The Pro Football Hall of Fame will induct seven NFL legends on Saturday night, but none are bigger than former Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson.
CANTON, Ohio – More than 20 minutes into his induction speech on a marathon of a night at the podium, LaDainian Tomlinson paused and collected himself.
As fans chanted, “L.T., L.T.,” Tomlinson urged the crowd to stay with him.
“I’m almost finished,” he said.
And I’m thinking: Rats.
Tomlinson kept his speech to 26 minutes, but I could have listened to him for twice as long. That’s how inspiring the message was from the former running back, who not only revealed the depth of his heart but also challenged America to develop a unified soul.
He segued into his closing theme by sharing his family’s roots, traced back to his great-great-great grandfather, George Tomlinson, who came to America on a slave ship 170 years ago from West Africa. Tomlinson reminded fellow Americans that unless they are Native Americans, their ancestors came here from somewhere else.
Obviously, the divisions in this nation – by race, class, religion, political leanings, economics – have moved Tomlinson.
Kudos to him speaking out with a spirit to make a difference.
“On America’s team, let’s not choose to be against one another,” he said. “Let’s choose to be for one another. My great-great-great grandfather had no choice. We have one. I pray we dedicate ourselves to being the best team we can be, working and living together, representing the highest ideals of mankind. Leading the way for all nations to follow.”
Quick, elect Tomlinson and send him to Washington.
Simply put, his Obama-esque speech was one of – if not the absolute best – the most stirring messages ever delivered upon induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday night.
Too often, when football players or other athletes speak out about social issues, they are chastised by some with the classic stick-to-sports retort.
Yet Tomlinson, an NFL MVP and record-breaker during his hey day with the San Diego Chargers, showed another type of greatness. He reflected the human spirit that extends beyond the field. In a sense, I’m not surprised that this message came from him. During his playing career, Tomlinson struck me as one of the most passionate players in the league – one who took losing big games hard.
Now, at a time when Colin Kaepernick is essentially being blackballed from playing in the NFL – becoming a polarizing figure after he protested social inequalities and police brutality affecting African-Americans by taking a knee during the national anthem – it is refreshing that Tomlinson opted to use his grand moment to make a statement of his own.
“Football is a microcosm of America – all races, religions and creeds living, playing, competing side by side,” Tomlinson said.
Much was said during the weekend about football representing American values. To an extent, that notion sells. Yet it falls short when considering Kaepernick, roadblocked and demonized by some for essentially exercising a basic American right.
Tomlinson wasn’t the only speaker to touch a social nerve. Kenny Easley, the former Seattle Seahawks safety who was the first one inducted at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium, set a tone that Tomlinson ultimately added layers to.
“Black lives do matter and all lives matter, too,” Easley said. “But the carnage affecting young black men today from random violence to police shootings across this nation has to stop.”
Like Tomlinson, Easley challenged the nation as a whole.
“We’ve got to stand up as a country, as black Americans and fight the good fight to protect our youth and our American constitutional right not to die while driving or walking the streets black in America,” Easley said. “It has to stop, and we can do it, and the lessons we learn in sports can help.”
This is the message that, of course, you’ll never hear from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
But some of the new Hall of Famers will, with all of the soul and purpose that made them great on the field. Tomlinson paraphrased a message that Obama gave during his farewell address, when he urged Americans to “try harder, show up, dive in and stay at it.”
“I’m asking you to believe in your ability to bring about change,” Tomlinson added, “to hold fast to the faith and the idea whispered by slaves: Yes, we can.”
And like that, Canton heard a speech for the ages.
Follow NFL columnist Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.
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