When the San Diego Chargers roll into MetLife Stadium on Sunday afternoon, it will mark the first time that RB LaDainian Tomlinson will face off against his former team. Before signing with the Jets as a free agent in March 2010, Tomlinson spent nine seasons with the 'Bolts. Over that period, he helped turn around a once-struggling franchise and built a Hall of Fame-worthy résumé in the process.
"It was a great place to play," said Tomlinson. "It's a great place to be for a young adult. I think it gave me the opportunity to grow into the man I've become. I learned some valuable lessons being in San Diego."
Tomlinson has nothing but positive memories from his days with the Chargers, but stressed that he'll have no difficulties organizing his priorities come Sunday.
"This is a big game for us," said Tomlinson. "It is my former team, but at the same time, my focus is here. We're trying to get a win, and this is a pretty good team we're playing."
CB Antonio Cromartie is in the same boat as Tomlinson, making his first appearance against his former employer. Cromartie was traded from the Chargers to the Jets in 2010 for what became a second-round pick in the 2011 draft. The two compiled All-Pro seasons with the Chargers, and head coach Rex Ryan expects some added juice from each come Sunday.
"You kind of want to show off to your old team," said Ryan. "I think that's the biggest thing. Those guys had great, productive seasons in San Diego."
Tomlinson in particular compiled some astounding numbers during his tenure in Southern California. He rushed for 138 touchdowns, ranking him second all-time behind only Emmitt Smith. He also ran for 12,490 yards, which ranked him eighth in NFL history. Since joining the Jets, Tomlinson has only added to his legacy — he is now the league's sixth-leading rusher and still needs 20 TDs to tie Smith's scoring record.
Yet what stands out to him from his days with the Chargers are not his personal statistics.
"When I got there, they were coming off a 1-15 season," said Tomlinson. "It was an organization in disarray. Bringing the organization back to a point where people recognize the success we had, that means the most to me."
The resurgence of the Chargers in the last 10 years is due in large part to Tomlinson's contributions on the field but also to what he was able to bring to the locker room. Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has been able to see the maturity of Tomlinson firsthand, since he held the same title for the Chargers from 2002-05.
"Anytime you go against your former team, it's special," said Schottenheimer. "He's truly our leader on offense. He's the guy that has that passion and enthusiasm. He'll be business as usual on Sunday, going out and making plays, but his heart will be racing a little bit."
In a classy touch by the Jets coaching staff, Rex Ryan announced today during his daily news conference that Tomlinson will start the game at tailback for the Jets. Although appreciative, LT knows the game is ultimately about earning the win, not celebrating his career.
"I'm looking forward to that," he said. "I'm not going to make it out to be bigger than what it is. If I start, that's fine. If I don't, that's fine. I'm still going to have a contribution to this team and play as hard as I can."
That's been Tomlinson's M.O. throughout his career, and there's no doubt it will continue on Sunday and beyond.