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Head of the class


Head of the class

LaDainian Tomlinson could be the best running back ever-but he'd never say so

When the Chargers defense forced a turnover late in the fourth quarter of a 48-20 blowout victory over the Denver Broncos Dec. 10, San Diego running back LaDainian Tomlinson had no intention of reentering the game. The league's leading MVP candidate had already done his work for the day, rushing for 96 yards and two touchdowns to that point.

Never mind that the ball sat just seven yards away from another score. Never mind that Tomlinson needed just one more touchdown to break the NFL's all-time single-season record. With the game's outcome secure, the consummate team player was content to hand another man center stage. "I was going to let [backup] Andrew Pinnock go in and get the touchdown," he told reporters afterward.

But a crowd of 67,514 fans overruled such generosity, beckoning San Diego's hero onto the field with deafening chants of "LT! LT!" With equal cajoling from coaches and teammates, Tomlinson could not refuse. One play, two befuddled defenders, and seven yards later, the slashing power back broke across the goal line for the 29th time this season.

Unlike Seattle rusher Shaun Alexander, who set the previous record with 28 touchdowns last year, Tomlinson delivered no gaudy individual celebration. He did not pose for the cameras or perform any look-at-me dance steps. Instead, he turned to embrace a pack of oversized linemen rumbling toward him like giddy schoolboys. Tomlinson's blockers hoisted their teammate onto their shoulders, a picture of the support and teamwork he credits for his success.

"When we're old and can't play this game anymore, those are the moments that we're going to remember, being able to tell our kids and tell our grandchildren," he said, continually using plural pronouns to deflect individual glory. "We made history today, and there's no better feeling than to share it with the group of guys in that locker room."

When the microphones flipped off, Tomlinson returned to the field to share his time, signing autographs and taking photos with youth and the disabled. San Diego coach Marty Schottenheimer called his star "the finest running back to ever wear an NFL uniform" but quickly added that those skills "pale in comparison to the person."

Around the Horn

BASKETBALL: In the wake of endless complaints from players and even reports of cut fingers, NBA commissioner David Stern announced the league will switch from new composite balls back to leather Jan. 1. The Players Association had filed a grievance earlier this season with the National Labor Relations Board, charging the NBA with unfair labor practices over the composite ball.

BASEBALL: With Major League Baseball rolling in revenue, mediocre players continue cashing in. What's pitcher Ted Lilly worth with his career 59-58 record and 4.60 ERA? The Chicago Cubs set the figure at $40 million over four years. How about chronically injured pitcher Gil Meche with career marks of 55-44 and 4.65? The Kansas City Royals say $55 million for five years. So far, the "steal" of this year's offseason could be the Oakland A's signing of Mike Piazza, who will not play defense in 2007 and will make a cool $8.5 million for his four at-bats per game.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Just 10 months after returning to the humble program where his coaching career began, Dennis Erickson ditched Idaho again for a new job at Arizona State, a Pac-10 school with far greater national prominence. Erickson claims he never viewed Idaho as a stepping stone to re-launch his career after the San Francisco 49ers fired him. But school officials must have known he would entertain offers: ASU represents the 59-year-old Erickson's ninth head coaching position.