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The Best Back Ever

7 minute read
Sean Gregory/San Diego

So you want to learn why LaDainian Tomlinson, who is tearing up the National Football League’s storied record book as if it were a piece of junk mail, is the best football player in the world? Let’s step into his classroom. Lesson One: take a trip to the local variety store, where you can find a whirring fan and a deck of cards. “There’s this trick where you throw a card up in the air when a fan is blowing and you try to catch it,” Tomlinson, the San Diego Chargers running back, explains in his Texas drawl. The man is not fooling around. He does the trick twice a week during the off-season, snatching dozens of high-speed aces bouncing off the blades, in order to tune the quick reflexes a great running back requires.

It’s the oddest secret of Tomlinson’s success; picture a player for the ages watching cards bounce off a fan like a toddler bored out of his mind. But poke fun at your peril if you’re an opponent. The humble star, 27, in his sixth year as a pro, smoked the single-season touchdown record, needing just 13 games (out of 16) to pass the previous mark, 28 touchdowns, set by Seattle’s Shaun Alexander last year. (Tomlinson finished with 31.) He broke Paul Hornung’s 46-year-old record for most points scored in a season and finished the year with 1,815 rushing yards–tops in the NFL–and 508 receiving yards. Tomlinson carried the Chargers to a franchise-best 14-2 record, and since they hold home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, which start Jan. 6 (the Chargers have earned a first-round bye), the Bolts are favorites to fly to Miami, representing the American Football Conference in the Feb. 4 Super Bowl.

With his team soaring and tacklers clasping air as he bursts by them, Tomlinson, a quiet leader actually stressed out by attention, has recorded the best single-season performance for a back in football history. “By far,” says Emmitt Smith, the league’s all-time leading rusher–for now. Tomlinson is the best ever, gushes Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer. That means better than Red Grange, Jim Brown, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders. Heck, Tomlinson even completed two of his three passes–both for touchdowns–and is a garish seven out of 10, with six TD tosses, in his career. With the dazzling runs, sure hands and strong arm, LT, as he is known, has created the ultimate matchup problem. He has set the new standard for what a running back can do–and with his team-first attitude, how a great athlete should comport himself. “The best way to describe LT is in four words,” says former Dallas Cowboys player personnel director Gil Brandt: “Player with no flaws.”

All the tricks of Tomlinson’s trade start with his unique vision. When a running back takes the football from the quarterback, chaos greets his line of sight: a dozen massive men pound one another at the line of scrimmage, trying to create, or prevent, a split-second opening for the back to slip through. Tomlinson’s eyes process the scrum like internal software, letting him spot the holes. “It seems like things are happening in slow motion, and you’re kind of moving through everything with ease,” Tomlinson says. “It’s a nice feeling.”

Unless you are trying to tackle him. Tomlinson is the most deceptive running back in the game. Start with his body. At a compact 5 ft. 10 in., with an upper half that’s sculpted but not scary, Tomlinson won’t bowl you over the way Brown did. But most opponents haven’t scoped his thunder thighs. When asked about his lower-body strength during an interview in the Chargers’ locker room, the otherwise demure Tomlinson unsheathes his left leg from his sweatpants. Think humpback whale, with muscles. “I’m proud of my thighs,” Tomlinson says with a laugh. “That’s where the power comes from.”

His approach to the line of scrimmage also fools defenders. Chargers fullback Lorenzo Neal dubs it “slow to, fast through.” When Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers gives Tomlinson the ball, he tries to run to the line at about three-quarters speed. “You can’t be going full speed,” Tomlinson says. “Some guys run too fast and can’t stop and make a move. Or they run into their own lineman, and the linemen hate that.” The stroll lulls the defense to sleep. Once Tomlinson spots a crease, those thighs power him past unsuspecting tacklers.

A splendid stiff-arm technique–using an outstretched limb like a jousting lance to repel defenders–adds yet another dimension. To LT, the term stiff-arm is a misnomer. “You’re not just sticking your arm out,” says Tomlinson. “You’re punching the guy.” One place to pummel is the chest, which knocks back bear-hugging tacklers. Another? “Smack-dab in the face mask,” he says.

The long touchdown runs gain the accolades, but Tomlinson is just as valuable when the defense clogs every opening. When a play breaks down, Tomlinson runs so low to the ground that he burrows beneath tacklers, picking up four or five yards when most backs would be lucky to get one. “You’re like, ‘Man, how’d he do that?'” says Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, whose team beat the Chargers 16-13 in October and could face them again in the AFC title game. “It’s like landing a body blow. They all add up in the end.”

To LT, it’s pure physics. “If you’re lower than a tackler, you have better leverage, and he can’t stop you from going forward,” he explains. Since Tomlinson slithers, he’s also less likely to take direct hits, keeping him durable. He has never missed a game because of an injury, a remarkable feat in the bone-breaking NFL.

Tomlinson started his own football education in Waco, Texas, at 9 and later became a student at Emmitt Smith’s running-back camp. “You knew he had that ‘it,'” remembers Smith. LT even started sleeping with a football and didn’t stop until his junior year of college at Texas Christian University, where he led the nation in rushing in consecutive years. “The ball would lie in his arms like a girlfriend,” says Tomlinson’s younger brother LaVar, 24. “And I can never remember that ball being on the floor.” He who fails to fumble in slumber won’t cough it up in consciousness. In the crucial area within 20 yds. of the opponent’s goal line, Tomlinson has touched the ball more than 400 consecutive times without surrendering it, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

The back’s final lesson is simple yet falls on deaf ears in a league full of showboaters: Don’t hog the spotlight. Are you listening, Terrell Owens? “I don’t like the attention,” Tomlinson says. “It’s annoying at times.” Although he would still be the league’s top player on almost any other team, LT showers constant praise on his teammates, and the endless accolades he receives cause him consternation. When the best player in football suppresses his ego, how can anyone else call attention to himself? “It’s learned behavior,” says Chargers tight end Antonio Gates.

LT could use a relaxation class. He might be the most stressed-out superstar on earth. Personal tragedy has weighed on his mind this season. An aunt to whom Tomlinson was very close died suddenly in June, and his wife’s aunt passed away later in the summer. On a less personal level, the expectations of a sun-splashed, championship-starved San Diego– the Chargers have never won a Super Bowl, the Padres a World Series–fall squarely on Tomlinson’s stout shoulders.

“I always look at myself in the mirror and ask, Am I doing enough?” he says. “I worry about a lot of things and honestly don’t think I’ll ever be stress free.” Calm down, LT. Your team is going to the Super Bowl. It’s in the cards.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com