The severity of the injury was apparent as soon as Marcus Lattimore crumbled to the ground, his right knee bent in a way that knees aren’t designed to bend. At that moment, the 80,000 fans in Williams-Brice and millions of television viewers weren't concerned about whether Marcus would someday be able to help the Gamecocks win another SEC East Championship. Everyone just wanted Marcus to be OK.
"If anyone can come back from this, it’s him," was a popular mantra among South Carolina fans - and, indeed, the entire sporting world - in the days and weeks that followed Lattimore’s gruesome knee injury, suffered against Tennessee on October 27th. But even as we said the words aloud, it often felt like we were trying to convince ourselves of the fact rather than expressing a deeply held conviction.
We needed to hold onto the idea that Marcus could come back stronger than ever, because to believe otherwise would be to forfeit the ability to comprehend the world we live in. Life is hard for most of us, and sometimes the only thing that keeps us going is the subconscious belief that if we work hard and treat others well, things will probably turn out OK. But if such a grisly, career-threatening injury could again befall this paragon of sportsmanship, then should we all expect some random act of violence to cut us down when we're within arm’s reach of our lifelong dreams, as Lattimore seemed to be when Herman Lathers and Eric Gordon ended his college career?
As images of the gruesome injury were being analyzed by armchair physicians across the country, serious conversations were being had about whether or not Marcus would even be able to keep his right leg, much less play in the NFL someday. But then in mid-January, a few weeks after Lattimore had declared his intentions to enter the 2013 NFL Draft, reports of Lattimore's "miraculous recovery" began to surface and the whole thing just seemed too good to be true, as if it was part of a Hollywood script.
Now, exactly five months after the injury, Marcus is contemplating working out at South Carolina’s pro timing day on Wednesday and has set a goal of playing in the NFL some time before the 2013 season ends. How has he reached this point? Surprise, surprise: hard work, exercise, and – this time around – an added emphasis on nutrition.
"To tell you the truth, I wasn’t on a strict diet at all," Lattimore said of his approach to nutrition during his first rehabilitation process in an exclusive interview with Garnet And Black Attack. Lattimore tore his a ligament in his left knee against Mississippi State in October 2011, 377 days prior to the right knee injury he sustained last year. "In college, it was really up to you. But nutrition has been a big part of my [latest] recovery. I’m really excited to be working with EAS Sports Nutrition. I have a better understanding of what you need to eat and how you need to recover and what you need to do before workouts."
Those who saw Lattimore’s knee go sideways in October may find it inconceivable that the 21-year-old is mobile, much less embroiled in a demanding workout regimen. While it seems like a rapid turnaround, Lattimore suggests a measured approach is what yields results.
"You have to be patient in everything you do," Lattimore said. "You have to work your whole body. Maybe it takes four weeks to be able to walk. After that, you get stronger. You do certain things in the weight room to get your balance better and your strength back in your quads and hamstrings. You have to re-teach yourself how to run. You have to have a [trainer] who is very detailed and will help you do the right things."
And done the right things Lattimore has. His commitment to the process was cause for Dr. James Andrews to call him "superhuman" and compare him to the likes of Bo Jackson and Adrian Peterson.
"My goal is to be ready when I’m called on. If that’s week one, I [want to be] ready to go," Lattimore said. But he acknowledges that longevity is most important, and NFL teams will draft him with that as a priority. "If I do have to wait six or seven weeks, that’s fine. If I do have to wait a whole year, that’s fine because I realize that it’s about long term and being able to help the team for [many] years, and not just two or three years."
This hasn't tempered Lattimore’s fierce dedication to his rehabilitation regimen, the rigors of which have required no small amount of personal sacrifice. Marcus made waves a few weeks ago when ESPN’s Joe Schad reported that he had turned down an invitation to attend the presidential inauguration. Lattimore confirmed the report, adding, "I just really didn’t want to miss any time. Of course it would have been great to see the president and everything, but I just felt that it was a little bit more important [to stay in Pensacola working on my rehab]." And without abandoning any of his hallmark modesty, Lattimore added, "But I do have another invitation, so I can go whenever." Yes, Marcus Lattimore has an open door invitation to visit the President of the United States of America.
And Barack Obama isn’t the only celebrity that has reached out to Marcus Lattimore during his recovery. When the images of Lattimore’s injury began circulating around the internet and were replayed ad nauseam by ESPN, it felt like the country’s collective heart was breaking for Marcus. The outpouring of support emerged from every conceivable source. In a recent interview with Lattimore, ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt admitted that he didn’t care if it compromised his journalistic integrity or got him in trouble with employer: he’s rooting for Marcus Lattimore.
Lattimore acknowledges that the kind words and support have made an impact. "It gives me a little bit more motivation. It makes me want to go out there and do an extra rep and make sure I’m doing everything I can to do to be able to get back out on the field again," Lattimore said. During his recuperation at Athletes Performance in Pensacola, he was able to harvest support and motivation from another likable football star recovering from a knee injury: Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III. "It was great to meet [Griffin]. He taught me a lot. Keep your faith, stay close to God, do everything you can so that you’ll be prepared for whatever is best for you."
Regarding what's best for Lattimore, there's little question that declaring for the draft was in his best interest. "The opportunity was just perfect. I wouldn't have to worry about going to class and doing all of the other things that you have to do to be a college athlete." Still, the prospect of returning to South Carolina for his senior season was, in theory, an appealing scenario. "Of course it would have been great," Lattimore said. "I'm from South Carolina, so you know the love is real. I felt like that would have been great, but this was the best decision for me."
And while his days as a student athlete are over, Lattimore says he plans to eventually complete his degree. "I'm seven or eight classes away. That's something I wanted to accomplish coming into college because I know that's important."
For now, Lattimore looks ahead to pro timing day with the hope of impressing the scouts and coaches that will descend on Williams-Brice Stadium this Wednesday. Scouts and coaches, by the way, that need little convincing as to the value of Lattimore as a person and a player, but who'll be curious to get a firsthand glimpse of how he's far he's progressed since he was carted off that very field some five months earlier.
"I know I'll get back out on the field," Lattimore said, "because of my training, and because of my nutrition, and also because of my faith. I know that everything's going to be fine."
George Stevens contributed to this report.