LT’s Retirement A Lesson For Superstar running backs

On Monday, the NFL will say goodbye to one of its all-time greats.

Running back LaDainian Tomlinson is calling it quits after a spectacular career of 11 seasons in the league. The 2006 NFL MVP and five-time Pro Bowl selection has signed a one-day contract with the San Diego Chargers to retire with the team that took him No. 5 overall in the 2001 NFL Draft.

Tomlinson will finish with career totals of 13,684 rushing yards, ranking fifth all-time, and 145 rushing touchdowns, which ranks second all-time.

Known for his speed and make-you-miss agility, Tomlinson is easily the best running back of the past decade and was responsible for leading the Chargers out of the darkness of the Ryan Leaf era.

For years, he was a fantasy football lover’s dream. In 2006, Tomlinson ran for more than 1,800 yards and scored a NFL single-season record of 31 touchdowns.

However, after eight seasons of nearly 400 touches per year, age caught up to the legendary ball carrier. After an injury-ridden season in 2009, the Chargers released their franchise savior, and he now retires at the age of 32 — something that would be extremely rare in the MLB and NBA.

But the physical grind is at an entirely different level in the NFL, especially for running backs. In 2011, the NFL Players Association reported that the average career for a running back in the NFL is two and a half years — the shortest of any position in the league.

Why is this the case? The obvious answer is that football is the most physical, bone-crushing sport in America. The goal is to hit the guy with the ball, and the running back has the ball more than anyone, unless you play on the same team as quarterbacks named Manning, Brady, Brees or Rodgers.

Additionally, sports are a business. Franchises will do whatever they can to get the most bang for their buck. If that means running their star players into the ground, so be it. This does not compare to Adrian Peterson’s description of the NFL as “modern-day slavery,” but it is undeniable that the majority of front office’s care about one thing: money. Teams will go to the well until it’s dry, and when it is, they will move on.

This is exactly why big name running backs like Matt Forte, Ray Rice and Maurice Jones-Drew are unhappy with their current situations. None of the three stars were present at their respective organized team activities this offseason.

Forte’s displeasure with his contract and the Bears front office has been well-documented. The 26-year-old running back has been the centerpiece of the Bears’ offense since he arrived in Chicago, accounting for more than half of the team’s offensive production when he is on the field. The Bears refused to give him the long-term contract he desired — and deserved — offering him a $7.7 million franchise tender that remains unsigned.

Jones-Drew led the league in rushing last season with more than 1,600 yards on the ground, despite carrying the ball for one of the NFL’s worst offenses. The 27-year-old is owed $4.5 million per year the next two seasons, but his production has shown to be worth more than that.

Ray Rice finished second to Jones-Drew in rushing yards with more than 1,360 yards. Like Forte, Rice’s rookie contract has expired and was not offered a long-term deal. Rice has also left his franchise tender unsigned.

This is a crucial time for these young stars. While some may call them selfish and money-driven, they cannot overlook Tomlinson’s early retirement. Who knows how much these backs will have left six years down the road? Each one of them will age with every handoff they take and every tackle they receive.

These players deserve to be paid for their production, as they are in the prime of their careers. If their teams believe they can afford to let them walk, go ahead. There will be a handful of teams champing at the bit to pull out their checkbooks.

It is the player’s job to look out for his own well-being. Father Time doesn’t tell you when it all will be over. Just ask Tomlinson.

Derek is a senior in Media.