When the San Diego Chargers make their way to MetLife Stadium this Sunday, emotions will be running high.
For the first time in his illustrious career, New York Jets running back LaDainian Tomlinson will face the team he spent 9 seasons playing for from 2001-2009.
Tomlinson will be enshrined in Canton one day thanks to his days in Charger blue, and on Sunday he will become just the 5th player in NFL history to score over 100 touchdowns for a team & then play that team.
Tomlinson scored 153 regular season touchdowns as a Charger, and his 160 career touchdowns are third in NFL history behind Hall of Famers Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith.
Jets coach Rex Ryan believes in the power of motivation, especially when a player is playing against his former team. Ryan announced that Tomlinson will get the start on Sunday, and he’ll ride the hot hand if LT is playing well.
“I had an old football coach who coached me in college [at Southwestern Oklahoma State, Ryan’s alma mater] he used to, if a kid transferred from a college or whatever, he’d play the guy,” Ryan said.
“We had a running back who hardly played,” Ryan explained, “and when we played this other team that he transferred from, he started, and this kid had something like 160 yards. That’s something that’s always stuck with me.”
“Those are always special moments for guys,” Ryan said. “It’s not that it’s a bad thing. ‘I’m going to show that team.’ He’s getting to play in front of his team. That’s the biggest thing.”
Tomlinson was cut by the Chargers after the 2009 season, discarded after rushing for a career low 3.3 yards per carry and 730 yards.
He came to the Jets in 2010, and was expected to back-up young back Shonn Greene, but the 10-year veteran Tomlinson looked refreshed and refocused, bouncing back with a team-high 914 rushing yards on 4.2 yards per carry.
Tomlinson’s biggest contribution came in the passing game, as he did a stellar job giving quarterback Mark Sanchez a safety valve in his progressions, catching 52 passes (second on the team) and keeping countless drives alive.
The 32-year-old Tomlinson graciously accepted a reduced role this season, vowing to be the “best 3rd-down back in the league” and enthusiastically mentoring Greene and 23-year-old Joe McKnight, helping them become better players.
“He really is the ultimate teammate,” Keller said of Tomlinson. “Before games, he gets us up, breaks us down. He’s the one who gets us going. He fits the description of an ultimate teammate perfectly. He’s a great role model.”
“He’s everything I thought he’d be. He really is,” Rex Ryan said this week. “I thought we were getting a guy who could really help us. The thing is, even more so, is the kind of person he is.”
“As a former NFL Man of the Year, you’d assume he’d be the kind of guy he is, but, wow, when you see it in your locker room, how he picks his teammates up, builds them up, he’s been fantastic that way.”
While Tomlinson looks back fondly on his days in San Diego, cornerback Antonio Cromartie had strong words for his former club.
Cromartie, who was traded to the Jets before the 2010 season and has spent all six of his NFL seasons as a teammate of Tomlinson’s, did not leave the Chargers on a good note.
“I wasn’t happy there,” Cromartie told Manish Mehta of the Daily News this week. “I didn’t want to play in San Diego anymore. That was it.”
Cromartie did not interact at all with Chargers general manager A.J. Smith prior to his departure, and the cornerback was frustrated with the coaching staff and even some of his teammates.
“We all know there were guys in the locker room who didn’t like him,” ex-teammate Quentin Jammer, one of Cromartie’s closest friends on the team, said after the trade. “He didn’t like them.”
Safety Eric Weddle did not hide his feelings on his former teammate, saying at the time of the trade, “Me and Cro had conflicts. That’s just the way it is.”
Cromartie was a first-round pick in 2006 by the Chargers and made the Pro Bowl in 2007 after a breakout year in just his second season.
But in 2008, he played the majority of the season with a fractured hip, something he alleges the team intentionally kept hidden from him and he discovered on his own only after getting a second opinion.
“They were hiding my injury,” Cromartie said. “They just told me I had a strained hip flexor. I played the whole entire year with a fractured hip.”
He suffered the injury in Week 1 of the 2008 season, and the deceitful way it was handled just threw more fuel on the fire of the mutual animosity between the player and the team.
The last game that Cromartie and Tomlinson played in a Chargers uniform was a 2009 home playoff loss to Rex Ryan and the very same New York Jets that both of them have played the past two seasons for.
Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer is also a former Charger, having coached there under his father Marty when the elder Schottenheimer coached the Chargers from 2002 to 2006.
For Antonio Cromartie and LaDainian Tomlinson, this Week 7 game is going to mean a lot more than your typical regular season game.
For the 3-3 Jets, a win going into the Week 8 bye would be just the remedy they need after a tough start to their season.