Forty-five minutes before LaDainian Tomlinson made his debut Monday night for the New York Jets, Curtis Martin was talking about running backs, age and heart. The specific subject was Tomlinson, who is 31 and trying to do what Martin did six years ago: Be young again.
The retired Martin, the Jets' all-time leading rusher, said Tomlinson is a better player at 31 than he was. To appreciate the significance of that statement, you have to know that Martin won the NFL rushing title at that age, with a crazy 1,697-yard season in 2004.
"I think LaDainian has a lot left and I'm not just saying that because it's the right thing to say," Martin said in the bowels of the New Meadowlands Stadium, where he was feted at halftime as a member of the Jets' new Ring of Honor. "I won the rushing title at 31, and I think LaDainian has much more ability than I had.
"He has the right mindset," Martin continued. "You can kick him, kick him and kick him, and eventually he's going to break your foot off. I respect players with that type of fight."
A short time later, Tomlinson faced the New York Giants and showed he has some giddy-up left in those old legs. His numbers weren't all that impressive (eight carries for 17 yards, one catch for 14 yards), but he looked livelier than he did last January against the Jets in the AFC divisional playoffs. That day, he ran as if he were wearing ankle weights.
Tomlinson was run out of San Diego -- thanks for the memories, don't let the door hit you on the way out -- and he landed with the Jets, eager to prove he still can be a productive back. Even though he downplayed the significance of Monday night, his new teammates said he was determined to make an early statement.
"I doubt he's used to seeing the ball so much in the preseason, but there is definitely no question of whether or not he still has that burst everyone keeps talking about," said linebacker Jason Taylor, 35, another old/new Jet trying to shake Father Time.
Tomlinson carried 12 times last preseason with the Chargers, but from 2001 to 2008, the future Hall of Famer amassed only 14 rushes. Now, with a new system and a new offensive line to learn, he needs the work. In fact, he played in 23 of the 31 snaps in the first half, much more than sidekick Shonn Greene (eight snaps).
"It's getting prepared for the regular season," Tomlinson said. "I always felt that not playing in the preseason, I got off to a slow start. It was good to get back into football shape and get hit and get in rhythm with Mark [Sanchez] and the offensive line."
Tomlinson made two plays that left optimists thinking maybe this could work. On a third-and-13 from the Giants' 18, he ran a "balloon" route out of the backfield -- a shallow cross. Sanchez found him as a check-down option, hitting Tomlinson in stride. He showed some burst, turning it upfield for a 14-yard gain. That set up the Jets' first touchdown.
Not two minutes later, Tomlinson ran for a 14-yard touchdown, flashing some nifty moves, but it was nullified by holding on fill-in center Rob Turner. Even though it didn't count, Tomlinson left no doubt he was fired up by the run.
"Oh, that was exciting," he said.
Exciting? This is a man who has rushed for more than 12,000 yards in his career, and he's saying a preseason run is exciting? When you're starting over, with something to prove, even legends let the adrenaline get the best of their emotions.
"I thought he ran the ball well, and he did a great job receiving the ball," said Rex Ryan, hoping Tomlinson can replace Thomas Jones.
Tomlinson's receiving ability provides a dimension the Jets didn't have last season once Leon Washington broke his leg. He will be Sanchez's best friend, a security blanket when the downfield receivers are covered.
OK, now for the perspective. There was a 5-yard run in the first quarter that showed Tomlinson isn't what he used to be. He hit a hole and made it to the second level, with more room to run. But as he tried to accelerate, he was dragged down by Rocky Bernard and Mathias Kiwanuka.
It wasn't a vintage debut, but it wasn't a washout, either. There's hope.