On Saturday, October 15, we all watched in abject horror as Marcus Lattimore's lower leg folded the wrong way. Our initial collective hope was that it looked worse than it was. Hell, only a week ago, our upstate rival's star suffered an ostensibly nasty blow that turned out to be nothing more than a thigh bruise. But visually, this wasn't so ambiguous. This was bad. This was the sort of highlight that anchors advise viewers to turn away from. I'd wager that few of us have an advanced knowledge of the anatomy of the human knee, but we've watched enough football to know what a torn ACL looks like.
So as Marcus Lattimore was helped off the field, your outward reaction may have been one of frantic optimism. Mine sure was. "I think he'll be alright...it's Marcus, after all." But it was impossible to ignore that subconscious message beaming from whatever sector of the brain generates common sense: this was the last time we'd see Latty on the field until next September. It was a strange feeling from a fan's perspective, to walk away from a vaunted SEC road win harboring a feeling of relative loss. But after such a poor showing paired with a portentous injury, that's exactly how it felt.
By Monday, the news broke. Fans of the Gamecocks and rivals alike extended sympathies for this young man who carries himself so well both on and off the grass. A spare few digital nobodies celebrated, and even taunted Marcus from afar. These are unambiguously horrible people, and I have no time for them. But overall, there was a vast sympathetic outpouring, and I know Marcus is grateful.
So with all this a reality, we're forced to take stock. We all remind ourselves and one another that we have more tools. A true freshman in Brandon Wilds, similar in size to Marcus, who's proved surprisingly capable in the few situations we've asked anything of him. Bruce Ellington is as game-ready as we'd hoped. Alshon is Alshon, Shaw is proving his worth, our defense is a top tier unit. And of course there's the thought that opposing defenses will have to guess a bit more now that our primary weapon is out of the picture. By now we could probably recite from memory all these optimistic bullet-points from journalists, bloggers, and commenters.
But both naysayers and neutral parties read them as nothing more than consolatory scraps for a fanbase that's been gutted of its identity. They say it's a crippling loss for an already offensively unsteady team (unsteady as 1-loss teams go, anyway.) They offer a simple analysis: no Marcus means a significantly reduced, if not fully extinguished chance at repeating as SEC East champions based on our remaining schedule. And, frankly, maybe the naysayers are correct. I defy any of you to say losing a guy like Marcus Lattimore doesn't equate to an undeniable regression for any unit.
But when something catastrophic as this happens, the natural and expected reaction for a fanbase with championship aspirations is to scrape together a serviceable plan B. "If Wilds gets going, and Shaw settles in, and Ellington can get loose, and the defense holds, and..." So many ifs. But none of us is about to give up on the season because of an injury, no matter how gargantuan it may be or how dour the situation.
So the reality is this: We're without our star. But I'll remind you of this, as I'm sure many have pointed out already: in the spring of 2011, Jackie Bradley Jr. was sidelined for nearly half of the baseball season with an injury. It was a deflating blow, but Jackie was surrounded by a hell of a lot of talent. So we soldiered on without him, and thrived due in large part to our stellar defense and pitching. And, of course, we won it all.
It's a nebulous comparison at best, of course. Baseball and football are vastly different sports, and Jackie wasn't even having a stellar season. Plus, JBJ made it back for the CWS, and lord knows we won't be seeing Marcus again this season. But in so many ways, Jackie was the Marcus Lattimore of our baseball team. He was our national identity, our stabilizer, the guy who we'd one day watch at a professional level and think, "I'm proud to call him a Gamecock." And despite his injury, by all accounts he remained a positive clubhouse presence, and an inspiring teammate and leader.
If the coaches and players are to be believed, Marcus' contributions in those departments are almost as important as his playmaking abilities. It's easy for us fans, disconnected from the team's day-to-day interactions as we are, to lose faith after seeing a guy like Marcus neutralized. But it's important for us to remember: Marcus still matters. We've already heard that his immediate reaction to being told his season was over was to ask about preparation steps for next year. Just as we know no one will work harder to get back, we've also got to imagine that no one will try harder to remain an active contributor to the team without actually being on the field.
Indeed, our team--on paper, the best team we've ever fielded--is now without its most dynamic, high-powered player. We lose a heap of numbers, but more importantly we lose an onfield presence and a highly publicized symbol of our progress as a program. Speaking to the former, it'll be a Herculean task to achieve a similar synergy without Marcus lining up in the backfield. The latter aspect, however, can thrive without his gameday contributions. Lattimore will continue to be a stellar ambassador for our program. He'll continue to lead in the locker room, to inspire teammates and fans alike.
Our team's challenge now is to learn how to win without Marcus on the field. But what they don't have to do is learn how to win without Marcus. He'll still be there, every tender step of the way. And you have to believe, friends, that that will make a difference.