- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
- 0 Shares
Winning is not a sometime thing; it's an all-the-time thing. You don't win once in a while; you don't do things right once in a while; you do them right all the time. Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.
Vince Lombardi, Green Bay Packers coach, 1959-67
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- LaDainian Tomlinson's left calf bears a haunting symbol of his time in San Diego. When he was drafted, he had the San Diego Chargers' lightning bolt etched in blue and yellow ink. After he was released in February, he added "2001-2010" underneath.
"It's kind of closing that chapter on my career in San Diego," he explained at the time. "It's kind of like it's dead."
Tomlinson -- who has carved out one of the best NFL careers we have seen by a running back -- signed in March with the New York Jets. After his Chargers epitaph had been inked, he commissioned a green Jets logo on his right calf. The forward-looking inscription of "2010-" lies just below.
"A new birth," Tomlinson said. "I'm able to get over it and move on very quickly."
With emphasis on quickly. After eight consecutive seasons with more than 1,000 yards rushing, Tomlinson swooned in 2009, running for only 730 yards and the worst yards-per-carry average of his career, 3.3. We now know that the knee and toe issues of 2008 and a nagging ankle injury last year left Tomlinson a specter of his former self. But late last season -- he had turned 30, the line of demarcation for most running backs -- it appeared LT was done.
The Jets took a chance and already have been rewarded many times over. In five games, Tomlinson has gained 490 yards, and his yards-per-carry average (5.3) is among the best in the league; if he had the number of carries of league leaders Ahmad Bradshaw, Adrian Peterson or Chris Johnson, he'd be over 700 yards. Moreover, Tomlinson has exhibited that familiar and breathtaking burst of acceleration when he sees an opening at the line of scrimmage.
But Tomlinson has meant even more to this young team off the field, if that is possible. Perhaps one thing the Jets weren't counting on from him was leadership. After all, based on the acidic comments of his former teammates, he left the Chargers under murky circumstances.
"Sometimes you would get the sense that people felt bigger than the team," tight end Antonio Gates was quoted as saying in the San Diego Union-Tribune. "We know it's not an issue for sure now."
Quarterback Philip Rivers confirmed this view early in training camp, saying, "I don't know how everyone feels, or if they felt it. Maybe it was a little bit of relief."
And yet, four days before the regular-season opener against the Baltimore Ravens, Tomlinson asked to address his new teammates. He had heard all the woofing in the weeks of training camp, all the talk of going to the Super Bowl, amplified by the presence of HBO's "Hard Knocks."
In a rousing five-minute speech that brought tears to some players' eyes, Tomlinson explained that talking the talk wasn't going to be enough to win the NFL's ultimate prize. Walking the walk, he said, would require more than they ever imagined.
"We knew we were getting a great player," said offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, who was the Chargers' quarterbacks coach for four seasons under his father, Marty. "I obviously knew we were getting a great person. He's proven his value, just in that meeting alone."
This young Jets team, looking for its first Super Bowl victory in 42 years, needs Tomlinson. But, perhaps, Tomlinson -- desperately seeking his last major career résumé item, an NFL title -- needs the Jets even more.
The right way
"I've never known a man worth his salt who in the long run, deep down in his heart, didn't appreciate the grind, the discipline. There is something in good men that really yearns for discipline and the harsh reality of head-to-head combat." -- Lombardi
The Jets play host to Green Bay on Sunday. It's ironic that words the legendary Packers coach uttered a half-century ago will be used against his former team. Lombardi won five NFL titles in nine seasons in Green Bay, a spectacular run of success that has never been equaled. For a decade, Tomlinson has considered Lombardi's famous speech, "What It Takes to Be No. 1," his personal mission statement. It's framed on a wall in his house, and he says he has read it thousands of times. It's a philosophy for life -- all in just 440 words.
A few weeks ago, a relaxed Tomlinson sat down in the Jets' field house and talked about his love of Lombardi.
"For somebody who wants to be great, you must first study greatness," Tomlinson explained. "Vince Lombardi, his teams were the first to become a dynasty. So that's kind of what drew me to him.
"It's saying that if you want to be No. 1, these are the kind of things that it takes. The kind of commitment you need, the dedication, the enthusiasm. Going to work every single day with your mind focused on what's at stake right now. Whenever I get ready for a season, start back training, that's what I look at the most."
Tomlinson said he wrestled with the decision to address the team, that maybe it wasn't his place as the "new guy" on the team. But in the end, he knew it was something he had to do.
"People get on us for talking about winning the championship and things that we want to do here," Tomlinson said. "But for me, if we're going to talk about it -- and I see the type of talent we have here -- I want the guys to know what a guy like Vince Lombardi said about what it takes to be No. 1."
The day was Sept. 8, the Wednesday before the NFL season opener. Schottenheimer introduced Tomlinson in the Jets' spacious offensive meeting room. Tomlinson, using an iPad to refer to, walked to the front of the room.
"It was like, man, as soon as he started talking, everybody shut up," quarterback Mark Sanchez remembered. "Everybody got out their pens and paper, like what this guy's saying -- this is serious."
Tomlinson, who is not comfortable as a public speaker, started quietly, but his voice grew stronger as he progressed. He read passages from Lombardi's speech, interspersed with his own interpretations.
As a 14-year veteran of the NFL, defensive end Jason Taylor has heard a few motivational speeches. He is not, as he says, "a real big rah-rah guy." Those speeches, he said, usually go in one ear and out the other.
"He didn't just read it," said Taylor, who has a copy of the Lombardi speech hanging in his Florida office, "he almost acted it out. You can tell when something means something to somebody. When they deliver it with such passion, such conviction, it goes deeper. LT delivering it, to me, meant something. It hit home. It got your blood flowing."
Asked to distill the essence of Lombardi's core values, Tomlinson didn't hesitate.
"Discipline," he said immediately. "To me, more than anything when I look at some of the stuff that he wrote and the way that he was, it was all about discipline. For his players, for his coaches. Doing things the right way, all the time."
Tomlinson had a profound effect on some of the younger players.
Rookie fullback John Conner remembered this part of Tomlinson's message: "Taking every play 100 percent, doing it 100 percent. Focus for 16 weeks, and every play, every snap. We have to take it serious."
For the Jets' first-round draft choice, cornerback Kyle Wilson, the most memorable lesson was: "Not looking into what we can have years from now, but right now."
Jets coach Rex Ryan, who was in the room that day, was impressed.
"It was so passionate," Ryan said. "I said, 'Hey, let's go down the hallway. I want you to talk to your defensive teammates, as well.'"
Said Tomlinson, "Vince Lombardi was that type of person where he could have been head coach, the president, a fireman. His philosophy was so strong that he motivated men. And he got the best out of men."
And that, according to the Jets, is what Tomlinson accomplished with them.
You've got to play with your heart, with every fiber of your body. If you're lucky enough to find a guy with a lot of head and a lot of heart, he's never going to come off the field second.
In the context of a football season, five minutes is a blink of an eye. But Tomlinson's artful performance might have infused in these Jets an important sense of urgency. They lost their opener to the Ravens, but are sitting at 5-1, tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots for the best record in the NFL.
"The reason he's such a great player," Schottenheimer said, "is the size of his heart. And that's what was shown that morning. It was something that I'll remember for a very, very long time, more so than the score of most games.
"He wanted to make sure that if we all stood in there together, shoulder to shoulder, that we could become an unstoppable force."
This from a guy whose commitment to team was questioned when he left San Diego.
"And at the end of the day," Ryan insisted, "if we don't win the Super Bowl, it's not going to have anything to do with our commitment. I think that was his strongest message that he sent. That he was all-in."
Taylor might understand Tomlinson's sentiments better than anyone else who works at the facility in this leafy, New Jersey suburb. Like Tomlinson, Taylor is a surefire future Hall of Fame player. Like Tomlinson, he is still looking for that final validation.
"At that point in the season," Taylor said, "there's 32 teams saying the same thing. They're saying they want to win a Super Bowl, but like he said, 'Do we all understand what it takes?'
"It ain't for the money, it ain't for the fame, it ain't for something to do on the weekends. We're trying to get a ring, and he wants it, and he wants it bad, and he let us know that."
Tomlinson nods slightly when his teammates' praise is read back to him.
"There are certain things that you do at times where you don't even know the impact you have on other guys," he said. "You are just kind of led to do it, and you do it."
The Jets could use all the leadership they can find. Braylon Edwards was traded to the Jets from the Cleveland Browns, in part, because of behavioral issues -- and promptly was charged with an early morning DUI. Likewise, Santonio Holmes was traded by the Steelers after a substance abuse violation. And then there was the recent alleged harassment of Azteca reporter Ines Sainz.
Going forward, Tomlinson might have to lead by more than example.
He certainly has blazed a trail on the field; Tomlinson needs just 20 rushing yards to reach the 13,000-yard milestone for his career. Only six players have rushed for more yards in NFL history, and it's possible Tomlinson could surpass No. 6 Eric Dickerson (13,259) and No. 5 Jerome Bettis (13,662) before the season ends. Former Jets and Patriots star Curtis Martin ranks fourth (14,101).
Linebacker Bart Scott is another talented player who hasn't won an NFL championship; he joined the Ravens a year after they won Super Bowl XXXV. More than any of the other six players and two coaches interviewed for this story, he seems to have absorbed the teachings of Lombardi perhaps as well as Tomlinson.
"He believes," Scott said, reciting the fedora-wearing coach's words almost verbatim, "that man's finest hour, the hour he holds most true and dear to heart, is the moment where he lies on the battlefield of life, exhausted, victorious.
"And that says it all."
Super Bowl XLV is being played in Dallas in 2011. Few inside the Jets complex will be surprised if the team is there in early February, playing for the sterling silver Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
In his quest to clutch his first Vince Lombardi Trophy, Jets RB LaDainian Tomlinson is inspiring his team with the coaching legend's teachings, Greg Garber writes.