Tomlinson: 'My heart has always been with San Diego'

SAN DIEGO -- Chargers president Dean Spanos seemed to have the best perspective on the LaDainian Tomlinson saga.

"The alternative was just unthinkable. He belongs in San Diego," Spanos said after the Chargers and Tomlinson agreed to a reworked three-year contract late Tuesday.

L.T. feels the same way. That's because the alternative, of course, would have been for the star running back to be released had the sides not reached a deal. Even as talks dragged on and speculation mounted that the 2006 NFL MVP might be finished in San Diego, Tomlinson never envisioned joining another team.

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"I still maintained the belief that I would be a Charger," Tomlinson said at a news conference Wednesday. "They drafted me here, and I've been here for eight years and loved every minute of it, and I just couldn't see myself putting on another uniform.

"That Charger uniform, that 21, with the bolt on the side of my helmet, that's pretty special," said Tomlinson, who was dressed in a black T-shirt and tan shorts. "You really can't replace that. So I'm just happy to be putting that helmet on again."

Tomlinson said he's healthy after being slowed last season by toe and groin injuries, and he's eager to prove that he's still explosive. He also reiterated that he'd like to pursue Emmitt Smith's all-time rushing record of 18,355 yards.

Tomlinson knows he'll most likely be doing it with the Chargers.

"My heart has always been with San Diego, and I'm happy to be back," he said. "I love these guys on this team, and I never really thought I was going to leave."

Chargers center Nick Hardwick said he had been checking every day to see if there were any developments with Tomlinson.

"I'm pumped to have him back," Hardwick said. "He's a huge part of our team with the leadership in the locker room and everything he brings to us. It's more than what he does athletically. He's a good person to have around."

Hardwick tried not to think about L.T. wearing another team's uniform.

"It would be so gross," he said. "I was trying not to imagine. It would be like Emmitt Smith going to another team or when Joe Montana went to play for the Chiefs. They just looked funny in another uniform."

  -- LaDainian Tomlinson 

Tomlinson was slowed during the regular season with a toe injury, then hurt his groin in the season finale. He was forced out of an overtime playoff victory over the Indianapolis Colts and sat out the playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the first game he had missed because of injury in his brilliant eight-year NFL career.

It was the second straight year that Tomlinson's postseason was cut short by injury. That, coupled with the fact that Tomlinson turns 30 this summer, raised questions about how long he would be a Charger. The team said it needed salary-cap relief in order to sign other players to contract extensions, and it zeroed in on Tomlinson's deal.

While his 1,110 rushing yards in 2008 were the lowest single-season total of his career, Tomlinson still finished fourth in the AFC and 10th in the NFL.

Tomlinson had been due $24 million during the next three seasons, including $6.725 million in 2009. His salary-cap number would have been $8.8 million in 2009, including a prorated share of the signing bonus from his 2004 contract.

Tomlinson said he'll receive that $6.725 million in one form or another. He expects a significant roster bonus in March, then said "it gets a little tricky" after that. He did say the contract is structured in a way that he should be able to avoid having to go through a similar scenario next year.

Asked if he's taking a pay cut, Tomlinson said: "I really don't. The only way I do is if I don't produce what I'm expected to produce, and obviously I probably would be released at that point. Pretty much not."

Tomlinson was voted the NFL MVP in 2006, when he set league records with 31 touchdowns -- 28 rushing -- and 186 points. He also won the first of two straight league rushing titles with a career-high 1,815 yards.

A five-time Pro Bowl pick, Tomlinson owns or shares 28 Chargers records. The NFL's 14th all-time leading rusher with 11,760 yards, he ranks second all-time in rushing touchdowns (126) and is tied for fourth in total touchdowns (141).

Tomlinson once spoke about retiring after his contract expired following the 2011 season. Now he's inspired to go after Smith's rushing record, which he estimates could take four to five seasons.

"I think that's something that I've just kind of got a new fire of saying, 'Why not?'" Tomlinson said. "If we're winning and winning championships, I do want to play as long as I can and walk away with all the records. That would be a heck of a challenge, and I'm up for challenges. I'm certainly going to try to do it."

Tomlinson said he feels great physically and began working out this week.

"This week was the first week where I first started doing cutting and all those things," he said. "It feels really good to feel strong again."

Tomlinson also is eager to get through a season without injuries.

"I get to prove what I'm worth again," he said. "I get to prove to people, and that's the way it's always been for me. I've always enjoyed doing that. I get to do it once again."

Tomlinson knows it would take a special year to come close to what he did in 2006, but he also knows he's not finished.

"I think I will continue to be a very explosive player," he said. "You guys saw me last year where I was banged up all year, played with a hurt toe and then obviously with the groin injury. I'll be back to full strength, to being the L.T. that you guys are used to seeing."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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