FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – LaDainian Tomlinson stared out at the field from behind his dark visor, unable to help his team from his seat on the bench.
It was the AFC championship game at New England in 2008, and the San Diego Chargers running back's pride was hurting just as much as his left knee. He tried to push through the pain, but lasted just a few plays before heading to the sideline for good while the Chargers lost out on a Super Bowl appearance.
"It was the most frustrating thing I've been through in my career," the New York Jets running back recalled Thursday. "It was a long shot going into the game with a sprained MCL. I told my guys, 'I'm going to give you everything I have,' but it wasn't much."
Tomlinson, injured a week earlier at Indianapolis, had two runs for 5 yards and a catch for 1 yard before his night was over. A lasting image from the Chargers' 21-12 loss at Gillette Stadium is of Tomlinson sitting on the team's bench, wrapped in an oversized jacket and his helmet still strapped onto his head.
"That was obviously frustrating that at the biggest time you could possibly play a game, I couldn't play," he said. "Now, it seems like I get a chance to redeem myself."
Three years later and healthy with the Jets, Tomlinson is again headed to Foxborough for a playoff game — with a trip to the AFC championship game on the line.
"Having this opportunity," Tomlinson said, smiling, "my hair's going to be on fire."
Some Chargers fans and media — including Deion Sanders — questioned Tomlinson's toughness after that game in 2008, especially after quarterback Philip Rivers played with a torn ACL. The fact Tomlinson even tried to play impressed his teammates.
"As a competitor, and someone who has been a teammate and somebody who has been a mentor of mine since I've gotten to the NFL, it was definitely tough to see," said Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who played four seasons in San Diego with Tomlinson. "He wanted to be out there and tried to give it his all and wasn't able to, so he's going to be looking forward to this."
Tomlinson had one of the best postseason games of his career, running for 82 yards and two touchdowns while helping the Jets to a 17-16 victory over the Colts in Indianapolis last Saturday.
"I feel good," he said. "Obviously, coming off a game like I had last week, it's motivation to continue."
The NFL's sixth-leading rusher is no longer a youngster at 31 years old, and he's well aware that the chances to win a Super Bowl ring are quickly dwindling.
"This is what you play for, these opportunities," he said. "As you've heard many people say, this is why you lift all those weights in the offseason and training camp, to have the opportunity to do this."
And, he gets the chance to put previous postseason failures behind him against the team that has caused a few of them.
"I think over the years, the Super Bowls they've won, they have been the dynasty," Tomlinson said of the Patriots. "It's kind of like the Cowboys in the '90s. The Patriots, since 2000, have been that dynasty. So, anytime you play a group like these guys, you get fired up to play."
Especially when they've sent you home in the playoffs twice. In 2007, the Chargers hosted the Patriots in the second round and blew a 21-13 lead in the fourth quarter before falling 24-21. The normally laid-back Tomlinson lost his cool and went after a Patriots player, upset that some New England players were dancing on the Chargers logo at midfield at Qualcomm Stadium. He called the Patriots "disrespectful" that night and said they "showed no class."
So, Tomlinson fit right in with this Jets-Patriots rivalry that has plenty of bad blood of its own.
"As far as now, it seems years ago for me," Tomlinson said. "I really don't focus on them. It's a different team, a different type of team and that was really in the past for me. I'm just happy I get another opportunity to play."
After a bitter divorce from the Chargers last winter, Tomlinson had to battle the perception that he was finished. The Jets and the Minnesota Vikings were the only teams that showed serious interest, and Tomlinson chose New York knowing he had plenty to prove despite all the accolades and records.
He wasn't the electrifying L.T. of his prime, but he was plenty productive during the regular season. He led the team with 914 yards rushing, and his 23-yard run against the Colts last week was surprisingly the longest of his postseason career.
"I saw he's fresh, ready to go," coach Rex Ryan said. "When you saw the desire that he has, the passion he's running with, that's what I expect again this week."
And, Tomlinson will likely be a major factor in whether the Jets can get past the Patriots this time around.
"When you have someone like him on your team," Cromartie said, "you want to do all you can to try to make sure you get him to the ultimate dream of being in the Super Bowl and getting that ring."