LaDainian Tomlinson

2017 Wacoan of the Year

By Megan Willome


Photographs by Jeff Jones, jeffjonesphoto.com

“If this was my last day on earth and this my final speech, this is the message I’ll leave with you.”

A profile of a celebrity athlete does not usually begin with words like “last day” and “final speech.” It usually starts with the star’s accomplishments. And LT will always be known in the annals of the National Football League for his impressive stats as a running back for 11 seasons.

But on August 5, 2017, when LaDainian Tomlinson gave his acceptance speech as he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he spoke words that will be remembered far beyond his lifetime. After he thanked family, friends, coaches, even the family CPA, he pivoted to speak to America.

The section where LaDainian talks about his great-great-great-grandfather George starts 19 minutes and 40 seconds into his 26-minute speech, and it doesn’t matter whether you live in Rosebud or Marlin or Waco or Dallas or Fort Worth or San Diego or New York City or Los Angeles or Tomlinson Hill, those five minutes are for all of us.

LaDainian was born in Rosebud, raised in Central Texas, played football to great acclaim at University High School, and he still has family here in Waco. We are proud of his connection to Waco and of him as a person, and that’s why LaDainian Tomlinson is our 2017 Wacoan of the Year.

“In the small town of Marlin, Texas, where my family is originally from, high school football was our NFL.”

Football players finish college and eventually retire from the NFL, but high school football is forever. LaDainian spent his early years in Marlin, about 30 miles outside Waco, in Falls County.

His father was Oliver Terry Tomlinson, O.T. or just “Tee.” When LaDainian’s mother, Loreane, a recent high school graduate at the time, met Oliver, he lived in Tomlinson Hill, which she’d never heard of, despite living in the Waco area her whole life. They were married but later divorced.

Oliver had children from a previous marriage: Felicia, Terry, Charles and Ronald. Oliver and Loreane had three children together, including Londria, LaDainian’s older sister, and LaVar, his younger brother. Loreane remarried Herman Chappell, bringing three stepsiblings into LaDainian’s life: Herman Jr., Michael and Lonnie. LaDainian mentioned all these family members by name in his acceptance speech, including his in-laws, and to those he left out, he said, “To all my family, aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces, cousins and those I haven’t mentioned, thank you for your love and support.” That’s the definition of a family man — someone who has the humility to name family names at his own induction ceremony.

LaDainian loved football from the age of 4, the first time he held one. He would watch pro games on Sunday afternoons with his father, and Oliver made sure his son understood what was happening on the field. By the time he was 5, LaDainian had a football hero, Walter Payton, and he was sleeping with a football. At 6, he told his mother he would play in the NFL.

When LaDainian was in second grade, the family moved back to Waco, to what was then the Primrose Apartments. Then the family moved back to Marlin for LaDainian’s freshman year of high school.

His brother LaVar said one method his mother used to raise good kids involved bringing the newspaper to the breakfast table.

“They had the ‘Dear Abby’ section. Some of those would have write-ups on parents that had kids that would either have went out the night before and never made it back home or they were hanging out and did something wrong and ended up in jail, [they’d] ruin their life. She’d sit us down every time she read one, and she’d make us sit down and read it also,” said LaVar, who serves as director of public relations for Tomlinson’s Touching Lives Foundation in Fort Worth. “It showed us the consequences to our actions. It helped build us up.”

The old saying “Charity begins at home” was true in the Tomlinson household.

“We always were the kind of family that we all have big hearts. We hate to see people down and out and going through things,” LaVar said. “I remember it started with my sister, who’s 10 years older than me. It started with her bringing home her friends in high school that were having problems at home with their parents. They would run away from home, and my mom would take them in for however long they needed to be there, until they got on their feet or found some kind of structure. That happened a few times growing up. Even just our friends, me and my brother, if [friends] were having problems at home, she never hesitated to let them stay with us for a couple days or however long they needed. That’s always been our thing, help those in need.”


When LaDainian was 12, visiting the Boys & Girls Club of Waco with LaVar, he ran across a flyer for a three-day football camp run by Dallas Cowboys tight end Jay Novacek. The camp cost $250 — a lot of money for a single mom to set aside. But because he so rarely asked for anything, his mother surprised him with the money after saving up for a couple of months. The flyer for the camp had a picture of Emmitt Smith, so LaDainian thought it was Smith’s camp. It didn’t matter that he was wrong — he still got to meet the star running back.

David Smoak, program director and radio talk show host for ESPN-Central Texas, has interviewed LaDainian several times and heard him tell the story of getting the opportunity to receive a handoff from Smith during the camp. Then, in what had to be a horrifying moment for a middle schooler, Smith actually ran over LaDainian in a stairway in the dorm before he reached out a hand and kept LaDainian from falling.

“At the end of camp, Emmitt Smith gave him some time and told him he saw something in him,” Smoak said. That conversation gave LaDainian the confidence he needed to work hard toward his goal of becoming a running back in the NFL.

“And that’s the full circle story, that they’re now both in the Hall of Fame,” Smoak said.

He says LaDainian is known as a genuine, caring person.

“I’ve talked to former pro players, former coaches, former players at [Texas Christian University], former coaches at University High, and every one of them — to a man — every single one of them talked about LT as a genuine person,” Smoak said. “Sometimes there are guys who are considered superstars who have that persona: look, don’t touch. With LaDainian, you consider him — after you meet him — to be someone you’ve known for 25 years.”

Earlier this fall, LaDainian tweeted from the Peanut Bowl, the high school football game between rivals DeSoto and Cedar Hill. LaVar was there too and says the game reminded him of high school football games back in Marlin, where the Friday night football game is literally the only game in town.

“Friday night lights is life, man,” LaVar said. “Those stands would be full of people every Friday night. Little country town — that’s what you have to look forward to. A lot of good memories. I miss those country Friday nights.”

But on a Saturday night in August, LaVar and other members of LaDainian’s family were in Canton, Ohio, for the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony. I asked where they sat.

“Front row! We were facing him, sitting next to Terrell Davis’ family,” LaVar said. “I was nervous the whole time for him. I was wondering what he was going to say. He didn’t share anything about the speech. When he got to that last part, I think I was just like everybody else — all ears. Tuned in. Once he finished, once we left, I wanted to incorporate [his message] and make a change in the world.”

“I’m being inducted into the Hall of Fame because my athletic ability created an opportunity for me to excel in the sport I love.”

In America and especially in Texas, the journey of the self-made man often includes a season in a football jersey. Playing Pop Warner football in Waco, LaDainian briefly tried playing quarterback, but the coach soon saw he had the skills to be a running back. During his 24 years playing football — going back to age 8 — LaDainian wore jerseys for the Marlin Bulldogs, the University Trojans, the TCU Horned Frogs, the San Diego Chargers and the New York Jets (although he retired as a Charger).

During his freshman year in Marlin he played on varsity. When he moved to Waco, he played fullback and later running back for University High coach LeRoy Coleman. He lived with the family of a teammate while his mother worked in Garland and drove to Waco for Friday night lights. Back then LaDainian wore No. 5. After scoring 39 touchdowns and setting a single-season rushing record of 2,554 yards, he was named the District 25-4A MVP. He was on the state high school all-star team in 1997, along with future Chargers teammate Drew Brees.

Most colleges didn’t think LaDainian had quite the size or speed they were looking for, but TCU saw something in him. The school was the first to offer him a scholarship. His first coach left after one year, but on the advice of his mother, LaDainian stayed with the team. In his Hall of Fame speech, LaDainian recalled his mother saying, “Don’t quit on your teammates. Be part of the solution. Be part of the change. Anything worth having is worth fighting for.” TCU went 1-10 his freshman year and finished 10-2 his senior year.

LaDainian has maintained ties to TCU, including former head coach Dennis Franchione and defensive coordinator and current head coach, Gary Patterson. On November 20, 1999, LaDainian set an NCAA single-game rushing record — 406 yards — in a game against UT-El Paso, a record that held for 15 years. LaDainian led the NCAA in rushing both his junior and senior years (1,850 yards and 2,158 yards, respectively). He won the Doak Walker Award in 2000, which honors the top running back in college football. He was a first team All-American and a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. LaDainian completed his communication studies degree at TCU in 2005, just as he promised his mother he would. And he’s still a season ticket holder for the Horned Frogs. His number, 5, has been retired. However, players who excel in character, academics and athletic ability can write a letter to LaDainian and request to wear his number.

LaDainian was drafted by the San Diego Chargers in 2001 and had eight consecutive seasons with more than 1,000 yards rushing. The year before he came to San Diego, the team was 1-15. With LaDainian, the team made the playoffs in 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009. In 2006, he was named NFL MVP by the Associated Press — the first and only Charger to receive the honor — after he led the league in rushing with 1,815 yards and 28 rushing touchdowns. That season he set individual records for scoring (186 points) and touchdowns (31).

The same year he was named MVP, LaDainian was also named Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year — an award he shared with his old friend and former Chargers teammate Drew Brees. The honor used to be called the NFL Man of the Year Award but was renamed for Walter Payton, one of LaDainian’s early football heroes. And like Payton, LaDainian’s humanitarian work is as much a part of his legacy as his football prowess.

Among his many honors in 2006, LaDainian was also named one of the Ten Best-Mannered People by the National League of Junior Cotillions for being a positive role model for young athletes. Also on that year’s list was a U.S. senator named Barack Obama and Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith.

LaDainian retired from playing professional football in 2012, and his number, 21, has been retired by the Chargers. Generally, running backs last fewer than five years in the NFL, so LaDainian’s 11 years is phenomenal. Although, like any player, he suffered injuries, he never required surgery to recover. LaDainian retired with 18,456 all-purpose yards — 13,684 of those rushing — and 162 total touchdowns.

Here’s the thing about records: eventually someone else runs more yards or scores more touchdowns. LaDainian knows this, and it doesn’t upset him. In fact, he welcomes it.

“Here’s how he views it,” said Cliff Dean, business partner with Tomlinson Ventures. “His view is records are meant to be broken: ‘I set ’em to have someone break ’em.’ He genuinely hopes someone breaks them because that means they’re successful.”

LaDainian’s success is evident in the multiple halls of fame into which he has been inducted: the Texas Sports Hall of Fame (2008), the TCU Lettermen’s Hall of Fame (2012), the College Football Hall of Fame (2014), the San Diego Chargers Hall of Fame (2015), the Texas High School Football Hall of Fame (2016) and the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year, in his first year of eligibility.

Prior to his induction, LaDainian traveled to Granbury to spend four hours in the studio of Scott Myers, who sculpted the bronze bust.

“Some people sit longer,” Myers said. “He was a very good model. He sat basically perfectly still, and anything I asked him to do, he was more than willing to do it.”

Myers has made 17 busts for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In addition to LaDainian’s this year, he also made one for Kenny Easley of the Seattle Seahawks. But sculpting is his side gig. Myers is Dr. Myers — he’s been a veterinarian for more than 30 years and works at The Pet Hospital of Granbury.

For him, the process of making a bust and casting it in bronze takes about two months.

“I’m a little slower because I have another job,” Myers joked. “After I meet the athlete, that’s the last time I see them. It takes me two or three weeks to do all the changes and refinements. In LaDainian’s case, I met with him in my studio, two weeks later I met with him at his home, changed a few things and then turned the bust in. The sculptures are cast, and next thing you know, you see them on ESPN.”

Myers has exhibited sculpture in art galleries, but right now he’s busy with commissioned work.

“On TV, they hit ’em with so many kinds of lighting that you’ve got to make sure there’s no ripples anywhere. So what I do is turn all the lights off and with one light source, turn the head ever so slowly, so if there’s a ripple anywhere — in a cheek, an earlobe — I can catch it and fix it before it goes to bronze,” he said. “It does make a heck of a difference.”

Many of the Hall of Fame players Myers has created busts for retired decades ago. But he worked with LaDainian only five years after he retired.

“There’s a rule that you have to wait five years before you go in the Hall of Fame, so he’s what’s known as a first-balloter. It looked like he could still play to me!” Myers said. “He’s a great guy, a tremendously gracious individual. Of the 17, he’s one of the finest I’ve ever met.”

“Football is a microcosm of America. All races, religions and creeds living, playing, competing side by side. When you are part of a team, you understand your teammates — their strengths and weaknesses — and work together toward the same goal, to win a championship. In this context, I advocate we become Team America.”

When LaDainian gave his Hall of Fame induction speech, all his outreaches, all his ventures, got refocused and rebranded because of two words: Team America.

“The mission statement can be drawn from those last six minutes of the speech. Everything we’re doing now is based on that,” said Cliff Dean, COO and partner of Tomlinson Ventures, which advances LaDainian’s vision across multiple areas. “The funny thing is that no one, including his wife, knew what was in that speech. When we heard it, we all looked at each other like, ‘We’ve got some work to do.’ As soon as we got back from the Hall of Fame, we got engaged with a branding agency to work on what those initiatives would be and aligning his organizations.”

But Team America is bigger than LaDainian Tomlinson. It’s created to outlive him.

“Team America is designed to be a platform, not just for his organizations. It’s not all about advancing his programs. It’s designed to be a platform that people can join,” Dean said. “One definition of success is that when he’s dead and gone, it’s bigger than him.”

Four initiatives guide Team America: 1) Character & Leadership, 2) Service & Engagement, 3) Spiritual & Community Uplift and 4) Economic Empowerment.

From now on — whether it’s working with student-athletes, parents, school districts, high school coaches, disabled veterans, families in need, the Marine Corps City Partnerships of Washington, D.C., or a Thanksgiving food giveaway that’s been going for 15 years — it’s all part of Team America.

The best way to capture what Team America embodies is to look at LT Academy, established in 2011. Dean called it “the best program no one knows about, but we’re changing that.”

It’s a partnership between student-athletes and their parents with high schools and school districts. Students meet once a week and can also attend a summer training camp. Currently, the academy is amending its curriculum to expand into middle schools with input from educational experts at Baylor University. The program has three pillars: character, education and performance.

“The academy implements the military-based leadership program. Former Marine instructors, trained in values instruction, deliver lessons weekly,” Dean said. “It’s our own program with a Ph.D. developing curriculum. We’re teaching student leaders how to lead. LT Academy is a resource for public education — it’s for-profit — to help [students] get their higher education but also give them the skills they can use far beyond college. Our mission is ultimately about education. We do [athletic] performance, but our maniacal focus is on developing the complete student athlete.”

LT Academy is contracted with four Texas school districts and in discussions with others as well.

“We are partnering with Texas Association of School Administrators and the Texas High School Athletic Directors Association. We’re doing some things with counterpart groups in California,” Dean said.

The work with young people in LT Academy includes projects designed to help them engage in their communities.

“It usually starts the second semester and builds on the issues of the day, like cyberbullying. We don’t focus on the symptoms, whether you kneel for the anthem,” said Dean, a Marine veteran who takes the issue very seriously. “The problem is underlying. People stay in the symptoms because they’re very emotional. We focus on the problems and not the symptoms.”

In addition to LT Academy, Team America includes Tomlinson’s Touching Lives Foundation; Snug Pet Resort and Snug Animal Hospital, located in San Diego’s Sorrento Valley; and Tomlinson All-American Honors, which gave scholarships to 10 student-athletes from the DFW Metroplex earlier this year. “Tomlinson’s All-American Honors are the awards for those student-athletes that represent the best of mankind,” Dean said. “Team America overall is about inclusiveness and opportunity for all. It’s not a black initiative or a white initiative. It’s designed to be an American initiative.”

LaDainian is the visionary behind all these ventures. But he isn’t doing anything different than what his mother taught him and his siblings around the breakfast table.

“Her kids are very compassionate, very humble. They’re mission-focused people. Their whole family is built that way,” Dean said.

“Let’s not slam the door on those who may look or sound different from us. Rather, let’s open it wide for those who believe in themselves, that anything is possible, and are willing to compete and take whatever risk necessary to work hard, to succeed.”

In April, LaDainian was the featured speaker for the Rise Up Waco banquet benefiting Talitha Koum Institute, held at the Carleen Bright Arboretum. David Smoak served as the emcee. As someone who has spent his career covering sports on radio, TV and in print, Smoak has attended many events, and some of them are little more than a pep talk from a celebrity. But it was different with LaDainian.

“It was not about the speaker. When he spoke, it was him telling his story, but it wasn’t him telling about him,” Smoak said. “He was using his experience to relate to what this was about in the first place — children overcoming things in their lives, being told they can’t make it, and here he is. He’s in the NFL Hall of Fame.”

In choosing LaDainian, Talitha Koum Executive Director Susan Cowley said one thing the committee looked for was someone who had a person in his or her life who made all the difference. For LaDainian, that person was his mother.

“His love for his family was really important for us. This was a truly humble man who knew what he had been given and had made the most of what was God-given in his skill and talent and what he’d been given by his mom,” Cowley said. “It mattered to us that he cared so much about children, children who don’t have all the advantages he had. He was a ‘rise up’ kind of person, but he was humble.”

LaDainian did not act like a typical celebrity, according to Kim Patterson, the executive director of the McLennan Community College Foundation and planning committee member for the Talitha Koum event. She also handled hospitality for Tomlinson and his family, the kind of thing she’s done before for big names who have come to MCC, most recently for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

“I found him — his family came — they were so gracious and so kind and so flexible. There was absolutely no celebrity thing going on there. They were just people, so delighted he was being recognized locally,” Patterson said. “We asked him to take pictures, do interviews with a couple of reporters, talk with everyone in the lobby it seemed, give a great keynote, and he gave this wonderful donation right from the podium. To me, that speaks to who a person is, how do they perform when there’s a lot of things going on. He never got stressed or short with anyone.”

After he spoke, while he was still on stage, LaDainian wrote Talitha Koum a $10,000 check. Although that moment wasn’t planned, it was consistent with what Patterson learned about him during the process of arranging the event.

“I was amazed at how many people, when they heard we were bringing LaDainian Tomlinson, knew so much about the charity work he’s done,” she said. “They knew him as a philanthropist and someone who builds community.”

Patterson knew Talitha Koum would be auctioning off a signed football at the banquet, but she’s never purchased a football for such an occasion.

“I went to Academy and bought the football, not sure which one to get. It turned out the NFL had the one with the white panel on it, so there was a place he could sign,” she said.

The winning bidder not only received a football signed with LaDainian’s name and “HOF ’17” — one of the first he signed that way — but, as Patterson recalled, “The guy stood up, and [LaDainian] gave a perfect pass right to him, and he caught it, thank God!”


 
“I soon realized I had dual commitments. One was to be the best football player I could be. The other was learning to be there for my wife as she was always there for me.”

Tomlinson met the woman who would become his wife, LaTorsha Oakley, at TCU. She was a Gates Millennium Scholar, a program of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for outstanding students of color. On their first date LaDainian talked a lot about his mother, which LaTorsha took as a good sign. In his speech, LaDainian called LaTorsha “my queen.”

The couple married in 2003. LaTorsha didn’t follow him to California right away, but once she did, she completed her degree in clinical psychology at University of California, San Diego. The couple now lives in Westlake, an upscale suburb of Fort Worth that straddles Denton and Tarrant counties. They have two children, 7-year-old son Daylen and 6-year-old daughter Dayah, both born while LaDainian played for the Jets.

I asked LaDainian how LaTorsha has been there for him throughout his football career.

“I tell you what, she sacrificed, and when I think about it, she could have done anything she wanted to do coming out of high school. She was a Bill Gates Millennium Scholar, came to TCU on a full ride, which is incredible. But then we fall in love, and she decided to follow me and still graduate college and pursue the things she wanted to pursue,” he said. “She’s been an awesome wife and partner and mother and all the things a person like me can ask for.”

LaDainian said one of her greatest gifts is this: “to be able to tell me the truth. When you become a celebrity, people tell you what you want to hear. We need to be humble, and we need someone to tell us when we’re wrong, and she’s been able to do that like no other.”

LaDainian confirms that she is the person in charge when it comes to professional and personal endeavors.

“She works on a number of different things that we have going on, including our company in San Diego — she pretty much runs that, along with the foundation,” he said. “We’re in the process of building a house here in Westlake, so she’s day-to-day on that as well. And having two young kids, 7 and 6, she’s invested in their lives being the school mom as well.”

LaTorsha serves as the CEO of Tomlinson’s Touching Lives Foundation. Cliff Dean called her “the driver” and “the executor.”

“She isn’t the quote ‘wife.’ She’s a high D on the [DISC] personality profile. She drives implementation of the vision. She holds everyone accountable. Her measuring stick is always, Is it good for the community and good for the kids?” Dean said. “Another thing she talks about all the time with me is, ‘We have to get inside the home.’ As we design programs, she’s always evaluating how far inside the home this program would get.”

Dean says LaTorsha won’t brag on herself. LaDainian doesn’t like to brag about himself, either. Their humility can sometimes be an issue when Team America is in New York, holding high-level meetings with executives who think they’re dealing with a typical athlete and an athlete’s wife. But the Tomlinsons know who they are.

“They roll their eyes. They’re like, ‘Stop it,’” Dean said.

LaTorsha is the one who keeps the mementos of LaDainian’s football accomplishments. Without her, those things might be lost.

Dean tells the story about one of LaDainian’s record-setting footballs, which was displayed at the San Diego Hall of Champions. When the museum closed, they wanted to return the ball to LaDainian.

“They couldn’t get ahold of him to give it back. They got ahold of me. When I gave [LaDainian] the ball, he said, ‘It’s just a ball,’” Dean recalled. “Torsha thanked me because she wants that stuff for their children. She knows it’s important for his children’s heritage, to show their kids what they can achieve — greatness in a whole lot of areas, not just football. When that stuff happens, she’s like, ‘Thank you for taking care of my kids.’”

The kids do know their father is a big deal. They attended the Pro Hall of Fame induction ceremony. But as they grow up and do their own great things, they will learn from their parents that the greatest accomplishment is not a record or a grade or an award.

When LaDainian retired from professional football in 2012, he acknowledged that not every pro player is going to win a championship — neither the Chargers nor the Jets won a Super Bowl during his tenure — but even as he said those words, LaDainian picked up his then toddler-age son and held him high for the crowd to see. Not every championship comes with a ring.

“If this was my last day on earth, and this my final speech, this is the message I’ll leave with you. The story of a man I never met, my great-great-great-grandfather George. One-hundred-and-seventy years ago, George was brought here in chains on a slave ship from West Africa. His last name, Tomlinson, was given to him by the man who owned him. Tomlinson was the slave owner’s last name. What extraordinary courage it must have taken for him to rebuild his life after the life he was born to was stolen. How did he reclaim his identity, his dignity, when he had no freedom to choose for himself? I grew up on the land of a former slave plantation, and although I didn’t know this as a child, it is where my great-great-great-grandfather tilled the soil. A few years ago, I visited that same plantation in Central Texas with my family and stood in the slave quarters where he lived. It’s now named Tomlinson Hill. … The family legacy that began in such a cruel way has given birth to generations of successful, caring Tomlinsons. I firmly believe that God chose me to help bring two races together under one last name: Tomlinson. I’m of mixed race, and I represent America. My story is America’s story.”

LaDainian didn’t know anything about this part of his story until a white Associated Press reporter named Chris Tomlinson started investigating the history of his own family and found that his and LaDainian’s stories intersected. Two families, one name: Tomlinson.

Chris’ documentary about the families’ shared history is called “Tomlinson Hill.” (The complete interviews are housed at the Baylor Institute for Oral History.) The book is “Tomlinson Hill: The Remarkable Story of Two Families Who Share the Tomlinson Name — One White, One Black.”

For over a decade, Chris reported about injustice throughout the world — apartheid in South Africa, genocide in Rwanda, clan fighting in Somalia.

“I saw my job as trying to get at the truth and prevent that injustice,” he said. “And then I realized I needed to do it back home.”

Chris had heard stories about Tomlinson Hill his whole life.

“I’d tried to find it once before, when I was based at Fort Hood. We didn’t have Google back then, and it didn’t show up on any maps,” Chris said. “I found there was plenty written about white families and the white community’s history and almost nothing on the African-American side. If we don’t re-examine the past to include the African-American history, then we’re denying a huge part of our history and we’re denying African-Americans their history. If our accounting of the past were complete, there’d be no reason to dig it up. But it’s horribly incomplete. And it’s frankly just wrong. Our history books are simply wrong.”

Near Tomlinson Hill, there is a state historical marker, installed in 1976. It says the 17.9-acre plot belonged to Chris’ ancestor, J.K. Tomlinson, who came to Texas from Georgia in 1858, and his son William. None of LaDainian’s ancestors are named.

In 1999, Chris’ father told him about a standout running back named LaDainian Tomlinson who probably was a descendant of the slaves who lived at Tomlinson Hill.

“Finding out the truth about my family’s history was extremely liberating. Because it allowed me to understand the mistakes my ancestors made, how I’ve benefited from them, and how I can make my country and my community better,” Chris said. “I’m not blind anymore. I’ve seen the truth.”

While Chris was still working on the book and the documentary, footage of him and LaDainian was included in NFL Films’ “LaDainian Tomlinson: A Football Life.” People across the country were moved not only by the story but the visual of two men, one black and one white, walking around the property where one man’s ancestors were slaves and the other man’s ancestors were slave owners. In the film, as he hears and sees his history, LaDainian wipes away tears and says simply, “Speechless.”

Chris was interviewed by LaVar Tomlinson for “After Words” on Book TV for C-SPAN2 on June 23, 2014.

“I’d interviewed [LaVar] on multiple occasions for the book. We knew each other pretty well by the time we got to the promotion of the book, and I think that comes across,” Chris said. “We’re more like distant cousins.”

LaVar described the almost hour-long interview as “just a conversation. It was almost like he was family, the moment I met him,” he said.

LaDainian’s family did not talk about the past. In the forward to “Tomlinson Hill,” LaDainian writes, “My father, though, was just being protective of us, trying to shelter us from a tough world with a brutal history.”

Chris connected first with LaVar and later with LaDainian.

“I talked to Chris first, and I didn’t want to do it, and I don’t think anyone wanted to do at first because it’s painful stuff to talk about,” LaVar said. “But we did it, and Chris was really professional. He made it easy to talk to him.”

That rapport was key because the subject was so difficult.

“I told him from the very first time I contacted him that I felt our story could have power because so many families have similar histories, but they’re not doing anything about it,” Chris said.

One question LaVar asked Chris in the Book TV interview was, Why dig up the past?

“I wanted to know his reason. My reasoning for wanting him to dig into it is because we don’t really know who we are unless we know who we came from. For me, that’s what I was looking for — was he feeling the same way? Was he trying to dig deep and find out who he was? Not who we were but who he was,” LaVar said. “I think it bothered him a lot that his family were slave owners. Chris doesn’t seem to be the kind of person — he’s a warm guy, a loving guy.”

In the video “LaDainian Tomlinson: A Football Life,” Chris shows LaDainian a white frame house that white and black Tomlinsons worked together to build in the 1940s. It’s not in great shape, but it still stands.

“My uncle John Tomlinson felt a special bond with Vincent Tomlinson, LaDainian’s grandfather. He made Vincent the foreman on the land that he farmed and raised cattle on. Until the end of Vincent’s life, Vincent and John had breakfast together every morning until Vincent’s death in the ’70s,” Chris said. “LaDainian never knew his grandfather. He didn’t know that story.”

Over the course of “hours and hours of interviews” for the book, Chris feels he has gotten to know LaDainian.

“I went through a complete personal history, his whole personal life in Marlin and Waco, and he does feel a powerful attachment to that town like no other,” he said.

“LaDainian is a natural leader. He’s one of the most moral — in a good way — most moral and serious people I’ve met who has his kind of celebrity. And he’s guarded, but he’s also generous. LaDainian’s commitment to helping kids in the community is an equally sincere response to his growing up in Waco. He really considers everything he’s achieved and everything he is, is a product of Waco.”

“People stop me on the street because they know me as LT the football player. But after football, people have begun to recognize me as LaDainian Tomlinson, not simply for what I did as a football player but for who I am as a man.”

WACOAN: In your Hall of Fame speech you said people were beginning to know you as LaDainian Tomlinson, the man. What do you want people to know?

LaDainian: I always said that people will remember the record I broke for a couple weeks or a month, but the impact I can have on our community they will remember for a lifetime. I want people to know me as LaDainian in the community and [for] the programs I’m implementing in these communities to build a better tomorrow. You only play football for so long, and we have to live the rest of our lives, try to make this world better than what we had or make it better for our children.

Being able to just have an impact on humans in general. To be able to build our own communities into something that we all hope for, which is that diversity and inclusion and unity.

And really, it starts with our youth and what we teach them at home.

I know most of it sounds like cliché, what a lot of people say, but it’s something I’m passionate about. I think it’s something that can be done. It starts in your own community. You have to impact your own community before you reach out.

Cliff [Dean] and I talk about this all the time, when you do start small, you do build a model that’s sustainable. But messing up and correcting it, you find out what’s right whenever you can build it small first, I believe, and then you can reach out to different communities with that same model because you’ve built it already.

This Team America is something all people in our country can relate to, but first it has to start in our own community. It’s kind of like micro to be macro, if you will.

WACOAN: Kim Patterson, who was on the committee that planned the Rise Up Waco banquet for Talitha Koum, said you’re as well known for your philanthropy as for football. Where does that passion to give back come from?

LaDainian: It comes from my family. Like most of us, we’re impacted by what we see growing up. Who we become is as much about what we see in our interactions and our experiences growing up, and as a young person what I saw was a caring mother, a giving mother that worked hard but gave back in her own way.

Also her sister, my aunt, dedicated her life to raising homeless kids. She made her house almost a homeless shelter, in a way. She raised a number of kids growing up, so I would see that, as much time as I spent around my auntie. Kids that weren’t hers that she was raising.

The same with my mom. It was always a family of giving. Yes, we were a lower to middle class type of family, but at the same time, me seeing that whatever we do have, we are willing to help others and reach out in our own community and do better. So I’ve seen that growing up and always remembered that.

When I got to TCU and got opportunities to speak to different organizations, like the Boys & Girls Club, which I was a part of growing up, I took that opportunity. That was the beginning.

WACOAN: Your aunt, did she live in the Waco area?

LaDainian: She lived in Marlin, where my family is originally from. My family, we would go back and forth from Waco to Marlin because my grandmother — my mother’s mother, Bertha — lived in Marlin as well. And then we’d move and go back to Marlin. I grew up between both Marlin and Waco.


 
WACOAN: In 2006, the year you were named NFL MVP, you were also awarded the Walter Payton Man of the Year award for your charitable work and its positive impact on the community. He was a hero of yours. That honor had to mean a lot, especially since he was a humanitarian as well.

LaDainian: Just as much as I was doing on the field and being successful, I was trying to be just as successful off the field in the things I was doing in the community. I embraced that role of being the team captain and someone the community knew as this guy who got out in the community, gave scholarships to kids, have the Thanksgiving program that fed 2,100 families, doing things like that, all that we could. That was important to me.

I feel like as an athlete, you have the ability to make an influence on so many people, and you shouldn’t limit yourself to what you do on the football field.

WACOAN: And you shared the award with Drew Brees, who you first met in high school.

LaDainian: Drew and I have been friends for a long time. We first met at the high school all-star game. Obviously, Texas high school football is huge, but the guys that stand out, you hear about those guys. I knew that he was committed to Purdue [University]. It was good to get a chance to know him, and then four years later we’re being drafted by the same team [San Diego Chargers]. That’s incredible.

WACOAN: I spoke to Cliff Dean yesterday, and in telling me about the 14 character traits that the Marine drill instructors teach at LT Academy, he told me to ask you which is your favorite. He has a bet on what it is.

LaDainian: I don’t know that I have a favorite. Loyalty is very important to me, knowing they can depend on you and you’re gonna be there and do what you say you’re going to do. Dependability. As a running back, these characteristics are very important. You have to be there for your team. You have to be there as a guy that’s gonna take up at least 30 percent of the offense.

Unselfishness.

WACOAN: That was his guess: unselfishness, selflessness.

LaDainian: I think the best way, from my experience, to build a really strong team is to be unselfish — everyone knows their role and then gives someone else the credit. To say, ‘That was a great job. I couldn’t have done that [on my own].’ That’s how you build a strong team and people that are dependable. That’s one of the strong characteristic traits that I think all kids should learn.

WACOAN: When you used the phrase ‘Team America’ in your Hall of Fame speech, did you have an idea how it would impact your work overall?

LaDainian: Not directly, to be honest with you. I knew that what I talked about, what I was speaking about, I pretty much was already doing it. It was my vision coming to life from my experience building a great team. And I think it’s everything that you would want in a person, honestly, in an American, in a citizen. How do we build a perfect American citizen?

I’ve been a part of some great teams of all religions, of all races. When I talk about great teams, it’s about how you interact with each other, how you support each other, how you love each other. Trying to get America to adopt the same philosophy of diversity and inclusivity across all races, religions, ideologies. I think when you talk about liberty and justice, that’s what all Americans want. For our kids, we all want that.

WACOAN: I’ve been told you didn’t show anyone the speech before you gave it.

LaDainian: Yes.

WACOAN: So how did you know you had it right, the way you wanted it? Did you read it aloud?

LaDainian: I had time to reflect, for one, about certain things that I wanted to say, and I could write it down on paper and then change something or add something else to it. To be honest, I didn’t know I was gonna truly say it until about three weeks before the speech. I was unsure about the response, maybe some backlash: ‘Why would he do it at this time?’ Not being sure about, quite frankly, being so honest on that stage.

And then I woke up one morning, and I just had an overwhelming spirit that I had to do this. Part of it was the response from the NFL documentary of my family history [‘A Football Life: LaDainian Tomlinson’] — the response I got from people around the country, in airports. They said, ‘Thank you, it was so inspiring.’ That led to me saying I need to speak more about my challenge to this country, about how my story is America’s story and how it can help so many of us.

WACOAN: What do you think your great-great-great-grandfather George would have thought about your speech?

LaDainian: He would’ve been proud. After my speech I felt his spirit. As I was speaking, I don’t know how I was able to hold it together because there were so many emotions running through me. After I finished and walked to the back of the stage, I cried uncontrollably for 15 minutes. I felt the spirits of my dad, my grandfather, my great-grandfather and George. They were so proud of me that I gave them recognition. And I kind of saluted them and told them thank you for accepting the last name Tomlinson.

I tell people, it was obviously me speaking, but it wasn’t me. I don’t know if everyone understands that. Spiritual people certainly do.

WACOAN: Speaking of that, you’re playing the part of a preacher in a movie.

LaDainian: That’s right! I have my first role in ‘God Bless the Broken Road.’

WACOAN: I read it’s based on the Rascal Flatts’ song, ‘Bless the Broken Road.’ And the movie comes from the same director who did ‘God’s Not Dead’?

LaDainian: Yes, they’re targeting May of 2018 [for release]. I play a pastor.

I tell you, it’s a great story. Again, it’s a story that America can relate to, and everybody will be touched by this story because it has a military tie-in. It’s about a young woman who loses her husband in Afghanistan, is raising her daughter by herself, goes on some hard times and loses her faith. As a pastor, it was my job to get her faith back.

WACOAN: I’m glad you brought up the military tie-in because you’re very involved with supporting the military and partnering with military folks. Recently, you tweeted your support for Disabled American Veterans. Where does your support for the military come from?

LaDainian: So many people I know and friends and relatives that have served in the military, served our country.

I remember graduating high school and a dear friend of mine, David Beverly, as I went to college, he went into the military — the perspective of a selfless person doing that. In retrospect, we were 17, 18. I was going to college to play football, and he was going to serve our country.

Then, in San Diego, the relationship we had with the military because obviously San Diego [has] a huge military base. And my family assistant is a Navy man. My first cousin served in the Air Force. It’s a natural thing, in my experience, to support these guys.

WACOAN: I know you have your Giving Thanks with LT Thanksgiving food drive soon. Hope that all goes well.

LaDainian: Thank you so much. Nice talking with you.

LaDainian’s Hall of Fame speech went a little viral. There has been more praise than backlash. The NFL tweeted, “Ladies and Gentlemen… @LT_21. An inspiration to all. #PFHOF17.” And the Los Angeles Chargers tweeted, “LaDainian Tomlinson spoke. You should listen.” LaDainian is only 38 years old and nowhere near done building Team America. He’s an analyst with the NFL Network, and earlier this year he started serving in an executive role with the Los Angeles Chargers as special assistant to team president and CEO Dean Spanos. LaDainian is the Chargers’ chairman for community engagement. He is also the chairman of Tomlinson’s Touching Lives Foundation.

In his Hall of Fame speech LaDainian spoke openly about his personal relationship with God. He said this about why he was standing on that stage: “the principal reason … is God, who gave me my ability, my purpose.” In the upcoming film, “God Bless the Broken Road,” we will see LaDainian play a pastor who helps a woman regain her faith. As he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, LaDainian helped all of us regain our faith in this country. As Americans, we may have injustice in our past and underlying problems in our present, but as we go forward into the future we can all be on the same team.

“When we open the door for others to compete, we fulfill the promise of one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all. On America’s team, let’s not choose to be against one another. Let’s choose to be for one another. My great-great-great-grandfather had no choice. We have one. I pray we dedicate ourselves to be the best team we can be, working and living together, representing the highest ideals of mankind, leading the way for all nations to follow.”

Join the Conversation