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A Heritage on a Hill

San Diego is justifiably proud of LaDanian Tomlinson, but he gladdens hearts in a piece of Texas, too


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ONE HUNDRED and fifty years ago, a white farmer named James K. Tomlinson rode through central Texas in a covered wagon and settled 15 acres of pastureland. Today, the legacy of that land is carried on by a 27-year-old pro football player in San Diego whose ancestors were Tomlinson’s slaves. LaDainian Tomlinson, the San Diego Chargers running back and the Most Valuable Player in the National Football League, may not be related to James Tomlinson, but they are linked by the hill that bears their name.

Tomlinson Hill belongs to both of them. After Emancipation, LaDainian Tomlinson’s ancestors kept the name and stayed on the hill. They wanted to make the place their own.

“I know the hill isn’t really named for us,” LaDainian Tomlinson says. “But I take pride in it, and I take pride in my name. When I think of that hill, I think of my family. When people look at it, I want them to think about me and my family.”

Tomlinson Hill is not listed on maps. Locals refer to it as a settlement, not a town. It does not have a post office, a gas station or a store. It is not really even a hill; the altitude rises slightly from nearby Marlin and Lott. Cows graze on either side of dirt roads. Dogs run unleashed in the streets. Their barking pierces the country quiet.

The hill used to be crowded with Tomlinsons. The houses of LaDainian’s relatives and those of James Tomlinson’s descendants were divided by a pasture and a fence. The divide still exists, a pasture separating white families from black families, large homes from small ones. The population, about 100, is racially mixed and composed largely of senior citizens. There may be only one person left whose last name is Tomlinson. He is 71, has gray stubble and usually needs a walking stick to get around.

In early January, standing in his front yard, next to a rusty pickup truck and a car that needs new spark plugs, Oliver Tomlinson sorts through his mail. “I’m looking for my Super Bowl tickets,” he says. “I know they’re coming.” Oliver explains to anyone passing by that his son plays football for the San Diego Chargers and that they are going to the Super Bowl. When it is suggested that they first need to win two playoff games, he waves his hand dismissively.

Oliver lives in a one-story white house on a corner. He watches his son’s games on a television set with a rabbit-ears antenna. He surrounds himself with space heaters. Rain clatters off his tin roof. He has no phone. Among the few decorations on the walls is an unframed photograph of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“LaDainian has asked me to move to San Diego,” Oliver says, spitting a stream of tobacco juice into a peanut can. “But I can’t leave this hill. It’s been too good to me. This hill has given me everything I need. The Lord blessed me with that boy and this hill.”

LaDainian was raised by his mother in Waco and estranged from his father, who left the family for long periods. But LaDainian’s visits to Tomlinson Hill provided a connection to his relatives. His father lived on the same block as his uncles, aunts and cousins. Neighbors used to watch the young LaDainian dash from one house to another, often accompanied by his favorite pet, a black-and-white Poland China hog.

“He was fast,” says Jewel Hodges, a Tomlinson Hill resident. “He was always fast.”

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