LaDainian “LT” Tomlinson, one of seven members of the NFL’s Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2017, used the final part of his acceptance speech on Saturday to address the history of racial inequality in the United States and to call for unity.
In the first 20 minutes of his speech at the hall of fame induction ceremony in Canton, Ohio, Tomlinson, a former running back for the San Diego Chargers and the New York Jets, expressed his gratitude to the NFL. He also acknowledged the many people who helped him excel in the league, including outstanding pro Black football players who paved the way and his supportive family. Tomlinson said his faith-filled journey to becoming a pro football player was guided by the “love, honesty and strength” of his mother. He also acknowledged the major role his wife of 17 years played in his career.
But Tomlinson, 38, who was born in Rosebud, Texas, took the last six minutes of his speech to honor his great-great-great-grandfather George, who was enslaved in Texas. He used the origin of his last name — Tomlinson — to make commentary on the issue of race in American society.
“If this was my last day on earth, and this my final speech, this is the message I’ll leave with you,” Tomlinson said. “The story of a man I never met. My great-great-great-grandfather George.
“One hundred and seventy years ago, George was brought here in chains in a slave ship from West Africa. His last name, Tomlinson, was given to him by the man who owned him.
“Tomlinson was the slave owner’s last name. What extraordinary courage it must have taken for him to rebuild his life after the life he was born to was stolen?
“How did he reclaim his identity, his dignity? When he had no freedom to choose for himself. I grew up on a land of a former slave plantation. And although I didn’t know this as a child, it is where my great-great-great-grandfather tilled the soil.
“A few years ago, I visited that same plantation in central Texas with my family and stood in the slave quarters where he lived. It’s now named Tomlinson Hill.
“My name began with the man who owned my great-great-great-grandfather. Now, it’s proudly carried by me, my children, my extended family. People stop me on the street because they know me as LT the football player.
“But after football, people have come to recognize me as LaDainian Tomlinson. Not simply for what I did as a football player, but for who I am as a man. The family legacy that began in such a cruel way has given birth to generations of successful, caring Tomlinsons.
“I firmly believe that God chose me to bring two races together under one last name — Tomlinson.
“I’m of mixed race, and I represent America. My story is America’s story. All of our ancestors, unless we’re American Indian, came from another country, another culture. Football is a microcosm of America. All races, religions and creeds living, playing, competing, side by side.”
Tomlinson then received a standing ovation.
He continued, “When you are a part of a team, you understand your teammates — their strengths and weaknesses — and work together toward the same goal to win a championship.
“In this context, I advocate we become Team America. In sports, we’re evaluated on our desire, ability, and given a chance to compete. America is the land of opportunity.
“Let’s not slam the door on those who may look or sound different from us. Rather, let’s open it wide for those who believe in themselves, that anything is possible and are willing to compete and take whatever risk necessary to work hard to succeed.
“I’m being inducted into the hall of fame because my athletic ability created an opportunity for me to excel in the sport I love. When we open the door for others to compete, we fulfill the promise of one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”
Tomlinson brought the crowd to its feet.
“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 be the best team we can be, working and living together, representing the highest ideals of mankind, leading the way for all nations to follow.
“One of the most eloquent orators of our time said it best in his farewell address. Paraphrasing and humbly building upon what President Obama said, ‘We all have to try harder, show up, dive in and stay at it.’
“I am asking you to believe in your ability to bring about change, to hold fast to the faith and the idea whispered by slaves, ‘Yes we can.’”
LaDainian Tomlinson was a running back for nine seasons with the San Diego Chargers and spent his final two seasons with the New York Jets. At the time of his retirement in 2012, his accomplishments included ranking fifth in career rushing for a total of 13,684 yards, second in rushing touchdowns (145) and third in total touchdowns (162). He was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 2006, the year he made a total of 31 touchdowns, a league record.