The story behind “A Football Life: LaDainian Tomlinson”

A Football Life, Behind the Scenes, James Weiner, New York Jets, San Diego Chargers, Sneak Peek

Editor’s Note:  A new season of the acclaimed documentary series “A Football Life” premieres this Tuesday, Sept 3rd at 9pm on the NFL Network.  The episode’s Producer/Director, James Weiner, shares the untold story behind the episode and why he chose to do the film on the recently-retired LaDanian Tomlinson. Watch the exclusive film trailer below.

By James Weiner, NFL Films Producer/Director

When he played, he wore a dark visor and was known as the man with the mask. I was convinced there was a story there, if only I could get a good look inside.

My pitch to do my next “A Football Life” on LaDainian Tomlinson was initially met with skepticism. After all, his football story had just been completed and his career by itself didn’t seem worthy of a comprehensive NFL Films-style glorification just yet.

Tomlinson retired from the NFL just two summers ago. His record-breaking 31 touchdown MVP season was just 7 years ago. Finding a fresh angle would be a difficult task in this media age of multiple sports broadcast networks and hundreds more sports internet sites.

In my search for an untold story about LaDainian, I found a hidden gem 15 miles outside of Tomlinson’s hometown of Waco, Texas, in a place called Tomlinson Hill.

Tomlinson Hill is a small community that doesn’t appear on most state maps. LaDainian’s father was the last named Tomlinson to live there. It is also where LaDainian’s ancestors were brought as slaves nearly 200 years ago. LaDainian had visited there many times as a child but hadn’t been back in years.

In my first conversation with LaDainian, I asked if he was willing to take my crew and me to Tomlinson Hill for the documentary. He agreed. At the time, neither of us knew what would happen there.

Before our trip, I watched the only visual material I could find on Tomlinson Hill, an award-winning documentary directed by Lisa Kaselak. One of the main interviews in the documentary is Chris Tomlinson.

Chris is white and a direct descendant of James K. Tomlinson. James K. owned LaDainian Tomlinson’s enslaved ancestors.

Chris is also an award-winning journalist who spent the bulk of his career in war zones and natural disasters in Africa and the Middle East. He has since returned to Texas to discover the truth about his family’s slave-owning history and to write about his findings. His book, Tomlinson Hill: Sons of Slaves, Sons of Slaveholders, is expected to be out Spring, 2014.

I asked LaDainian if I could invite Chris on our trip. He agreed. I then asked Chris if he was available to join us and willing to share with LaDainian what he uncovered. He was.

The meeting between LaDainian and Chris in Tomlinson Hill is intercut throughout “A Football Life: LaDainian Tomlinson.” I suspect what Chris had to say and LaDainian’s reactions to Chris’ revelations will be the most discussed scenes of the film.

“A Football Life: LaDainian Tomlinson” premieres September 3rd at 9 pm ET. For more information on Chris Tomlinson and/or his book, visit

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