- Seth Wickersham, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
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Two worlds intersect at a small magnetic board. It hangs in the office of A.J. Smith, meeting his eyes whenever he looks up from his scouting reports or cell phone to reflect on, fixate on and toy with the universe he lords over. There are 53 black nameplates on the white board, one for every Charger, detailed with name and number and school and position. San Diego's general manager sees infinite possibilities in the board's composition, which he can manipulate any way he wants. He can move a third-string corner to safety. Or a tight end to tackle. Or he can remove a nameplate and pitch it into the trash, ending a Chargers career just like that.
One magnet is immovable, though, the one marked "Tomlinson, 21, Texas Christian, RB." It sits in the center of the board, a bull's-eye around which magnets come and go. When LaDainian Tomlinson ponders the board, he thinks of the players represented and is comforted by them, blessed to be surrounded by so much talent. But it's scary also, for just as Smith sees potential on the wall, Tomlinson sees a world spinning around him over which he has no control and -- as long as Smith presides over it -- never will.
It agonizes him, to be here again. Tomlinson is beginning this season the same way he ended the last, which is the same way he's begun and ended every season of his career: ringless. Tomlinson is 28, and after 2,050 carries and 9,176 yards, he doesn't know how many more seasons he has left. Or whether Smith's major moves will leave him starting over every year.
Sitting in San Diego's Maderas Golf Club 10 days before camp starts, Tomlinson takes you back to the first meaningful exchange he had with Smith, in 2003. He was sitting on the team plane, headphones on, leaning away from the aisle and sulking after another loss in what would be a 4-12 season. Smith, in his rookie year as GM, approached. "I want you to know something," Smith said. "Trust me a little bit on this: I promise you, your career will not be in vain."
"Okay, I trust you," said Tomlinson, who was sick of wasting Pro Bowl seasons on a losing and divided team; any change was inviting. But today, despite Smith's having given his star what could be the NFL's most talented roster, change has become daunting. Tomlinson has seen how Super Bowl winners step forward: by keeping the key pieces in place and braving the tough times together, the way the Colts and the Steelers did. You don't let a Pro Bowl quarterback like Drew Brees go for an untested one like 2004 first-rounder Philip Rivers. And you don't let a 200-win coach like Marty Schottenheimer go for Norv Turner, who has a career 58-82-1 record.
But in San Diego, they did just that. And Tomlinson has learned that under Smith, he has no chance to argue for a different, more stable course. He first realized this after the 2005 season. He'd publicly stated that he wanted Brees back. After all, Brees had led San Diego to a 21-11 record the previous two years, and the two men were best friends, sharing a bond from the moment they'd met, at a 1997 Texas high school all-star game. But Smith wouldn't give Brees the guaranteed money he desired, not after the QB had suffered a torn labrum in the '05 season finale and failed to take the Chargers to the playoffs. Plus, Smith wanted to see what his guy Rivers could do. So Brees was left to explore free agency, and he soon signed with the Saints. Shortly after, Tomlinson's mom, Loreane, called her son. "The San Diego Chargers have lost their minds!" she yelled.
"My baby will never make it to a Super Bowl!"
"I just wouldn't have allowed this to happen," an angry Tomlinson said at the time. "I don't see it. I don't understand it."
Nor did he understand this past February, when Schottenheimer was fired. But this is exactly what Smith asked of his star on the plane: trust, even when Smith's moves appear to be arbitrary or counterproductive. In many ways Smith has more than earned that trust, having drafted at least one Pro Bowler each year and seven in all -- including linebackers Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips and defensive end Luis Castillo. He signed Antonio Gates as an undrafted free agent. "He's tough, opinionated, and he knows his business," says Bills GM Marv Levy.
But Smith is also volatile enough to be called a "bully" by one agent and "sketchy" by another. And some of Smith's victims believe that Tomlinson's Super Bowl chances are fading. Chiefs linebacker Donnie Edwards, who left San Diego this off-season following a yearlong contract battle with Smith, recently told The Kansas City Star, "We had something great going there. But egos destroyed it. Well, not egos. Ego."
He didn't need to name whose.
Hard-ass. It's a label A.J. Smith hasn't shrunk from since earning it three years ago, when the Chargers held the first selection in the draft. Eli Manning was the consensus top pick but didn't want to play in San Diego. Archie Manning demanded that the Chargers trade the pick or select someone else. On the receiving end of that threat was a GM no one had heard of who looked like Paulie from The Sopranos and who governed like him, too. Smith stuck it to the Mannings, all right. He not only chose Eli -- forcing the prince into history's most awkward draft day photo op -- he shrewdly maneuvered to land the quarterback he'd wanted all along, Rivers, in a trade with the Giants. "Then I said, 'Good luck to the Giants, good luck to Eli, good luck to Archie,' " Smith says now, smiling.
So, yes, he's a hard-ass. He also has guts. He looks good now, after the Manning trade, but if no teams had offered a trade, if his bluff had been called, he would have been left with a disaster. "I believe in being aggressive," he says, sitting in his office in July. "I can't stand the conservative approach."
Smith is 58, with platinum hair gelled back and eyebrows fixed so sharply they're intimidating when raised. He isn't known for smiling -- or interacting much at all, for that matter. He doesn't chitchat with players, doesn't even walk the field before kickoff, opting to sit alone in the locker room. During February's combine, when most GMs hobnob on the record by day and off the record by night, Smith is a recluse, darting between meetings with a Chargers cap concealing his face. He sounds quirky, paranoid even. But if he were any other way, Smith explains, "all my friends would say, 'You are the biggest phony we've ever laid our eyes on.' I resent GMs who are on 100 radio shows, 100 TV shows and never turn down a quote."
While working as a Rhode Island junior high school teacher 30 years ago, Smith decided he wanted to work in pro football and sent letters to every team, offering to scout for free. Only the Giants responded, with a part-time job. After nine years of bouncing from the NFL to the USFL and back again, he landed in Buffalo, where he developed a color-coded drafting system, which Levy still uses. In 2001, he followed his best friend and colleague, John Butler, to San Diego when Butler got the Chargers GM job. Two years later Smith got his break, in an awful way. Days before Butler died of lymphoma, he told team president Dean Spanos that Smith should succeed him. When Spanos gave Smith the job, his new GM promised, "We're going to try to win a Super Bowl by any means."
Of course, when Smith said "any means," he really meant his means. "He insults you," says one agent who has dealt with Smith often. "He tries to act tough and intimidate you. If you explain that his offer is unfair, he'll talk down to you and try to educate you, like he knows what's best for your client. But he's just hurting the chances for a deal."
When Gates got into a contract dispute, in 2005, Smith gave him an ultimatum: End his holdout before Aug. 20 or sit out the opener. Gates arrived one day late and on Aug. 23 agreed to the six-year, $24 million deal Smith offered. With Week 1 days away, the GM could have let Gates off the hook. Instead, he put him on the roster exempt list. Gates watched in street clothes as San Diego lost to Dallas 28-24, the game ending on four incomplete red zone passes that the gifted tight end might have caught. Afterward, Smith said he didn't "regret anything."
More to the point, a message had been sent: Smith cedes power to no one -- not coaches, not agents, not players, including the tailback destined for Canton. "The players, they're human beings," Smith says. "They have feelings. But their job is to play as hard as they can and hope that upstairs gets it done."
Try telling Tomlinson to hope. He hoped Brees would be back after 2005, and that didn't happen. So last year he moved past hope, coping with Schottenheimer's shaky job status by playing on a level so high and so sustained that Smith would have no choice but to keep the team intact.
Tomlinson knew Schottenheimer's job was on the line for one reason: Coach and the GM hated each other. Smith disdained Schottenheimer's theatrics, doing impressions for his friends of the coach's over-the-top pregame speeches. He wanted a coach who had a better sense of clock management and, most of all, could get to the Super Bowl, which Schottenheimer hasn't done in 21 seasons as a head coach. Schottenheimer fumed at losing Brees and took offense at Smith's manner. According to the coach, he would occasionally approach Smith and say, "Can we talk about this?" But Smith's response was always: "I don't want to talk about it."
Meanwhile, Tomlinson says, he and Schottenheimer were "as close as a coach and a player can be." Tomlinson even told him, "I'm going to do everything I can for you."
He thought he had. Tomlinson met with his trainer, Todd Durkin, five days a week during the off-season. LT had realized that the right side of his body was stronger than the left. Scared that defenses would pick up his tendency to cut off his sturdier leg, player and trainer set out to even the imbalance. For 90 minutes every day, Tomlinson stood one-legged and barefoot on a 21/2-inch-thick foam pad while Durkin threw him passes or tried to strip the ball from his grip or charged at Tomlinson with blocking pads for the tailback to stiff-arm away. Tomlinson didn't talk much about Brees' departure. Still, says Durkin, "it hurt him. But he was so focused, he never let up."
He didn't when the season started, either, breaking 13 NFL records -- including scoring 31 touchdowns -- and winning MVP honors. At the end of the regular season, Smith stopped by Tomlinson's locker, alluded to the Chargers' league-best 14-2 record and said, "Hey, the plan -- it's working, right?"
"Yeah, it is," Tomlinson said.
Then San Diego blew a fourth-quarter lead to the Patriots in the divisional playoffs, throwing everything into doubt. Tomlinson walked into Schottenheimer's office a day after the 24-21 loss, wondering what the future held. "I'll know in the next 24 hours," the coach said. Tomlinson publicly endorsed Schottenheimer, and when the coach lasted those 24 hours with his job intact, Tomlinson thought his play -- and voice -- had made a difference. But by February, five Chargers assistant coaches had left for other teams, and Tomlinson heard rumors that Schottenheimer and Smith were arguing over who would fill out the staff. When Schottenheimer pushed to hire his brother, Kurt, as defensive coordinator over Smith's top candidate, Ted Cottrell, Spanos intervened and sided with his GM. The pissing match was over.
Upon hearing of Schottenheimer's firing, Tomlinson turned to his wife, Torsha, and said, "I can't believe it. How are we going to win a Super Bowl if we're starting from scratch again?"
What happened next illuminates how LT ultimately would resolve his question. Smith didn't call him to talk about the firing, and Tomlinson didn't call Smith. "My job is to help this team win on the field," Tomlinson says. "A.J.'s job is to help us win off the field. So it ain't my job to try to do his. Do I have opinions? Yeah. But it really doesn't matter."
His iPhone rings. It's Loreane, calling to see how training camp is going. Tomlinson tells his mom that he's nervous about the season. "Why are you worried?" she says. "We have a good team."
"Well, you never know how these guys are going to do," Tomlinson says. "You never know."
This isn't the first time this summer that Loreane has heard concern in her son's voice. When July rolled around, Tomlinson found himself needing motivation. So at a celebrity golf tournament at Lake Tahoe, he introduced himself to Michael Jordan and asked how to stay driven.
"Use every little slight to drive you," Jordan said.
Tomlinson knows it's a cliché, a trick, but he's using it anyway. Since no one slings mud at a six-time Pro Bowler, he's elected to take on everyone else's slights, starting with Turner, and how critics keep harping on his record. "His approach is, We know we're good, so let's play like we know we're good," Tomlinson says. "That's going to change how we look at big games."
He's changing his own outlook while he's at it. For the first time in his career, Tomlinson didn't set personal goals for the coming season -- no small feat for someone who culls through the box scores on Monday morning to see how his numbers fare around the NFL. "You're remembered by Super Bowls," he says, "so that's my only goal."
Of course, nothing changes the fact that he's stuck -- a magnet on the wall, locked in place. If Tomlinson were to vent publicly about Smith's risky moves, it would become a national story, split the organization and rip apart his soft-spoken, team-first reputation. So as he begins the season with a new coach and old worries, he has no choice but to go back to the plane ride with Smith. He says he's "kind of grown to trust A.J., knowing he has a plan." But more than that, he's absolving himself of concern. As his mom says before she ends their call and lets him return to camp, just focus on the things you can control.
At practice the next day, Tomlinson takes a handoff and skates right, crouching, ducking and dodging, sifting for cracks. The defense crashes his way, and Tomlinson vanishes under the wave. The whistle should blow any second. Even the practice's play-by-play guy announces to the lulled 4,000 looking on, "LT's stopped ... "
But he's not. He's free, blazing down the sideline, past A.J. Smith, who stands unmoved, arms folded, eyes masked by sunglasses. The run marks a power shift. The field is Tomlinson's magnetic board, where he sees infinite possibilities, where he answers to no one.
And his genius moves the pieces.
LaDainian Tomlinson is trusting his my-way-is-the-only-way GM to take him all the way to Arizona.