Pro Football Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson ’00 will share his own race and reconciliation journey during the RRI Week virtual keynote presentation at 5 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 25, via Facebook and YouTube.
At TCU, LT became only the second player in college football history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season and 5,000 yards in a career. TCU retired his jersey in 2005 and he was inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in 2009.
A first round draft pick, LT became one of the most prolific running backs in NFL history and the face of the Chargers’ franchise during nine seasons in San Diego (2001-2009). In 2006, the Associated Press named him the NFL’s Most Valuable Player and his peers chose him as the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year co-honoree.
Now LT is an analyst on the NFL Network and serves as a special assistant to the Los Angeles Chargers, helping the organization further develop fan engagement and expand its community outreach in Southern California. He also is a member of the TCU Board of Trustees.
Below, LT answers questions about his involvement with TCU’s Race & Reconciliation Initiative, service on the TCU Board of Trustees, hopes for positive change and highlights from his playing days.
Why did you want to be involved in RRI?
LT: First and foremost is my love for TCU and all the things I felt like the university has done for me. The second thing is my own story with race and reconciliation, my own personal journey of learning my family background, being descendants of slaves, and how I had to face the truth even though it was ugly, it was embarrassing and it was sad. But I also had to forgive. I think what I dealt with personally can help our TCU community, and that’s why I wanted to be a part of this.
What do you see as your role on the TCU Board of Trustees?
LT: I want to serve the university in whatever capacity may be needed. I’m fortunate to chair a subcommittee that studies and advises on social issues. That’s important to me because our mission at the university is to educate individuals to think and act as ethical leaders and responsible citizens.
What change do you hope to see in the TCU community and what do you think will be key to that change?
LT: We want to become a more perfect and fair institution and that revolves around diversity, equity and inclusion. That really should permeate through every part of society. That’s the hope. That’s the change we want to see in our community. That has to involve honest communication. In order for change to happen, it’s going to take empathy from everyone. It takes all of us.
What do you hope people take away from your RRI Week Keynote Presentation?
LT: We all have to play a part in creating change. I tell people that if you don’t care about your own community, you can’t expect an outside person to come into your community to change it. It really doesn’t work like that. I always thought of it as one team, one community and we are Team TCU. I hope that people take away from this keynote that it’s about all of us if we’re going to create this change. We have to have the mindset that we are one community, we are one team, we are Team TCU and no one will change TCU unless we do.
What brought you to TCU?
LT: I saw the opportunity to achieve my dreams and goals. My dream was always to play professional football. TCU told me right away, “We’re going to give you an opportunity to play early,” while some of the other schools said, “You may have to redshirt one year and develop a little bit.” I felt like TCU believed in me, and because they believed in me, I believed in myself. I felt like it was just a perfect match coming to TCU.
What challenges did you have to overcome?
LT: I think the first thing — like with most any young person — was just navigating the university system. It was so overwhelming with all the different departments and all the different things. Then the second thing for me was the social challenge. I went to a high school that was 98% minorities. So that whole social dynamic was challenging — just getting to know people with different backgrounds and different cultures. The third thing was being able to balance academics, athletics and personal life. That was really tough. The rigor of the academics at TCU is hard. You have to really dig in — you can’t just show up.
What was the best life lesson a coach gave you?
LT: I remember one of my coaches telling me a long time ago that the position I played — running back — is really a metaphor for life. As a running back, you’re going to fail a bunch. You’re going to get knocked down. They’re going to tackle you over and over. But eventually you’re going to break through and you’re going to have some success. In life we get knocked down, but it doesn’t stop us from continuing to go forward and accomplish our goal. Sometimes we have a tendency to get frustrated when we’re not succeeding — when we’re running the football and getting tackled so much. But it’s really a battle of our own will, and that’s life in general. I also remember something from my college coach, Dennis Franchione. It was right at the time when I was starting to gain national attention and I was being recognized a little bit. He called me into his office and said four words to me: “All glory is fleeting.” As a college kid, I was like, “What are you talking about, Coach?” He said everything that you attain, all your accomplishments, all glory will flee one day. It was his way of teaching me to stay humble and to keep on attacking each day and not worrying about the past. That’s how I’ve tried to live my life — always looking forward to the next chapter, never looking back.
What is a favorite memory from your time as a TCU student?
LT: My favorite memory really is freshman orientation. That’s such a critical time for all young students. That allowed me to build lifelong relationships and get an early jump on getting to know this new world I was in. When I look at the bigger scope of it, my football senior class won the most games that TCU at that time had ever won. We had seven guys from my class drafted in the first four rounds. That’s unheard of, and I really think it was because of the bond we built early on, and that started at freshman orientation. That really is my favorite memory because it set the foundation for the next four years for me by building those lifelong relationships.
What was the hardest part about being a professional football player?
LT: I think responsibility. When you’re a professional, there are a lot more people counting on you. The other part that comes with that is managing your life when much is required from you. When you’re a professional playing at the highest level and earning a lot of money, there are a lot of challenges. It’s easy to get distracted and it’s easy to lose focus of the goal that you’ve set for yourself. I think understanding that responsibility, having balance in your life and having the right people around you is important. That’s what is so hard for a lot of young professionals. They get the wrong people around them and they lose sight of their goal.
Out of the more than 100 team and NFL awards you won, which is your favorite and why?
LT: The Walter Payton Man of the Year is my favorite. That’s being the MVP off the field. It’s my favorite because it has nothing to do with your performance on the field — it is what your peers think of you in terms of your commitment to your community, the things that you’ve sacrificed and done for your community. This is not an award that sports writers can vote on. This is strictly the guys who see you every single day and know the work that you’re doing. And you have to be nominated first by your own team — that’s the most special thing. When I played, we had a lot of guys on our team who were doing phenomenal things in the community. For me to be nominated by those guys and then ultimately to win it, that’s pretty special. And, for me, Walter Payton was the guy I wanted to be like. When I was 6 years old, he was my favorite athlete. He was the reason I wanted to play the running back position. So to have this award with his name on it in my house where I can see it every day is inspiring — it makes me want to continue to do more.
What advice would you offer to college student-athletes today?
LT: This is a tough one because it’s so hard for these kids today. In my time, we didn’t have to worry about social media. It’s so challenging now for these student-athletes, but I would tell them to learn how to be a professional now. Any career you go into is going to involve communication, hard work, networking and leadership. Those are the foundational things that you have to have in any career. Your college years are the time for you to start to learn how to be a professional. Don’t wait until you’re done with college because then you’re behind the eight ball. I’ve seen so many kids — not just students-athletes — waste two, three years of their life in college acting like they’re still in high school. Another thing that a wise man told me is that it’s important to understand that the same elevator that goes up must also come down. That means you never know who you’re going to meet or who you’re going to need to depend on. If you’re on your way up to the top and you’re getting promoted and life is great, just understand that eventually that elevator has to go back down and the same people you meet on the way up you’re going to see on the way down.