TCU had been to only two Bowl games in the thirty-four seasons prior to LaDainian Tomlinson's arrival in 1997. Since then, the Frogs have been to fourteen. There's something to be said about LT's time at TCU. Tomlinson was my first real glimpse into TCU. Growing up in Austin and being drowned in a sea of burnt orange my whole life, it was LT's award-winning season in 2000 that put TCU on the map not only for me, but also for the country.
"TCU was the first school to offer me a scholarship. I didn't have many, but they believed in me."
As a kid, LT idolized running backs such as Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith, Jim Brown and Barry Sanders. At the age of nine, he participated in his first Pop Warner game, where he scored a touchdown the first time he was ever handed a ball.
Not playing running back at the high school level until his senior year at University High in Waco, LT didn't get the scholarship offers he probably could have---or should have. But he came to TCU in 1997 and spent his first two season splitting time with Basil Mitchell, who went on to play for the Packers for a couple of years. In 1998, LT helped TCU get their first bowl win in 41 years, defeating USC in the Sun Bowl, 28-19. That was only the beginning.
No longer splitting time with Basil Mitchell, Tomlinson quickly proved himself to be one of the top running backs in college football. Tomlinson finished the 1999 season with a NCAA-leading 1,850 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns. But what really put LT on the map was his unfathomable performance against UTEP that fall. In that game, Tomlinson collected an NCAA-record 406 rushing yards, a record that has still not been beaten and probably won't for
the foreseeable future. Ever.
His senior year was more of the same---but better. Tomlinson once again led the NCAA in rushing, racking up 2,158 rushing yards and scoring 22 touchdowns in the process. That season LT was awarded the Doak Walker, given to the Nation’s best running back. Tomlinson was also a Heisman finalist, but finished fourth, losing to the Man-Child… Chris Weinke. Despite splitting time his freshman and sophomore year, Tomlinson’s 5,263 career rushing-yards are still good enough for sixth all-time in the NCAA.
Tomlinson was selected fifth overall by the Chargers in 2001---the highest a TCU player has ever been chosen. Sandwiched in between Leonard Davis, Gerard Warren, and Justin Smith, the pick came as a result of a trade, in which the Atlanta Falcons and Chargers basically traded for LT and Michael Vick straight up. Later in the round, the Chargers chose another severely underrated player at the time; Drew Brees out of Purdue.
Tomlinson’s professional career ended with these accolades: 5-time Pro Bowler, 3-time All-Pro, 2-time NFL rushing leader, the Walton Payton Man of the Year, the Bart Star Man of the Year, the 2006 NFL MVP, and more recently---elected to the NFL All-Decade team for the 2000s. In addition to all of these accolades, Tomlinson also has one of the greatest fantasy football performances to date, and became the only player in NFL history to throw, run, and catch a touchdown in a single game. Tomlinson began what would be his last two seasons with the New York Jets, where he joined ex-Frog, and return-savant, Jeremy Kerley.
LT's dominance at the college level put TCU in the National spotlight. Not only did he help turn the program around, but this created a butterfly effect of sorts for three careers; two great and one so-so. The first career was his own in the NFL---which, as we've said, is one of the best ever for a running back.
I'm so honored to be selected to the College Hall of Fame. Thanks to my teammates, coaches, family and fans!!#TCU
— LaDainian Tomlinson (@LT_21) May 22, 2014
The second was Dennis Franchione. You can’t really blame Farmer Fran for wanting to go to Alabama after being at TCU for only two seasons. His tenure didn’t last but two years in Tuscaloosa before spending four years at Texas A&M, and then taking a four year sabbatical before finally landing at Texas State. #StartedFromTheBottom
The third and final career was the man who took over for Farmer Fran after he left, Gary Patterson. LT's emergence, in a lot of ways, allowed for the Patterson-era Renaissance to exist in the first place. The Patterson-led teams were starkly different than Fran's teams, and were built on hard-nosed linebackers and defensive ends in the days of the WAC, Conference USA, Mountain West, and the seemingly one hundred other conferences TCU landed in between the SWC and the Big 12. Despite playing conference leapfrog the "TCU" name was out there, and LT played huge role in that. We could play out a hundred "what if" scenarios, but without LT, TCU, in all likelihood, would not be where they are today...
"As a kid, you never set out to land in the College Football Hall of Fame, honestly...I had some tremendous teammates from 1997 through 200 and I would be remiss if I didn't say thank you to all those teammates that I stepped on the field with."
I knew I wanted to go to TCU right after I visited during the summer after my junior year of high school, and I'd be a fool to say LT didn't have some hand in it. Before going to the Big 12 was even a reality, before I fell in love with the idea of 4-2-5 defense, before GMFP made me pledge an undying loyalty, before my "allergies" got the best of me at the Rose Bowl, it was LT built who laid the foundation. No matter what TCU would've done those four years I went to school, I went in with the mindset that TCU was a "football" school because LaDainian Tomlinson went there. Hell, they sold his jersey through 2009, until they
expolited found Andy Dalton.
The greatest part, and most selfish part, about being a TCU fan is the small and tight community with which it operates. TCU's "inclusive" attitude works for sports. Michigan, Texas A&M, Alabama have the numbers, but TCU has the stronger nucleus. There's no one to pity us, no media favors, there’s not half a million living alumni---and at 79,000, there's not even enough to fill Michigan’s Big House. There certainly aren’t many t-shirt fans either. The lows suck, but they make the highs feel so much better. I can't even imagine how it felt for the fans to experience the bowl win in 1998 against USC. But I bet it felt pretty damn good.
It may be silly, but LT was the gatekeeper that opened up the magnificent journey that has been my TCU fandom. It’s a journey that’s led to some of the best experiences in my life – sports and otherwise – and it probably wouldn’t have happened without Number 5.