I like to say that there are no bandwagon fans at Carolina. If you cheer for the Garnet and Black, you have chosen to hoe a tough row. Through accidents of history, demographics and political machinations, your perennial foes have more money and - at least until recently - far better facilities. Through poor decision-making - at least until recently - your chosen university has made a succession of poor coaching hires. Success that came easily to our rivals seemed to elude us for years - despite all our efforts.
Even if you just joined the Gamecock family in this recent, unprecedented three year run of success, you are still the heir of all the hard times. I became a USC fan before some of you - back in the late 1980s. Many of you, of course, were Carolina fans before then. Like I said - it doesn't matter when you joined the family, only that you're with us.
I merely bring up the span of time that I have rooted for USC, however, in order to give you context for what I am about to say: that for years, Gamecock fans waited, hoped and prayed that one great player from the Palmetto State - one truly sublime and transcendent athlete - would say "no, thank you" the traditional power programs and pick us instead.
We hoped that such a young man would come of his own free will to USC. We prayed he would crown us with football glory. We dreamed that the rest of the College Football World would say, "Yes, that one is great." We desired with all our hearts others would follow in his footsteps. We fantasized that with him, we would compete for an SEC championship.
He wouldn't be merely a great football player. He would be a man of high character. An emissary for the University. A team player in every sense of the word. A role model for the youth of South Carolina whether they cheered for the Garnet and Black or even the Orange and White. A young man whose name would be known all over the country.
Those prayers were answered in 2010 when Marcus Lattimore signed with South Carolina over Auburn University.
I don't in any way take away from the other great players who have run out of the southwest corner of Williams-Brice Stadium to the thunderous sound of 2001. Our Number 21 might not even be the "best" athlete to don the Bock C and Gamecock. One could make arguments in favor of Rogers, Sharpe, Clowney and Lattimore - among others - for that honor.
But make no mistake, friends. In the history of South Carolina football there is "before Lattimore" and "after Lattimore." Our UGA and Clemson pals like to tease the Gamecocks for having a "Tradition since 2010." Maybe, despite all of the snarkiness, these Bulldog and Tiger fans are paying homage in their own way to Marcus.
Lattimore was just that transcendent. He embodied all of our hopes. In our wildest dreams, we could never have dialed up a better distillation of what we wanted in a Gamecock than what that young man from Duncan brought to Columbia; an upstate youth who grew up in the near-shadow of Clemson's Memorial Stadium, and not much more than a stone's throw from Athens, Georgia, yet proceeded through recruiting with a laser focus on USC.
So why did I pray for Marcus last night? After all, hadn't we already prayed for his recovery after his 2011 injury at Starkville, Mississippi? And the gruesome injury he sustained a mere 377 days later - in that fateful home game against the Volunteers in 2012? Should we ask the Almighty for more?
The answer is "yes". And I will tell you why.
Because as the third round of this NFL Draft began, with no RB taken in the first round since before I was born (and that is old, my friends) - I had a sinking feeling that he wouldn't go in the third round. That Marcus might not even be drafted.
It's no secret that Marcus is a man of great faith, and credits the Lord not only for his rehabilitation but for his innate talent and the opportunities he has had. If Marcus was the answer to our prayers for USC, then here's hoping that our prayers can help him answer his football dreams.
I can't help but think back to the great, likely apocryphal scene in Chariots of Fire when Jackson Scholz presses a piece of paper into Eric Liddell's hand before the 400 meters final at the 1924 Paris Games: "It says in the Old Book 'He who honors Me, I will honor.'"
So I prayed that God would comfort Marcus through this night - and this weekend. That the same strength which sustained the pride of Byrnes High School through two grueling rehabs would be there to lift him through the hard times of having to watch less-talented backs be drafted ahead of him (and no offense to Giovanni Bernard, Le'Veon Bell, Montee Ball or even Eddie Lacey - but Marcus was better than all of them) .
Marcus Lattimore was the answer to our football dreams. No, we never won an SECCG while he was here. We did not get a BCS bowl bid. We weren't a national championship contender. But things have changed since he arrived at the Palmetto Proving Grounds - and have changed for the better.
"So where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within."
- Eric Liddell, Chariots of Fire (1981)
And, you know what? I have this feeling that mine wasn't the only prayer for Marcus Lattimore.
Hopefully you know by now that the San Francisco 49ers selected Marcus Lattimore with their second pick of the fourth round, the 131st pick overall. And just like at the Combine, Marcus received a standing ovation from the crowd at Radio City Music Hall when his name was finally called.
Honestly - whether you cheer for the Niners or not - can you really think of a better squad for Marcus? The 49ers are one of the league's elite franchises in terms of on-the-field talent, coaching and front-office management. San Francisco is as good a bet as any NFC club to play for the Super Bowl (again) next season. Jim Harbaugh might be the premiere young coach in the pros; and, of course, Marcus will be mentored by Frank Gore who knows a thing or two about succeeding as a big-time NFL RB after he sustained a pair of major college knee injuries of his own at the "U".
Initial reports from Santa Clara - straight from Jim Harbaugh - are that the Niners are content to hold Lattimore out for all of 2013 if that is what is best for his recovery. In other words, they won't force him back onto the field too soon. My one fear for Marcus has been allayed (i.e., that some lesser team would "need" him before he was ready, and that Marcus' can-do/will-do attitude would make him a willing participant in rushing to start rushing before the right time).
The "Ruthless Sports Guy" at the Bay Area Sports Guy blog, explains why, even with all the risk, his "draft crush" Marcus Lattimore is still the perfect fit for San Francisco.