being, and made the most of them. He continues to give back and make a positive difference in the community.
18.Words do mean a lot. In 2004, I was fortunate to earn Trainer of the Year by IDEA, the world’s largest continuing education provider for fitness professionals. In front of a couple thousand people, I was recognized with this distinction. It truly was an award that helped catapult my own career. What made it even more special, was that LaDainian had taped a 3 minute video message they played in front of everyone and he said some really amazing things. That memory will last a life-time.
19.Family. I knew him when it was just LT and his wife, LaTorsha. Man, they are like two peas in a pod. She would pull up in her purple Range Rover and would sometime even train with LaDainian. Let me tell you what—that girl has some genes. Former track and basketball standout. She may even have had faster feet than LT if you can believe it. She loved to box. She loved to compete. Just like her husband.
20.Why the Jets? When the writing was on the wall that he was going to be leaving San Diego, he really had two teams he was interested in. Minnesota and New York. The Vikings had Brett Favre and offered more money. The Jets had Rex Ryan. LaDainian chose the Jets. When I asked him why, he told me and his training partners that day, “When I showed up in New York, they had all this Jets’ baby stuff for my son (Daylen). Baby Jets helmets, baby clothes, etc. It was a done deal. I want my son to see me play someday.” The funny thing was that his son was still a few months from being born. That’s the real reason he chose the Jets. Yep. Rex Ryan, you are one smart dude. You went after LaDainian and LaTorsha’s soft-side and it worked.
21.IMPACT. I am not going to go on about all the records LT has broken and the illustrious career he built. It was not merely a coincidence that all this happened. He worked his butt off, tapped his full potential, and always stayed hungry. He has positively IMPACTED millions of kids and fans through the game of football. And he has always respected what football has provided.
LT, thank you. As a coach, a trainer, a proud parent of three kids now myself, and even a fan, I love you brother. You truly are once-in-a-lifetime. Thanks for everything you have always done.
I’ll never forget our first day of training when you told me, “I want to be one of the best to ever play the game.”
My friend, today, on your day of retirement, there is no doubt that you leave as ONE OF THE BEST TO EVER PLAY THE GAME.
Thanks for the memories LaDainian.
Todd Durkin, owner of Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego, served as LaDainian Tomlinson’s Trainer from 2003 to 2010. As legend has it, there were many, many grueling workouts and special times shared.