The people of Fort Worth have never seen anything quite like the
2000 election campaign. Television, Internet, public appearances,
endorsements, old-fashioned billboards--it's an onslaught that
won't stop. On a balmy afternoon last week, TCU tailback and
Heisman Trophy candidate LaDainian Tomlinson walked past a parked
SUV decorated with a purple LT FOR HEISMAN bumper sticker,
complete with website address. "There are so many of these," he
said, tapping the van's back window with his index finger, "that
I've started to notice the cars that don't have one."
Two days later Tomlinson ran for 200 yards on 41 carries in a
37-0 victory over Rice. That performance enabled the 5'11",
220-pound senior from Waco to remain the leading rusher in the
nation (184.7 yards per game) and 7-0 TCU to win its 12th
consecutive game over two seasons, the longest streak in the
nation. The ninth-ranked Horned Frogs have ascended from the
ashes of a 1-10 season in 1997 and given fans of a once-proud
program reason to celebrate.
At the center of all this mojo is Tomlinson, whose Heisman run
has been imbued with significance that goes far beyond football.
Tomlinson runs not only to win the Heisman and earn TCU a
long-shot BCS bowl invitation, but also to help the Frogs hold on
to miracle-working coach Dennis Franchione; to push the
university toward its goal of national academic prominence; to
educate the schoolchildren of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex
about the value of good teachers; and, on a personal level, to
please the mother who raised him and the father who deserted him.
"It's a lot to think about, so I just try not to think about it,"
Instead, he simply performs as well as any running back in the
country. Last season, as a junior, Tomlinson led the nation with
1,850 yards rushing and broke the NCAA single-game record with a
ridiculous 406 yards on 43 carries against UTEP. In August, when
Franchione presented Tomlinson with his plaque for winning the
NCAA rushing title, LT gave it to his offensive linemen, who hung
it in their meeting room. "How often is your best player your
best teammate?" asks senior offensive tackle David Bobo.
This season Tomlinson is on pace to rush for 2,032 yards--not bad
for a guy who didn't play tailback in high school until his
senior year and who, in his first two years at TCU, ran for a
total of only 1,255 yards. On Sept. 16 he shredded the defense of
Big Ten contender Northwestern for 243 yards on 39 carries, and
three weeks later he beat up Hawaii for 294 yards and four
touchdowns on 49 carries. Tomlinson attracts more attention than
free shrimp yet hasn't been held to fewer than 119 yards in a
game this fall. Talk about targets: In the second half of a rainy
17-3 TCU victory over Tulsa on Oct. 21, a linebacker yelled at
Tomlinson, "We're going to tear your ACL."
Most opponents, though, are more respectful of this quick,
durable yardage machine who plays much larger than his listed
size. "He's real quick and real hard to tackle," says Hawaii
linebacker Chris Brown. "He's got strong legs, and he's elusive."
Rice linebacker Jeff Vanover says Tomlinson is "just as strong"
as Michigan tailback Anthony (A-Train) Thomas but has "more
NFL personnel people are less certain. Tomlinson "is not a
big-time inside runner," says Ted Sundquist, the Denver Broncos'
director of college scouting. Tom Donahoe, the Pittsburgh
Steelers' director of football operations, will say only, "I
think he'll play in the league and be a good back. I'm eager to
see him in a bowl and in the all-star games."
What Donahoe and his NFL colleagues will find is a back who looks
squat but stands only an inch under six feet, bench-presses 450
pounds and runs the 40, according to Franchione, in 4.37, not the
4.5 that NFL scouts have estimated from videotape. And if
Tomlinson has not been a strong inside runner, he's fast becoming
one, according to Northwestern defensive coordinator Jerry Brown.
"That was the big difference between Tomlinson last year and this
year," says Brown. "He was outstanding running inside [on Sept.
16]. He ran inside on us with power and evasiveness."
None of this makes LT a Heisman favorite. Purdue's Drew Brees,
Oklahoma's Josh Heupel and Florida State's Chris Weinke play
tougher schedules on larger stages. Yet Tomlinson has justified
the campaign that began last winter, when TCU assistant sports
information director Trey Carmichael proposed to Franchione that
the school aggressively market LT to a public that might
otherwise never get to know a running back from the Western
Athletic Conference. Franchione agreed, and so, reluctantly, did
Tomlinson. The machinery was set in motion.
Word of the plan reached university chancellor Michael Ferrari,
who saw an opportunity to expose the country not only to a TCU
football player but also to the university as a whole. Ferrari
wants to raise TCU's national profile closer to those of schools
such as Northwestern and Vanderbilt. "People want to associate
themselves with winners," Ferrari says. "Why not bring together
the university's goals with LaDainian's goals, even if some risk
Risk? You bet. TCU was a longtime member of the now defunct
Southwestern Conference, a league that for many years defined
regional passion for college football but in the 1980s also
plumbed new depths of scandal in the game. In 1986 TCU was placed
on probation by the NCAA for numerous major violations, and like
most schools in the SWC, it spent the ensuing decade trying to
distance itself from the athletic zeal that caused its problems.
Watching TCU try to follow its football program toward prominence
now is like hearing that Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee are
patching things up again.
Yet TCU has jumped in with both cleats. A five-person campus
committee was formed to handle the "LT for 2000" campaign, and
Ferrari approved the solicitation of private donations to fund
the endeavor. Approximately 40 donors contributed just over
$90,000, prompting scattered charges in the media that TCU is
trying to buy the Heisman Trophy--which would be the school's
first since Davey O'Brien won it in 1938. In fact, the school is
trying to buy much more.
A glitzy website (www.LTfor2000.com) was established for
Tomlinson, and he made a five-minute videotape entitled Teachers
Are the Real Heroes that was distributed to more than 300
Dallas-Fort Worth-area schools. This fall Tomlinson has spoken at
four of those schools. On Oct. 17 he addressed fourth-, fifth-
and sixth-graders at Souder Elementary in Everman, Texas. The
first-, second- and third-graders were so disappointed at missing
out that they stood in two long lines in the hallway outside the
school cafeteria and cheered Tomlinson as he left, nearly
reducing him to tears. In TCU classrooms, meanwhile, Tomlinson
carries a 2.4 GPA. He is 20 hours short of graduating with a
major in psychology and a minor in TV/radio, and he hopes to earn
his degree by December 2001. Ferrari, therefore, is quite at
peace with his marriage of athlete and marketing strategy,
history be damned. "I'm very comfortable with it," he says. "My
comfort rests a great deal with the quality of the people
Tomlinson is only one of them. The other key player is
Franchione. He was hired in December 1997 after helping turn New
Mexico into a respectable program. Franchione, 49, took over a
young Frogs team that had gone 1-10 in the last of coach Pat
Sullivan's six seasons, and he shocked it to life. "The workouts
were unreal," says senior offensive tackle Mike Keathley. "What
he did was break us, every single day."
TCU went 7-5 in 1998, Franchione's first season, and beat USC in
the Sun Bowl. After that game, athletic director Eric Hyman
signed Franchione to a seven-year contract extension worth
between $700,000 and $900,000 a year, depending on incentives
met. Hyman also included a buyout clause that will require almost
any school that hires Franchione before the contract expires to
pay TCU $1 million. (Franchione inserted four exceptions: Arizona
State, Notre Dame, Texas and Texas A&M.)
Still, the university's hold on Franchione is tenuous. TCU
football in 2000 is a hard sell, even with a new $8 million
football office and meeting facility. The WAC is a marginal
conference; next year the Frogs move to Conference USA, a step up
but still an outsider in the BCS universe. Last Saturday was
homecoming in Fort Worth, yet a crowd of only 30,762, the
smallest of the season, turned out. (Attendance is digging out
from a deep hole--in Franchione's first season TCU had 7,800
season ticket holders; this year the number is 13,800.)
TCU is a solid team with as many as a dozen NFL prospects, but
its return to the big time won't necessarily come under
Franchione. He will be tempted by offers from schools that can
afford the seven-figure buyout, and he is unwilling to dismiss
the possibility of leaving. On the one hand: "There may be
another stop for Coach Fran. I'm only 49. I'd like to think I'll
be doing this for a while." On the other hand: "People call us
Tulane or Marshall," Franchione says. "I don't see why we can't
be Virginia Tech and make this last."
For the remainder of this season he will ride his tailback, as
will the rest of the university. The tailback, meanwhile, focuses
on the most important of his many goals: making his parents
proud. Last Saturday, 65-year-old Oliver Tomlinson watched his
son play football. This might not seem significant; after all, it
was at his father's knee that LaDainian fell in love with
football. "They used to watch those Dallas Cowboys together on
the living-room floor when LaDainian was a little boy," says the
player's mother, Loreane Chappell.
LaDainian, the second of Oliver and Loreane's three children,
was born in 1979 in Marlin, Texas, a small town outside of Waco.
Oliver is 15 years older than Loreane, and before their marriage
he fathered five other children out of wedlock. When LaDainian
was four years old, Oliver hurt his back while building mobile
homes. The injury led to his being permanently disabled by age
50. Over the years, one of his older sons was killed in a street
fight, another landed in prison, and a six-year-old
granddaughter died in a fire. In 1986 Loreane and Oliver
divorced, and Oliver stopped providing for their children.
Loreane supported LaDainian and his siblings by working as a
nurse's assistant and hospital records clerk.
Oliver stayed in touch but stayed away. He'd seen LaDainian play
Pop Warner football, but hadn't seen him in action again until
last fall. That's when Oliver came to Fort Worth to watch TCU
play North Texas. LaDainian rushed for only 75 yards and didn't
score. Afterward, he wept in the locker room.
There would be another chance to show his father how good he was.
Two weeks ago Oliver and Loreane moved into a home in Fort Worth,
only a short drive from their son. They are roommates now, not
husband and wife. Loreane is divorced for the second time, Oliver
worn far beyond his years. Theirs is a union of compassion. "He's
a beaten man," says Loreane.
Last Saturday, under a brilliant autumn sun, Oliver saw his son
run like an All-America against Rice. "More like it," LaDainian
said as he left the locker room and walked to greet the tiny man
who leaned against a stadium wall, dressed all in white beneath a
tan golf cap and smiling as if reborn. "Bless LaDainian's heart,"
said his mother. "He wants to make everybody happy."
Good thing, because there's no shortage of people asking.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL FRAKES Mother's pride Though not an inspired speller, Tomlinson hopes to grab TCU's first Heisman since Davey O'Brien (8) won in 1938.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Fried Rice In a 37-0 win over the Owls last Saturday, Tomlinson romped for 200 yards and two touchdowns on 41 carries.
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES
Tomlinson set an NCAA mark last year by running for a
ridiculous 406 yards against UTEP.
Videos, billboards, LT FOR HEISMAN bumper stickers--it's an
onslaught that won't stop.