Commentary

A home for two

Ryan Mathews went from the street to the NFL -- thanks to his mom and a stranger

Updated: November 10, 2010, 1:43 PM ET
By Tom Friend | ESPN

SAN DIEGO -- On the day Ryan Mathews ripped open his first NFL paycheck, he looked at all the commas and tried his best to breathe. His whole life, payday had been his mother's most nervous, bittersweet day: Would there be enough in the check to cover her rent? Would they have to move? Would they even have a roof over their heads?

But suddenly Ryan Mathews was earning more money in one paycheck than his mom had earned in a lifetime … three lifetimes.

He wanted to buy her something right away, something that would simultaneously open and close a wound from the past, something that would put a tidy bow on their two-decade journey together.

Guess what he bought …

'We knew his story'

Heroes don't grow on trees, but Ryan Mathews has two he can think of. One raised him long-distance, the other raised him short distance. One is his soul mate, the other he hasn't met. One lives in San Diego, the other used to be San Diego.

The Chargers knew all of this when they traded up 16 spots to draft him 12th overall last April. "We knew his story," head coach Norv Turner says. "It's one of the reasons we picked him."

It's a story about a dream coming true -- twice. The next time the San Diego Chargers are on TV, take a look at Mathews' tinted helmet visor and decide who he looks like. Then take a look in the family section, and decide who else he looks like.

Those are the two people who got him paid.

Moving to find home

Sometimes a house has no business being a home. Tricia Mathews learned that at 3 when her father left for good in a huff. She learned it at 9 when her mother's boyfriend whipped her and her brother with a thin tree branch. She learned it at 11 when another of her mom's boyfriends was a filthy drunk. She learned it at 12 when a male relative groped her.

Tricia wanted to get as far away from her so-called home as she could, and, at 13, she moved two hours from the mountain town of Tehachapi, Calif., to her Aunt Joan's farmhouse in Riverside, Calif. She intended to stay for a summer. Instead, she stayed for two years.

The original allure was the dogs, goats and horses on Joan's property. But, while riding a mare one day, Tricia met a truck driver friend of her aunt's who was renting a room at the house. His real name was Vardaman Tillman, but everyone called him "Deek." And he clearly had eyes for Tricia.

He would be gone a week at a time, driving his diesel back East, but, upon return, he'd flash hundred-dollar bills, ask Tricia out, tell Tricia how lovely she was. The sordid part of it all was that Deek was 35 years old -- 20 years older -- and had a girlfriend who happened to be close with Tricia's aunt.

Tricia knew this, but was mesmerized nonetheless. She'd never had one man in her life treat her kindly -- not a father, a grandfather or an uncle -- and she enjoyed the way Deek doted on her. He bought a horse one day and asked her to exercise it while he was away. He even paid her money for her trouble. She'd count the seconds, minutes, hours and days until he'd be back. She decided she was in love.

They would try to hook up discreetly. She would tell Joan she was going over to her best friend Denise Lazado's house, but would instead rendezvous with Deek. On weekends, Joan would send Deek out to rent videos, and Tricia would volunteer to ride along. He dressed flashy, had the shiniest shoes she'd ever seen. And, inevitably, they became intimate.

[+] EnlargeTricia Mathews
Tricia MathewsTricia tried to keep her pregnancy a secret as long as possible, confiding initially only to a trusted friend.

She was 15 when she found out she was pregnant. She told him her news, and he asked her, "Are you sure it's mine?" When she assured him yes, he accused her of lying, obviously in defense mode. He had always warned Tricia, from the moment they slept together, to keep their relationship secret, that he could go to jail for statutory rape, that a judge would never show mercy on a 35-year-old black man who'd taken a 15-year-old white girl to bed. So as soon as Deek heard about the baby, he began to wall her off.

One night when Tricia's aunt asked them to go grab another video, Deek wouldn't even stand near Tricia at the store, saying, "Why don't you walk over there -- because I don't want people to think you're pregnant by me."

Her feelings were hurt, and, besides, she wasn't showing yet. The 10th-grader continued to go to school, although she finally confided in her best friend, Denise, who took a blood oath not to tell a soul about the pregnancy or Deek's age. As Tricia put on weight, it was Denise's idea to eat extra desserts herself. That way, they would be putting on the pounds together, and Tricia wouldn't stand out. They got away with it for 7½ months, until Tricia's mom, Beverly -- visiting from Tehachapi -- collided with her daughter in the kitchen and felt her bump.

Tricia broke down, put her hands over her face and said, "I'm sorry, mom." Beverly asked who the father was, and Tricia lied and told her she'd had a one-night stand with "an Italian guy." Tricia was always going to protect Deek, whether he acknowledged the baby or not. She still had strong feelings for him and clung to her fantasy that he was the man to finally give her a stable home. That's partially why she never aborted the pregnancy; the other reason being that she had already felt the baby moving, kicking.

Her Aunt Joan, also pregnant, was insistent that Tricia's baby had to go. She told her niece she knew a couple who would pay money for the baby, but Tricia ran to her room, offended.

She finally dropped out of high school in September of her junior year, and, on Oct. 10, 1987, Tricia gave birth to a baby boy named Ryan.

He didn't look Italian.

'I was just living'

Right away, everyone's antennas went up. Perhaps because Deek had moved out of Joan's house, perhaps because he was sullen around Tricia on days he'd visit, perhaps because of the baby's color, the family suspected a scandal.

Joan was the most vigilant in searching for information and demanded to see Ryan's birth certificate. But Tricia had intentionally left the space for "father's name" blank, to keep Deek out of handcuffs. Her aunt would have to keep digging.

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Tricia MathewsTricia and Ryan.

For close to two months, Tricia and Ryan stayed in Joan's house, relatively comfortable, although she still pined for Deek, imagining them as a married couple with a home and a white picket fence. "There was no sense of reality going through my mind at that point," says Tricia, who had just turned 16. "I knew nothing about what it took to raise a kid or what I needed. I was just living. I had no concept of what was actually going to take place in my life from that moment on."

A shrill scream snapped her back to her senses. Joan had finally been told Deek was the father -- by another one of Tricia's friends -- and wanted to have him locked up. Joan began screeching at Tricia, telling her she was going to call the cops, but a stunned Tricia still wouldn't confirm Deek was the dad. Her aunt asked her to submit to blood work as part of a paternity test. Tricia said never. The aunt only grew more brusque. Threats came next.

Joan said if Tricia wouldn't cooperate, she'd have to move out. Tricia again refused. So on a day when Tricia was out with the baby in her beat-up 1969 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, her aunt dumped all of Tricia's belongings onto her front stoop.

"She just basically told me to come and get my stuff, and if I came in her house she would have me arrested," Tricia says. "So I went over there and my stuff was in trash bags on the front porch. I picked it up, put it in my car and left. No money, no nothing. I just left."

Home was now the '69 Oldsmobile.

Life gets even more complicated

Tricia had several options, none of them stellar or practical.

She could drive the car back to Tehachapi to stay with her mom -- except her mom was strung out on methamphetamine and shooting her shotgun at imaginary people in her house.

She could track down her estranged father -- except she says he was too racist to accept a mixed-race baby in his life.

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Tricia MathewsRyan at one of his many stops as a child.

She could move in with her older brother, Brian -- except she didn't know his address in San Bernardino.

She could move in with her friend Denise -- except Denise's dad's responded: "Over my dead body."

Her last (and dream) scenario was to live with Deek -- except he was somewhere in Middle America driving his diesel.

So, on her first night as an independent woman, Tricia parked her car on the curb outside Denise's house and tried rocking her baby to sleep. It didn't work.

The hungry infant cried all night long. The next morning, Denise gave Tricia her lunch money so she could buy Ryan milk. The baby was 2 months old and should have been on warm formula, but Tricia had no choice but to feed him cold milk. "He didn't seem to mind," Tricia says. "Like a little trooper, he took it down. He never got sick."

She spent her first full day at a local park, and, after school, Denise joined her. They began scheming. Denise told Tricia she could shower and bathe the baby at her house when her parents weren't home, and that her mother would probably pay Tricia a nominal fee to clean the house or run errands. Denise also continued to give her lunch money to her friend.

For a while, it worked. Tricia earned $10 for the grunt work and used half for gas and half for food. But the 16-year-old girl and her baby remained homeless by Christmas. The days at the park were depressing, but she says the nights in the car were worse.

[+] EnlargeRyan Matthews
Ryan MathewsRyan and his mother really only had each other for most of his childhood.

She was afraid of being attacked while asleep, so she never slept. Every night, she would lay Ryan down in the backseat, curl up beside of him so he wouldn't fall onto the floorboard and try to sleep with one eye open. Inevitably, she'd be up all night worrying. One evening she had to laugh, though -- her friend had written "Denise was here" on the car ceiling.

But on another night, she heard footsteps near the car. Someone seemed to be peering in. From then on, she would park the car at night in a church parking lot: "I figured I was safer there than most places."

Life grew more complicated by the day. She owned only two cloth diapers and would wash them in the park, then hang them out to dry. She couldn't always bathe at Denise's house, so she'd rinse off at a public shower with little privacy. Ryan constantly cried out in hunger, so she'd wait in a downtown Riverside soup line for hot food. She'd take a cheeseburger back to the car, chew it up in her mouth and then feed it to the baby.

"I know that's gross," she says, "and he probably wasn't supposed to have [solid] food. But I didn't know. I just, you know, had a hungry baby … All I knew was there's a little baby lying in my arms that didn't ask to be brought here. It was up to me and only me. I was his only hope of having life. I couldn't just sit there and give up."

This went on for a month and a half, until she finally tracked down her brother, Brian, in San Bernardino. He invited her to stay at his apartment. But just two weeks later, he was evicted. She drove back to the same church parking lot and continued to think of ways to reunite with Deek. Then she had an idea -- find Deek's parents.

She knew his mom and dad lived in Compton, near Los Angeles, so she showed up at their door. They took one look at Ryan and knew he was Deek's baby. They took her in, but she and Ryan were just two of 12 people living in a small bungalow. There were other babies there, and, although Tricia had food and a roof, she didn't get compassion or, more importantly, Deek. "I felt like trash," she says. "I couldn't do anything for myself. I was just kind of a helpless person just waiting for someone to give me a handout."

She stayed about three weeks and then told Deek's parents she was going home to her mother or grandmother -- whoever would have her. She says they offered to buy her Oldsmobile for $100 to help get her on her way. But she had a difficult time parting with it.

"They could have just said, 'Here's a $100 for gas, we don't want to take your car -- that's all you have; you're going to need it,'" Tricia says. "But, no, it was, 'We'll buy your car.' Like, I have nothing and now you're going to take the one thing I have? And it was like they did it with a smile. We meant nothing to them. So that was when I knew -- nobody was going to change my situation. Only I was going to change it."

She agreed to sell the Cutlass for $100 to them anyway, handed over the car keys and asked for a ride to the bus station.

She'd already been homeless for 3½ months. Now, Tricia was car-less.

One job, then two, then three …

The sight of Tricia on foot, walking down a Tehachapi street with Ryan, had to be pitiful. She was barely 16, carrying a suitcase, with nowhere definitive to go. Her mother was still on meth, and her last option was her grandmother, Glenna, whom she'd never been close to. But Tricia just needed a roof over her baby's head and wasn't too proud to knock on Glenna's door.

No one answered. So Tricia waited for hours in the driveway, holding Ryan tight, until the neighbors -- thinking she was a vagabond -- called the cops. The police ushered her off the property, pointing her in the direction of a local shelter.

[+] EnlargeRyan Mathews
Tricia MathewsRyan fell in love with football as a child and would turn to it for comfort in the absence of his father and working mother.

She remembered that her brother had an old buddy who used to live nearby, so she rang the old buddy's doorbell. His parents answered. She asked if she and her baby could stay until her grandmother returned, and they agreed. An entire week passed before Glenna came home from a trip to Oklahoma. Tricia went to see her right away.

She told her grandmother about her predicament and asked if she could stay indefinitely. Glenna said she could, with two conditions: Tricia had to get a job, and Glenna would hold her money for her.

Tricia didn't mind at all, because she intended to get three jobs. Glenna babysat Ryan, and Tricia got her first job grooming dogs. She'd charge $5 a dog and would try to do 20 a day. That would be $100, which had her wishing she could buy the Oldsmobile back.

Her next job was making chicken sandwiches at a gas station food mart. She got promoted to gas station cashier, working the 2 to 10 p.m. shift, and later the higher-paying 5 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. shift. That meant she could work a third job waitressing, four days a week, from 2 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

She wouldn't turn any job down. The thought of being homeless again had her applying for anything and everything. She took on another part-time gig driving a landscaping crew around, and then a fifth part-time job as a groundskeeper at a recycling center. She ended up driving a car up and down a road, picking up trash. This was beyond grunt work, but it meant another payday. She needed paydays. And she kept handing the cash over to her grandmother.

After about three months, she could afford a cheap place at the Maple Street Apartments in Tehachapi. Glenna continued to babysit, and, Tricia's little son began to grow up.

Ryan was a ball of fire, who went from crawling to running. One day, when he was 2½ and still in diapers, he hopped on a two-wheel bicycle and rode it almost instantaneously. He might've made it to the next block if his Pampers hadn't gotten caught in the spokes.

He was a prodigy, and he seemed to affect everyone he crossed paths with. One day, when Tricia's mom, Beverly, was in jail on a methamphetamine offense, Tricia put Ryan on the phone with her.

"Grandma," 4-year-old Ryan said. "What kind of bird don't fly?"

"What, Ry?" Beverly asked.

"A jailbird!" he shouted.

Beverly immediately began to weep. She remembers thinking, "Even my little grandson thinks I'm a jailbird."

Right then and there, she decided to get straight. She says she has never taken a hit of meth since. She got out of jail and eventually became a drug counselor.

Everything that little Ryan touched seemed to turn to gold.

On his own in seventh grade

Tricia was adamant Ryan would never be homeless again. Problem was, he was virtually motherless.

[+] EnlargeTricia Matthews
Tricia MathewsTricia worked part-time jobs -- five at one time for a while -- to care for Ryan.

Tricia worked so many jobs, Ryan had to be shuttled between Glenna and Beverly. Sometimes, at 8 years old, he would simply be left alone at the apartment.

As he grew older, Ryan began to realize he looked different than everyone else. Tehachapi was a small (pop. 11,000), predominantly white town, and he remembers thinking, "I don't fit in here." He needed his mother for support; even though she wasn't always around, at least he had his favorite sport of football.

Ryan was stronger and more explosive than any of the kids in Tehachapi, and, when Tricia saw he was falling in love with football, she made it her priority to get to all of his practices and games, even if it meant losing some cash out of her paycheck. Ryan liked peering over to the sideline and always finding her there, howling at the top of her lungs. Football was bringing them together. But then she told him all about her new dream job.

She had just been hired as a wind turbine operator at Tehachapi Pass Wind Farm. At first, her pay would be $12 an hour -- the richest number she'd ever been offered -- with a chance to advance to $15 an hour. She couldn't contain her joy, because it meant quitting all those side jobs. The only problem was, she'd been assigned the 6 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. shift. Young Ryan, now a seventh-grader, would have to heat his own dinner after football practice, do his own homework, and put himself to bed.

It was too much freedom, too much to expect, and Ryan flunked seventh grade. Tricia valued education -- she had gone back for her GED and even taken some college courses -- but she couldn't always be around to monitor his study habits. Ryan was forced to repeat seventh grade, and Tricia was concerned whether her son even cared about passing.

"I never liked school," he says. "I hated being cooped up in the classroom. Wasn't my thing. I'd pay attention the first 10 minutes and after that, I wanted to be outside doing something."

But just when Tricia was about to panic, Ryan began focusing on school a little harder.

A lot of it had to do with a pro running back he'd just seen on TV.

Finding a male role model, in the NFL

Ryan could count his male role models … on no hands.

Naturally, the man whose guidance he craved the most was his father, Deek, who had somehow resurfaced long enough for Ryan to glimpse the possibilities. In grammar school, Ryan had begun to ask about his dad, and Tricia -- who had heard that Deek had married his longtime girlfriend -- reluctantly reached out to Deek's parents to arrange a meeting.

Deek showed up in his diesel truck and took the impressionable Ryan for a spin. "He did treat me like a son when I was with him," Ryan says. But the visits were brief and sometimes tense. Tricia no longer had feelings for Deek and didn't want Ryan to start being wistful over a man he couldn't count on. But she also owed it to her son to let him form his own opinion. So on days Ryan asked about his dad, Tricia would promise to call him again.

Usually, Deek was unavailable or dropping off a load somewhere back East. Tricia thought she could sense Deek's wife was badgering Deek not to call back, but, either way, there would sometimes be two years between visits. "I just wouldn't hear anything about him," Ryan says.

In his mind, Ryan wanted a male role model who was a good citizen, athletic and accountable. And then, on an NFL highlight show, eighth-grader Ryan stumbled upon a certain running back for the San Diego Chargers, LaDainian Tomlinson.

Ryan High School action
Tricia MathewsRyan scored six touchdowns in a game after replacing the injured starting running back. The feat and film of the game put garnered him national attention.

What struck him most was Tomlinson's ruthless running style, the way he would leap over piles and stiff-arm oncoming defenders. He wondered how LT could swat linebackers away so cavalierly. But what won Ryan over was the sound of Tomlinson doing an interview.

LT was humble and involved in the community. He was about to be married, was a team leader. Ryan was a running back, too, and decided if he couldn't have Deek, he could at least have Tomlinson.

"He was like Superman," Ryan says. "He was the coolest thing on the planet. Everything was about LT. I wanted to be LT."

But if he wanted to be Tomlinson, he had to go to school -- and so, in a bizarre way, a football player 150 miles down the road in San Diego was parenting Ryan Mathews.

Ryan tried to think the way he imagined LT would think. He noticed, for instance, that his best friend, Dante Cross, was in the middle of a crisis at home. Dante's mother had turned Dante's home into a drug house; people binged on meth and heroine right in front of Dante's eyes. Eventually, his mother was evicted, and Ryan asked Dante if he wanted to spend the night, just to get the hell out of there. Then he asked if he wanted to spend a week.

Tricia was sympathetic. "That used to be me," she'd say of Dante. After a week passed, Dante's mother came to the door to ask if Dante could stay for a second week, that she was still looking for a new apartment. Tricia said no problem.

"And then two weeks turned into months," Dante says. "And months turned into a year. And then a year turned into a very long time. I think I just woke up one day and realized my mom wasn't coming back.

"I mean, Ryan saved my life. He opened his doors. I don't know where I'd be right now if I didn't get saved by them."

The turnaround in all of their lives was obvious. Tricia was gaining financial stability from her job at the wind farm. Dante was helping Ryan with his homework. Ryan was the best young football player in Tehachapi -- he was LT.

But Tehachapi's junior high and high school football programs were lacking, so Tricia decided it was time to pick up and move 40 miles to Bakersfield, where Ryan could play for perennial power West High School. She went to court to officially adopt Dante, so she could legally enroll him at West High, as well. And then she turned Ryan over to a new set of coaches.

The staff asked him what number he wanted, and Ryan said he absolutely, positively had to have No. 21.

LT's number.

Sleeping late and failing grades

What a difference 15 years made. Tricia had a new corporate job in Bakersfield. She was traveling; wearing business attire. Not that long before, she'd been grooming dogs.

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Tricia MathewsAttention on Ryan waned after he skipped classes and stopped working hard in school. It picked up again after a visit by the Fresno State coach.

But there was a downside. When she was on business trips, Ryan and Dante were on their own for days, and an old stumbling block reared its head: schoolwork.

Tricia was rarely around on weeknights to supervise Ryan's studying. But she was around on Friday nights -- for Ryan's football games.

As a junior, Ryan was a backup to West's established star at running back, Princeton McCarty (now at the University of Idaho). But in the Valley championship game that same junior year, McCarty was injured, and in trotted Ryan.

He wound up gaining 235 yards and scoring six touchdowns, borrowing LT's stiff-arm. His head coach, Richard Cornford, shipped that game tape to major colleges, and his office phone immediately started ringing.

Boise State told Cornford that Ryan was the best high school back on the West Coast "bar none." USC, Michigan and UCLA were also big admirers. "I thought I was the big man on campus," Ryan says. "I really thought I was the toughest thing around. I had all these colleges sending me letters. I thought, 'Man, I'm untouchable right now.'"

It was that sense of entitlement that got him in hot water. While Tricia was out of town during the week, Ryan basically lived on his own, along with Dante. Dante was a year ahead of him in school -- so he was coasting through his senior year, indifferent about school himself -- and they would end up playing the video game "World of Warcraft" until 2 a.m. or later.

As a result, Ryan began sleeping in until 11 a.m. or later on school days, skipping at least his first three classes every day, cruising in just in time for lunch. Since his junior football season was over, he felt no one would ever mind or notice. But he forgot about all the college coaches who were checking in on him.

USC, Michigan and UCLA took one look at his grades -- which were D-average -- and assumed he'd never get eligible. They wrote him off, stopped recruiting him. One of the West High School assistant coaches, Mike Lewis, couldn't bear to see Ryan throw his future away. So he began showing up at Ryan's apartment, unannounced, to rouse him out of bed.

"I'd be like, 'Who the heck is at my door?'" Ryan says. "Some days I'd try to ignore him. He'd be knocking at the door, and I'd just let him knock there for 5 or 10 minutes. But he never gave up. He'd sit there and just knock louder and louder."

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Tricia MathewsRyan and Tricia at a Fresno State game.

Just the idea of a high school kid living at his own apartment had the coaches cringing. They respected Tricia's work predicament, the fact that she was working 70 hours a week out of town. But they had to call to let her know Ryan was flunking three different subjects.

She was waiting for her son the next day when he came home from school, and, for the first time in their lives together, they had an all-out argument.

Tricia asked for an explanation, but Ryan didn't have one. All he would say was he sick of the pressure to succeed, that he just wanted to be normal and skateboard after school. He told his mom that was it -- he was quitting football.

He was beside himself. He ran into his room, shut the door and hid under his bed. The more Tricia talked, the more he melted down. He finally climbed out from under his bed, smashed his clock radio and fled the apartment. He intended to run away from home -- just like Tricia had done once.

That night, he stayed at a teammate's house, and remembers thinking, "This is the worst day of my life. I'm not going to be anything. I'm a nobody. From day one, I'd been told I wouldn't amount to anything. And they're right."

It was a sleepless night, but two people kept popping into his mind: LT and Tricia.

If he wanted to be LT -- and he did -- he couldn't quit. "That's what kept me going," he says. And he remembered his mother saying something about the two of them living in a car once, an Oldsmobile, and how she chewed up food like a bird and fed it to him.

He went home to see her the next day, and that's exactly what came up; the '69 Cutlass Supreme.

"I could just tell by the look in her eyes and by the way she was talking that this was something serious," Ryan says. "She had me so young; she had to throw her whole teenage life away for me. She never got to do the things I got to do in high school. She had plenty of chances to say, 'All right, I'm done,' and give me up for adoption. She never did. And that's what drove me.

"She never quit. She basically told me she's never quit on me, so why am I going to be a quitter? She didn't raise a quitter. I felt if I was going to quit, I'd be taking a part of her and I'd just be throwing it down the trash. So I didn't want to do it."

He decided to buckle down at school.

And he Googled a '69 Cutlass Supreme.

"Are you wasting my f-ing time?'

Problem was, did any college coaches still want him?

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Tricia MathewsClowning around with mom.

In the spring of his junior year, a coach actually did show up at Ryan's high school. But he didn't have a smile on his face.

It was Pat Hill of Fresno State, who had come to take a personal look at Ryan's transcripts. The grades were awful, so Hill asked Ryan's high school coach, Cornford, to usher Ryan into the room.

"I walked in," Ryan says, "and there was a guy in this red shirt with a Fu Manchu [mustache], and Nike glasses around his neck. He's looking at my transcript, and the first thing he said to me was, 'Son, are you wasting my f-ing time?' I was like, 'Who's this guy?'"

Hill sometimes tends to go about the world in a vulgar way, but it's usually for effect, and in this case, he was simply trying to pull a kid off an academic respirator. He told Ryan he had a plan to get him eligible for Division I college football, but it had to be followed to a T. He said Ryan had to go to summer school and then take 12 core classes his senior year. He said Ryan would have to take English, algebra, geometry, biology and physics, and that an "A" in gym class wouldn't help. He told Ryan he wouldn't talk to him or have contact with him again for about a year. Then he wished him good luck.

"I was a little afraid he would maybe say, 'No way I'm going to do this,'" Hill says.

But not only did Ryan accomplish all of it and get eligible, he had a senior football season to die for. He rushed for 3,396 yards and 44 touchdowns, and suddenly USC's Pete Carroll wanted to come for dinner with Tricia and Ryan again.

But out of loyalty to Hill, Ryan committed to Fresno State. Tricia moved there with him but noticed right after the first practice that Ryan was out of sync. She asked him what was wrong, and he told her: They gave me No. 23.

He wanted 21, of course, but the number was retired. It had been worn by Fresno State legend Dale Messer, a running back from the late 1950s who had later played with the 49ers. When Ryan heard that, he was distraught.

"He was just like, 'Man, I need '21,'" says his Fresno State roommate Zak Hill, the coach's son. "He was like, 'I don't move that good if it's not 21.' It was about LaDainian Tomlinson. He wanted to play like LT, but it was more who Tomlinson was as a person, how he carried himself, how driven he was, how humble. He wanted to play with the same personality as LT."

This was relayed to Coach Hill, who -- sensing Ryan's quandary -- invited Messer to practice. "Coach told me, 'Someone wants to have your number off the wall,'" Messer says. "And I said, 'Well, I'd sure be glad to meet him and see what we can do.'"

Messer actually wanted to make sure the player wasn't a "smart-ass," and as it turns out, Messer found Ryan to be a complete gentleman. Ryan called him "sir" the entire visit, the same way LT addressed his elders. And, at the end of practice, Messer agreed to let him wear 21.

Ryan bear-hugged him.

Making room for Mathews

He broke Messer's records, too. By his junior year of 2009, Ryan was the NCAA's leading rusher, averaging 150 yards a game, and a certain San Diego general manager was rubbing his chin thinking about the kid.

[+] EnlargeRyan Mathews
Icon SMIThe San Diego Chargers traded up to select Ryan Mathews in the first round of last year's NFL draft.

Ryan was a hot topic of conversation around the league, projected as a late first or early second-round pick, or maybe even better. He decided to turn pro, and one of the first people who wanted to meet him was Chargers general manager A.J. Smith.

The Chargers were about to part ways with Tomlinson, who'd been the face of the franchise for nine seasons. Some of it was about money, some of it was supposedly about diminishing skills, some of it was about ego -- Smith's, head coach Norv Turner's and Tomlinson's. The relationships between the three of them had run its course. But from a distance, Ryan Mathews just didn't understand it.

He never thought the Chargers would pick him -- not when they had his idol. But in February of 2010, the team released LT, and they ratcheted up their pursuit of Ryan.

During the course of the Chargers' research, they heard about Tricia and the Cutlass Supreme, and, at one point, they were able to meet her in the flesh. They were sold on Ryan's speed, durability, hands and character. And when they heard his hero was Tomlinson -- deep down, Turner says, that made them covet him even more.

The problem was, Pete Carroll was the new coach of the Seattle Seahawks, who owned two first-round picks, and Carroll told several people he was not going to lose out on Ryan twice. The Seahawks owned the sixth and 14th overall picks and were considering taking the running back at 14. The Chargers picked 28th. They figured they had no shot. So they sent their first-round pick, a second-round pick, a fourth-round pick and linebacker Tim Dobbins to the Dolphins for the No. 12 overall pick -- so they could get their man.

When the pick was made, tears were streaming down Ryan's and Tricia's faces. "We made it, we did it, it's done," they said to each other.

The reality hit them: Ryan was being asked to replace the only football player he loved.

"Oh my god," Tricia said. "Are you going to ask for 21?"

Big enough to sleep in

Days after the draft, Deek left a message for Ryan that he'd like to see him. They met in Fresno, and it was an awkward day.

[+] EnlargeRyan Mathews
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesRyan's season has been cut short by injury, but he has shown flashes of dominance.

Deek told Ryan that Tricia deserved all the credit for raising him, and Ryan was thinking, "Darn right." He wasn't sure what his father's angle was -- maybe he wanted to get some money out of him. But there was no tangible connection that day.

"When I was young I wanted him to be there," Ryan says. "But it doesn't really bother me no more. It doesn't matter. I'm a grown man now. And I really don't need anybody; I can take care of myself."

It struck Ryan then that LaDainian Tomlinson had been more of a father figure -- even though they'd never met. And out of respect for LT, Ryan did not ask for No. 21.

Instead, he chose 24.

"When he said he was going to wear 24, I said, 'Willie Mays' and he said, 'Who's that?'" Turner says. The truth is, Tomlinson has told people he might have urged Ryan to take his number. But then, asked specifically how he would've stomached another Charger in jersey No. 21, LT smiled and said, "24 looks good on him."

Tomlinson and Ryan have texted each other but have still not met face-to-face, tinted helmet shield-to-tinted helmet shield. Ryan wants to do more on the field before they do. In the first half of the season, he has been hindered by a high ankle sprain, an elbow injury and some fumbling issues. But there have also been touchdown bursts and a stiff-arm sighting.

Tricia has moved to San Diego with him, and, for the first time since she was 16, she is not working. He signed a five-year contract for $15 million guaranteed -- and that's one of the perks that came with it.

There are other perks, too, and, the minute he opened his first NFL paycheck, you had to know what Ryan Mathews was going to buy for his mom.

Not clothes, not jewelry, not a trip to Las Vegas.

He bought her a car. A Range Rover. Big enough to sleep in.

"But that's the best part," says No. 24. "We don't have to live in it."

Tom Friend is a senior writer at ESPN.com.