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He scores! Again and again

LaDainian Tomlinson is at 24 TDs and counting.

By JOANNE KORTH
Published December 1, 2006


LaDainian Tomlinson remembers watching Super Bowl XX as a boy and the disappointment he felt when Bears running back Walter Payton failed to score a touchdown.

Payton was his idol.

"As a kid, you're waiting for them to score a touchdown and when they get close, you jump up and down," Tomlinson said. "It's the Super Bowl. Everybody is watching the game and I definitely wanted him to score a touchdown."

Nowadays, children who idolize Tomlinson cannot possibly relate. Though yet to play in a Super Bowl, the Chargers running back is scoring touchdowns in record-setting numbers.

With five games to play, Tomlinson has 24 - 21 rushing, three receiving - and needs five to break the single-season record set last season by Seattle's Shaun Alexander.

But that's not all.

Tomlinson, 27, has put two touchdown records in his rearview mirror this season. Two weeks ago, he scored his 100th in his 89th game, topping Pro Football Hall of Fame member Jim Brown 93 and future Hall-of-Famer Emmitt Smith (93) for the fewest games to reach 100.

Three weeks ago, he scored 14 touchdowns in a five-game span, breaking Brown's record of 12. Then, by scoring six in the past two games, Tomlinson made it 16 in his past five.

"Obviously, I looked up to Emmitt Smith growing up," said Tomlinson, who grew up a Cowboys fan in north Texas, "but Jim Brown, to me, is an icon. The man is incredible. ... It's just phenomenal to be mentioned in the same breath as Jim Brown."

Tomlinson also is the first player to score 19 touchdowns in a six-game span; first to score at least three touchdowns in three straight games; first to have three games of four or more touchdowns in one season; and first to score 22 in the first 10 games of a season.

And those numbers do not include two touchdowns he has thrown this season, including the winner in Sunday's come-from-behind victory against Oakland.

To Tomlinson, reaching the end zone is an attitude.

"When you get the ball in the red zone, you've got to be determined to get in the end zone, whether it's 20 yards, 30 yards or from 2 yards," he said. "You have to be really determined to get into the end zone because it gets harder. A lot of times, teams know what's coming and the thing that's going to push you over is how bad you want it."

But Tomlinson is more than just a touchdown machine. He's an accomplished runner and receiver. He is the league's third-leading rusher with 1,146 yards, 56 behind leader Larry Johnson of Kansas City. Tomlinson has 5 yards per carry and 9.5 per reception.

"Sometimes you're like a cheerleader, you just want to start clapping," Chargers fullback and former Buc Lorenzo Neal said. "He makes people miss. He's stronger than people think. You can't hit him with a big shot. "You hold your breath every time he touches the ball."

Just like Payton.

"He was the reason I wanted to play running back," said Tomlinson, drafted No. 5 overall out of Texas Christian in 2001 after the Chargers traded the No. 1 pick to Atlanta (it chose Michael Vick). "There was something about him that I was drawn to. Walter was able to do anything you asked him to do out on the football field. So, I tried to pattern my game after that. I'm a running back, but I can do anything that a coach asks me to do out on the football field."

Including score.

Tomlinson has increased his touchdown total in each of his six seasons: 10, 15, 17, 18, 20, 24. At 104, he has a chance to surpass Jerry Rice's career record of 208 from 1985-2004, but is not ready to consider the possibility of becoming the NFL's most prolific touchdown scorer.

"It's obviously something that people are going to start to talk about, but it's not something I'm going to think about or talk about because I'm only in my sixth year," Tomlinson said.

"I've still got, hopefully, a lot of years left."

Joanne Korth can be reached at korth@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8810.