SAN DIEGO Walter Payton and his Chicago Bears were doing their Super Bowl Shuffle in 1985 as a little boy in Waco, Texas, was taking mental notes and telling family members that he, too, would grow up to be a star running back in the National Football League.
"Walter Payton ... man, he was the greatest," said LaDainian Tomlinson, the little boy who became simply "LT," the best all-purpose back in the league today. "As early as 5, 6 years old, I've been studying running backs, watching the history of the league. I think you have to. I think if you're going to try to do something great, you need to study the great guys who have come before you."
Like most great running backs, Tomlinson understands the circle of life at that position, and how it has taken us from players such as Bronko Nagurski and Red Grange to Marion Motley. From Jim Brown and Gale Sayers to O.J. Simpson, Earl Campbell and Payton. From Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith to "LT," and, who knows, maybe one day "AD," the Vikings' Adrian "All Day" Peterson. After all, Peterson leads the NFL in rushing with 740 yards and is on pace for 1,691, which would be the most by a rookie since Eric Dickerson reached 1,808 24 years ago.
Tomlinson vs. Peterson will be the featured attraction today at the Metrodome when LT's San Diego Chargers (4-3) try to extend their winning streak to four games against a Vikings team that wants to avoid dropping to 2-6 for only the fifth time in franchise history.
Tomlinson is the 28-year-old reigning league MVP and defending rushing champion. Still very much in his prime in his seventh season, the 5-10, 221-pounder broke 13 NFL records last season alone, stands just 207 yards from 10,000 and is tied with Brown for fourth place in career rushing touchdowns (106), four behind Payton for third place. Meanwhile, Peterson, 22, is playing his first professional game in November after sweeping the NFL offensive rookie of the month award for September and October.
"Adrian has a lot of the skills and characteristics, the qualities it takes to be one of the best runners in this league," said Tomlinson, who's fourth in rushing with 617 yards and six touchdowns. "He's still so young, though. We all get so caught up in wanting to compare him to this guy or that guy. That's not really fair to him or those other guys."
"Having said that, Adrian does have a little Eric Dickerson in him because of the explosion he has to get through the holes," Tomlinson said. "And he's kind of upright, which is why all of us say he's like Eric Dickerson."
"He also has a little bit of shiftiness like a Gale Sayers," Tomlinson added. "And I'd say Marcus Allen, too. Marcus would move and weave in and out of traffic a lot. I see Adrian do that, too."
As much as we guard against comparing today's young running backs -- even ones who have played only seven games -- to the greats of yesteryear, it's irresistible. Peterson has heard a myriad of comparisons already -- mostly to Dickerson -- but seemed awestruck when told what Tomlinson had said about him.
"Oh, man," Peterson said. "Coming from LT, wow. That's a great, great compliment because you look at LT, and he's been one of the great backs for a long time now."
Tomlinson said he will probably make a point to talk to Peterson before or after today's game.
"If for no other reason, we're both from Texas," said Tomlinson, smiling. "The Texas guys have to stick together, right?"
Peterson, who is from Palestine, has a chance to join an elite fraternity of native Texans. With 660 more yards, he will join Dickerson (Sealy), Campbell (Tyler) and Tomlinson (born in Rosebud) as the only players born in Texas to rush for 1,200 yards in their rookie season.
"Being from Texas, you naturally followed and studied guys like Emmitt Smith, Eddie George, LT, Earl Campbell," Peterson said. "But I was like LT. I could also sit for hours and watch Walter Payton and a guy like Barry Sanders. I sat and studied them. Playing the position, it's fascinating to me to see what they were able to do."
So who does Adrian Peterson remind himself of?
"Adrian Peterson," Peterson said. "I'm my own self."
Peterson and Tomlinson have different styles. Peterson is taller, bigger. Tomlinson is more like his childhood hero (Payton) in stature and the versatility to run inside and outside, receive, pass and block equally well. Tomlinson has 426 career receptions for 3,111 yards and 12 touchdowns, and has thrown 11 passes, eight for touchdowns.
There are, however, two traits that Peterson said he thinks he shares with Tomlinson.
"I'm probably similar to him in terms of vision and making cuts," Peterson said. "When I study him, I'll watch a play and see what kind of cuts he makes. You don't see other running backs in the league make those kind of cuts. But I sit there and I see him cut and I think to myself, 'Man, I could have done that.'"
Many players and coaches are reluctant to compare a rookie running back to an established veteran, no matter how good the rookie is. After all, durability, they say, ranks equally if not higher than ability.
"We have a young kid who's doing some good things," said Vikings running backs coach Eric Bieniemy, a former Chargers running back. "But Eric Dickerson? Come back and talk to me about that in five or six years."
Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman said some of the comparisons used to describe Peterson are only natural. But it's still too early.
"I can stand here and tell you Adrian Peterson reminds me of an Earl Campbell, a guy who runs straight ahead, but a little quicker," Merriman said. "But the hardest thing is being a great back in the NFL in back-to-back-to-back years. I'm not taking anything away from Peterson. The guy can play. But I wouldn't say he's anywhere close to being the best running back in the league right now. He's phenomenal. But he's no LT yet."
No time off
Durability was the first trait Tomlinson chose when asked to describe why he idolized Payton.
"You knew every week he was going to show up," said Tomlinson, who has missed only one game in his career despite averaging a hefty 408 touches per season during his first six years. "And when he stepped on the field, you knew exactly what you were going to get each and every time. I've tried to pattern my game after Walter. He was the reason I wanted to play the game."
Tomlinson takes his knowledge of NFL history seriously. In his house in Poway, a suburb of San Diego, he has a sports memorabilia room. He has helmets autographed by Brown, Payton and Sanders, among others. And, oh yeah, one of his three dogs, a pit bull, is named "Sweetness," Payton's nickname.
Tomlinson was asked if he thinks Peterson's unbridled style is conducive to a lengthy NFL career.
"I think it depends on who you are," Tomlinson said. "It depends on the way you take care of your body. Jim Brown did it for awhile and left on his own terms. Jerome Bettis did it. Earl Campbell did it.
"You do see how Earl's health is now, and that's pretty unfortunate. But I remember him saying, 'If I had it to do all over again, I'd do it the same.' That's the heart that Earl has."
The great ones just know they belong on the football field. Tomlinson is no different.
This has been a difficult year for him. On Feb. 23, his father, Oliver, and older brother, Ronald McClain, were killed when the pickup truck McClain was driving flipped on the highway near Waco. And just last week, Tomlinson was among the 47 members of the Chargers organization who had to evacuate their homes because of the San Diego County wildfires.
The Chargers were lucky. None of their homes was burned to the ground. But the fires did burn most of Tomlinson's neighborhood. They came right up to Tomlinson's property line, getting so close that flying embers torched his patio furniture.
When it was finally announced Oct. 26 that the Chargers' game against Houston last Sunday would be played in San Diego, Tomlinson called it a sense of "relief."I always feel like no matter what's going on in my life, football has been a way to kind of go to a different place," Tomlinson said. "I love the sport so much. When I'm out there playing, I'm not thinking about anything. I can go through the worst day of my life the day before and still, when I walk out onto the football field, it's an enjoyment that I have that I'm in my own little world."