Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson was the kind of running back you loved to watch shred opposing NFL defenses … as long as he wasn’t playing against your team.
In his 11 seasons (nine with the San Diego Chargers and two with the New York Jets), the unstoppable back with the black visor racked up 13,684 rushing yards (good for No. 5 all time in that category) and 145 rushing touchdowns (second only to Dallas Cowboys legend Emmitt Smith and ahead of such storied backs as Marcus Allen, Walter Payton, Jim Brown and Adrian Peterson.)
But, you might be wondering, why is Plugged In talking to LaDainian Tomlinson at all? After all, we’re not a sports news outlet.
Well, that’s because Tomlinson has a role as a pastor in the new Christian film God Bless the Broken Road (in theaters today). And that’s a great fit for someone who’s always been outspoken about his faith in Christ.
So with no further ado, let’s learn more about how this record-setting running back landed a role in this new film, and why he’s excited for audiences to see it. [Note: This interview has been lightly edited for readability and clarity.]
Adam Holz: LaDainian, thanks so much for taking time to talk to Focus on the Family’s Plugged In today. I think many of our constituents will be familiar with your amazing NFL career, mostly with the San Diego Chargers, where you regularly terrorized my poor Denver Broncos …
LaDainian Tomlinson: Well, I tell ya’, we had some great battles. It was certainly fun to play in that division with the Broncos. And of course, who could forget about the Oakland Raiders and the Kansas City Chiefs. Just a rich tradition of really good teams in that division. So we always had some really good battles.
Holz: We miss seeing you. You were one of those guys that, even though I hated what you did to our defense, I sure enjoyed watching you play.
Tomlinson: Thank you. Thank you so much.
Holz: But that’s not the main reason we’re getting together today. People may not know that you’re starring in the new Christian film called God Bless the Broken Road. Tell us a little bit about its story and the role that you’re playing.
Tomlinson: Yeah, so the story is about a young widowed woman who loses her husband in battle in Afghanistan. She’s left to raise a young daughter by herself. And things just start to go bad. They lose their house, along with many other things that tend to happen when life hits you in the face and you’re forced to deal with losing a spouse and a loved one. She loses her faith. She starts to question God and stops going to church.
I play the pastor in this film. I play Pastor Williams. So my job was really to help her get her faith back, but also to serve my congregation by just helping out in whatever capacity that, you know, that pastors do in a small town like that one. So that’s the gist of the story
Holz: Well, how did you get involved in this production?
Tomlinson: A gentleman that I’ve known for quite a while, he’s a good friend of mine, he’s an executive producer on this film, a guy named Gary Lewis. I’ve known him 10 or 15 years, but I hadn’t talked to him in over a year when he called me out of the blue one day. And he said, “Hey, L.T., you know we’re casting for a film right now, and we’re looking for a pastor.” And he said, “I thought of you.” He said, “Before you go tell me to screw off, just hear me out. Just listen to me. This is something interesting that’s happening with this film. Parts of the proceeds are going to benefit an organization called DAV, Disabled American Vets.” And of course, a lot of my philanthropic work is in serving communities and doing things with the military.
So I said, “Are you kidding me?” He said, “No. It’s the first time in filmmaking that this has ever been done.” And he says, “Just let me send you the script, and you tell me what you think.” He did, and I read through it. I loved the story. I quickly identified with this story, and even the Pastor Williams role, because it reminded me a lot of the town that I grew up in, a little small town. I was raised in a small Baptist church, you know, with just pretty much family members and close friends. It really reminded about my childhood. And so I said, “Sure, I’ll try it out. I’ll do it.” And that’s how this came about.
Holz: Now, did you have any acting background at all before this movie?
Tomlinson: No. Not at all. I think my experience over the last five years or so working with the NFL Network doing shows about football, analyzing football [helped me]. Mostly just being in front of the camera, and getting used to being in front of the camera. I really think that prepared me to play this role.
Holz: Was there anything that really surprised you about the nuts and bolts of getting a movie made?
Tomlinson: You know, I don’t know if anything was surprising, but this is what I tried to do: I think all those years of playing football—you know, the prep work, being in the classroom, studying the playbook, understanding everything I need to know about my role but also all my teammates’ roles—I think that prepared me for reading lines, and studying, and just the passion that you gotta have, that you gotta put into doing a project like this. So, I don’t think there was anything surprising.
But I think it’s just the fact how you see movies put together, the different scenes that has to be shot—and not necessarily in chronological order of the movie. Scenes just being shot from time to time. You know, how you kind of have to be in and out of character. Because I had to embody Pastor Williams. When I was on set, I was the pastor to all the people on set. And I had to act like it.
Holz: What message do you hope viewers take away from the film?
Tomlinson: I really think that this is a message that we all can relate to in some [way], directly or indirectly. Because think about it: We’re all tied to some military family. We are. And our military families go through the worst of times sometimes. You know, having a loved one away serving our country. And sometimes those loved ones don’t come home. So we certainly can relate to what [the character] Amber in this film, what she went through.
We all question our faith sometimes, and question God. But if we continue to believe, if we just fight through that, [we’ll] come out on the other side and have the faith that we will live a life of peace and happiness, no matter what go through. Because it is only a season that we go through this. And so that’s the message that I think everyone would get from this movie.
Holz: Sort of a message combining perseverance and hope, it sounds like.
Holz: LaDainian, I read somewhere years ago that many professional athletes struggle with big issues after they retire. Financial struggles, divorce, substance abuse. You have been really outspoken about your faith for years. I would love to hear how your relationship with Christ helped you as you transitioned into a new season after leaving the spotlight of being an NFL star.
Tomlinson: Well, I think the first thing about my faith is understanding that I have a foundation. And so there’s no need for me to lean on the materialistic things of this world. You know, being in love with money, or the fame or having nice cars, and all those things—that’s worldly stuff that shouldn’t have any impact on the spirit and serving. So having a foundation in God and understanding that, I know what my greater purpose is. And so no matter what I go through, I know my greater purpose.
But also, having people around you that are connected that way as well. And one of the things that I appreciate so much and am blessed to have is that my mother is a pastor. And so all throughout my life, she has really helped me on my journey. And some of the most difficult situations that I went through playing football, and then retiring, and kind of finding a new career … all those things that we all must deal with at some time or another. So having my mother to help guide me was huge for me. It’s truly a blessing to have someone like that. And that’s how I was able to kind of deal with it.
Holz: This movie you’re in revolves around the issue of losing hope after a terrible tragedy. And I know that you played with Junior Seau for a couple of years, and he tragically took his life back in 2012. Focus on the Family has a new suicide-prevention resource coming out called Alive to Thrive, and I’m wondering what you would say to anything who feels like they’re just at the end of their rope, those who’ve lost hope. Maybe they’re depressed. Maybe they’re even flirting with suicidal thoughts. What would you say to encourage that person, LaDainian?
Tomlinson: Well, the first thing I would is [this]: Understand that the way you’re feeling, you’re not alone. You’re not alone at all, because there are many others who are feeling the exact same way you’re feeling. You have to be willing to open up and talk about it. To reach out to somebody, and just talk.
That was the one thing that [we as] teammates of the late Junior Seau all talked about after the funeral as guys. Let’s stay connected. Let’s keep talking to each other. And please, don’t hold it in. Whatever you’re feeling, please don’t hold it in. Let’s talk about it. And let’s get through it. Because we talk about seasons again. This is a season you go through. It’s not forever. And you can come out on the other side.
Holz: Well, I really appreciate the chance to talk to you today. Is there anything else you’d like to say to Plugged In’s readers about God Bless the Broken Road?
Tomlinson: They can see it in theaters September 7, and I hope that it inspires everybody that sees it and talks about it. And I believe it will.