CHICAGO -- On the day after he passed Walter Payton on the all-time rushing touchdowns list back in 2007, LaDainian Tomlinson wore a white No. 34 Bears jersey to the Chargers' complex out of respect for his boyhood idol.
You wonder if the introspective Tomlinson, with a keen sense of NFL history, sees any symmetry in ending his career wearing the same uniform of the guy who first inspired his dream as a 5-year-old kid.
That's possible now that the Chargers have cut Tomlinson and forced every team with needs at running back to consider their options, including the one that LT recalls introducing him to the NFL as a boy.
After seeing Payton play on TV in his home near Waco, Texas, as Tomlinson's tale goes, he started sleeping with a football under his arm.
As a man, Tomlinson named his pit bull "Sweetness." In past interviews, Tomlinson has revealed his trainer yells, "Come on Walter, let's go," to motivate him during offseason workouts. When Tomlinson received the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2007, he was most touched to learn he reminded Brittney Payton, Walter's daughter, of her dad more than any other player.
Running where Payton once ran has the makings of a set-to-music, happy ending for Tomlinson's Hall of Fame career. But sentiment is to an NFL roster what stress is to a vacation. It can ruin it.
The Bears still need to consider signing Tomlinson -- but only on their terms. It doesn't have to be at the top of future director of player personnel Tim Ruskell's agenda, but it should be on his to-do list before March 5.
Tomlinson believes he still has the skills to command the salary of a feature back and it may take him until August to realize nobody else in the league agrees. He turns 31 in June and has shown too many signs of decline for any team to risk making him their No. 1 back to start the season. Age is one enemy even the greatest running backs never have been able to make miss.
The sooner Tomlinson accepts that, the more teams he will find interested in negotiating a contract commensurate with that limited role -- and the Bears should be one of those teams.
Even LT light can make the burden heavier for a defense. The Bears' red-zone struggles defined their offense as much as Jay Cutler's interceptions, and Tomlinson runs inside the 20 like he has "Goal Line" programmed on his helmet's GPS. A guy with more than 500 career receptions also would thrive in a Mike Martz passing game that treats running backs like wide receivers.
Used in short spurts, Tomlinson still has enough left to make drives last longer.
Would Tomlinson's psyche allow him to accept a lesser role? The Bears would have the benefit of having a coach on staff that knows Tomlinson well if it doesn't. Newly promoted offensive assistant Andrew Hayes-Stoker backed up Tomlinson at TCU and even was a roommate of Tomlinson's brother, LaVar, after college.
Tommie Harris, who grew up an hour away from Tomlinson in Killeen, Texas, also is a buddy. Remember that '07 Nike commercial?
Matt Forte needs either a complement or a challenger more durable and dynamic than the oft-injured Kevin Jones. Please don't mention Garrett Wolfe, unless it's a discussion about players protected by draft status.
Speculation has surrounded free agent Chester Taylor of the Vikings, but the hype over Taylor almost guarantees he will be ridiculously overpriced. The Eagles released Brian Westbrook on Tuesday and, despite an injury-plagued past full of concussions, he merits a look. What if the Jets cut Thomas Jones, who is too hard of a worker to rule out a Halas Hall reunion?
Still the most compelling possibility for the Bears remains Tomlinson, whose availability livened up more than just Chicago. Saints quarterback Drew Brees, Tomlinson's former teammate, took the cause to where every social-media conscious athlete goes: Twitter.
"I would love to get LT in the black and gold," Brees wrote.
Rumors say Redskins coach Mike Shanahan feels the same way about LT in maroon and gold. The Patriots, Ravens and Eagles also make sense.
At first glance, they don't meet Tomlinson's stated criteria of being a championship contender. But a year ago, you could have said the same thing about the Saints. The only prerequisite Tomlinson mentioned was the presence of a proven quarterback.
The Bears have Cutler.
If it matters, the Bears also offer Tomlinson an intangible no other team can: The chance to finish as he started, imitating his hero in the same place Payton made so many memories.