Heisman life: Remembering Davey Obrien '39
history | On
In the running
As Heisman talk abounds, TCU
halfback LaDainian Tomlinson looks eagerly to next season -- if only to
be the man Jesus wants him to be.
By David Van Meter
GAME had turned ugly. Middle of the 1999 season. UTEP Miners in town.
The score tied up 17-all. And the Frogs in their last 10 offensive plays
had turned the ball over three times.
At halftime, Coach Dennis Franchione and
his staff were scratching their offensive heads. "Finally, we decided
to give it to Number 5 for a while, and just try to keep their offense
off the field," Franchione recalled.
"The next thing I know, one of the coaches
is telling me he only needed 15 yards to break the record." And for the
record -- the most yards rushing in 125 years of Division I-A football
-- "Number 5" churned for 406 yards and six touchdowns on 46 carries.
Amazingly, he posted a 300-yard game against
San Jose State earlier in the season; he was the first back in TCU history
to reach 1,000 yards in only six games. He finished the season as the
nation's leading rusher, eclipsing Heisman winner Ron Dayne of Wisconsin.
"Not very often do you coach someone who
has everything," Franchione said. "He has size, he can break tackles,
he's quick, he can elude defenders -- and the thing I don't think a lot
of people realize, is his speed. They don't think he's as fast as he is."
To take Franchione's thought further, a
lot of people don't think or know much of anything about Number 5. Sports
Illustrated reported it right last season: He's the greatest unknown running
back in America.
THE PUNGENT smell of simmering chitlins
hangs in the air.
It's a scent that TCU halfback LaDainian
"L.T." Tomlinson has never grown to like, he admits on this winter day,
but the final dish can't be beat.
For the unschooled, chitlins are pig or
cow intestines stripped and cleaned, then slow-cooked for hours.
zeal. Tomlinson, with mother
Loreane Chappell and younger brother LaVar, tend to a pot of chitlins,
one of Tomlinson's favorite dishes.
The radio-TV-film senior adds with a grin,
"And you've got to put plenty of hot sauce on them." The chitlins are
far from alone here in the home of Tomlinson's mother, Loreane Chappell.
Collard greens and black-eyed peas bubble away on her white gas range,
cornbread in the oven.
Tomlinson himself, who lives off-campus
near Hulen Mall, cooks a "pretty good" three-bean hamburger casserole,
said his roommate, TCU cornerback and history senior Greg Walls.
"He really likes to cook," Walls said.
"He's always messing around in the kitchen."
A small gold numeral "5" hangs from a gold
chain around Tomlinson's thick neck. He wore the number through three
seasons at Waco's University High School. There he played basketball,
baseball and, of course, football. Hotly recruited by Baylor and Kansas
State, Tomlinson chose TCU when he learned that his number was available.
You also can't help but notice the tattoo.
Tomlinson has five, actually. There's "LT" on his right arm, with God's
hands folded in prayer just under it. On his chest is a Waco University
Bulldog. A full-scale family tree falls across his back, but it is the
last one on his shoulder that has grabbed media attention for the past
It's a picture of his mother, with the
words my inspiration under it. "She has taught me about life," Tomlinson
said. "She taught me how to be a man and that nothing is ever handed to
you. You earn whatever it is you achieve."
Tomlinson plans to add highlights to the
tattoo in time for this fall's football season, to make her look even
better, he said. His mother's eyes widen at the comment, even though the
shock of the first tattoo has long since passed.
"When he first told me he got a tattoo,
I didn't like it at all," she said. "But then when he told me it was a
picture of me, I couldn't say too much." Tomlinson, who runs the 40 in
4.3 seconds, seems a lot bigger in person than on game day. He weighs
220 pounds, bench presses 430 and squats more than 600. Truly, his legs
look like organic jackhammers, growing exponentially larger as they go
Of course, he may seem smaller on the playing
field because he's surrounded by his five-man, 1,500-pound front line
-- his Big Uglies, he calls them.
"Those are my special guys," Tomlinson
said, preaching again the gospel he delivered to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram
nearly every record-breaking week last season. "They do lots of hard work,
but they hardly get any credit. People see me on TV on the highlights,
people watch me run, watch me talk. But they never show the linemen and
how hard they work. They're the ones who spring me free."
big uglies. With nearly
1,500 poinds among them, offensive linemen Jeff Millican, David Bobo,
Michael Keathlye, Jeff Garner and Victor Payne open holes "a
diesle could drive through," Tomlinson told reporters after his
406-yard effort against UTEP.
After Tomlinson's record-breaking day against
UTEP, he promised a steak dinner for the Big Uglies after the season was
over. But after Tomlinson paid his tuition, fees and books for the spring
semester -- Tomlinson holds down a 2.92 GPA -- the ribeyes had to be reduced
to Furr's all-you-can-eat buffet.
An entire corner of Chappell's family room
enshrines Tomlinson's athletic achievements, as well as those of his younger
brother, LaVar, a defensive tackle at W.W. Samuell High School in Dallas.
Numerous pictures from Little League through
high school. An Iron Man work ethic award from TCU here. WAC player of
the week there, and there, and there. Clippings from the newspaper abound.
Near the awards and not worth overlooking -- at least not in this household
-- is a small mantle with a Bible and a statue of Jesus, his arms nailed
to the cross.
Tomlinson's mother is not only a part-time
real estate agent, she's also a part-time minister for an Oak Cliff church.
Her husband, Herman Chappell, is a retired church pew carpenter.
asked Jesus, "How much do you love me?"
"This much," he answered.
Then he stretched out his arms and died.
And that's a Sunday School lesson Tomlinson
knows all too well.
About 25 miles south of Waco is the town
of Marlin. A tiny drive from there is Tomlinson Hill. It's an unclaimed
part of the state, at least by the government sort, so the locals call
it by the family that has lived there the longest.
That's where Tomlinson's best memories
"My uncle would always make me go feed
the pigs, leftover stew or whatever," he said. "It was a time I enjoyed,
I think, because it made me enjoy the closeness of a family."
Unfortunately, it was also a time that
wouldn't last. Oliver Tomlinson already had four sons -- Ray, Ronald,
Terry and Charles -- when he met and married Loreane Lowe in 1973. A year
later, she gave birth to Londria.
Six years later came LaDainian, then LaVar
the following year.
Oliver worked as a mobile home contractor,
but work grew scarce around Tomlin-son Hill. He moved his family to Marlin,
and things seemed to improve, but not from Loreane's perspective.
"I wanted more for my kids," Chappell said,
recalling her first marriage. "Oliver was quite content there, but I was
restless, I think, for my children. I wanted them to be involved in activities
that just weren't available there."
Chappell divorced Oliver and moved to Waco
with Londria, LaDainian and LaVar. That same year, their older brother
Charles was killed in a fight.
After the death, Oliver faded away as a
father, leaving his fifth son to wonder why for a decade.
In first grade, Tomlinson enrolled in a
youth football league and played quarterback. Tomlinson took his first-ever
snap from center and ran, untouched, for a touchdown.
"I don't think I ever even threw a pass
that year," Tomlinson said, laughing. "They found out I could run, and
so that was all we ever did."
Chappell remembers that run.
"It was just such a natural thing for him,"
she said. "He stepped high when he needed to, dodged when he needed to.
It was like watching someone who had been doing it his whole life."
Tomlinson only improved. Playing scrub
ball with Londria's friends, many of them boys in the seventh grade, he
would then dominate when he competed against his peers.
"When I played kids my own age, they could
never catch me," Tomlinson said matter-of-factly. "They thought I was
good; they didn't realize that after playing with my sister's friends,
I was used to running for my life."
Chappell remarried in 1988, but the kind
of life she dreamed for her family wasn't a reality yet.
"I was working hard, but I was playing
hard, too," she admits with some remorse still. "One day, I looked at
my children and knew I didn't want them growing up with guns in their
hand, and in a house littered with beer cans. I wanted a clean life, barbecues
on Saturday afternoon. I wanted a place that would be a refuge for the
kids in our lives.
"I woke up one morning and began listening
to the Lord and waited for him to come and guide me."
And the Lord did. The Chappell's modest
corner-lot home, with the only trampoline in the neighborhood, became
a neighborhood hangout. Tomlinson in particular would take in friends
that lived in less-than-ideal situations elsewhere, Chappell said.
Her son shrugs off the story with a little
embarrassment, giving more credit to his mother than to himself.
"My mother always had a good heart; I
guess that's where I got mine from," he said. "She always kept us in church,
and in my freshman year of high school I realized that Jesus Christ is
for real. Without him, I can't do anything."
Tomlinson's faith was tested right away.
Before his freshman year, his mother had been diagnosed with an acute
form of carpal tunnel syndrome. The pain left Chappell unable to work
in the clerical position she had held for years. In the face of financial
ruin, Chappell received an offer of work back in Marlin.
The move to such a tiny town, Chappell
knew, would leave her son all but invisible to college recruiters. With
Tomlinson pleading and Chappell praying, Chappell left behind clothes,
an ATM card and both of her sports-playing sons to live with family friends.
Good game plan.
In Tomlinson's senior year at University
High, he rushed for 2,554 yards and scored -- this is not a typo -- 39
Last season, Tomlinson finished fourth
for the coveted Doak Walker award. And as a virtual unknown, he finished
14th in the Heisman voting, even receiving one first-place vote.
But if you ask Tomlinson what his greatest
moment was last year, he'll point to his worst game, against North Texas.
"I always look to see where my mother is
before each game," Tomlinson said. "It just happened that he was sitting
It was the first time his father had seen
him play in college. Tomlinson ran the ball 21 times on a ginger ankle.
He finished the game with only 75 yards. Tomlinson wept openly after the
game, only to look up and see his father standing there.
Finally, the two talked.
"I was so upset at him because at the times
I really needed him, he wasn't there. His dad was there for him, but he
wasn't there for me," Tomlinson said. "But now I understand how Charles'
death affected him, and why he did what he did."
ON THIS DAY, as Heisman hype whispers Tomlinson's
name, he looks forward to improving the relationship with his father.
And as prognosticators measure his chances
to win college football's most coveted prize, Tomlinson wonders more about
the brother he admired and lost before he got a chance to know him.
"He was a short, stocky dude, a lot like
me," Tomlinson said. "I'm inspired by him. He makes me want to push on,
hoping that he can see me somewhere."
But will he see Tomlinson bring the Heisman
back to TCU? Tomlinson's roommate Walls thinks so.
"L.T. has an ability to not let things
bother him and get him down," he said. "When he has his mind on something,
he almost always gets it done." Coach Franchione is also optimistic. "I'm
sure that LaDainian will be a marked man this season, but if he can have
a senior year like his junior year, then he'll meet all the criteria needed
Tomlinson also believes he can win the
prize, but his ultimate goal is bit farther down the field of life.
"When I do things, I'm doing it for my
family," he said. "My plan is to give them things they never had before.
"I want to have a family and to teach them the way to live their lives,
pretty much the way I was raised, with a lot of love and the Lord. I want
them to stay off the streets, and to have goals and dreams."
Tomlinson, now arguably the greatest running
back in TCU history, looks back to Tomlinson Hill, where his memories
Horses. Chickens. A barnyard dog. He wants
all those things. Tomlinson pauses for a grin.
"And maybe even a few pigs that need to