When the San Francisco 49ers selected Marcus Lattimore with the 131st pick of the 2013 NFL Draft, a storm-surge of emotion washed over me -- happiness, pride and, most of all, relief.
Some fifteen months later, I still believe what I wrote back in late April of last year:
In the history of South Carolina football there is "before Lattimore" and "after Lattimore" .... [he] 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, whether you love or hate the Niners, was there a better landing-spot for Marcus? A storied franchise recently rebuilt into a perennial Super Bowl contender. A hot young coach; a brand new stadium about to come online; a power-running offense. Plus five-time Pro Bowler, Frank Gore (himself no stranger to gruesome, collegiate knee injuries) to mentor him.
Sure, we figured Marcus would have to sit out all of the 2013 season to rehab. But he would certainly be ready to erupt onto the NFL stage in 2014. We all knew it. After all, he had done it before. He would do it again. Right?
It was like the comeback script was writing itself.
Fast forward to July-August, 2014.
If you are like me -- and I suspect many of you are -- then you have had a hard time bringing yourself to check up on Marcus.
It's not like you weren't rooting for him. You were. It's not like you had forgotten him amidst the hype surrounding Jadeveon Clowney's draft, either. You hadn't.
Still, in an NFL offseason that has been pretty bleak for former Gamecocks -- see here, here, here, here and here - you could easily be forgiven for having hoped the news from 49ers camp would be all good. Lattimore would be 100%. He would easily make the Niners' 53 man roster. He would be competing with for significant p.t. behind Gore. His legendary work-ethic and high character would see him through.
Unfortunately, the stories weren't coming out of Northern California that way. Marcus suffered some mysterious ailment during OTAs in the spring - which one source attributed to leg soreness. There were whispers that he might be on the trading block. By mid-summer, his knee still was not 100%. He then apparently strained his hamstring during July drills. He has since bounced between San Fran's PUP/Non football injury lists and missed the start of August camp.
The University's establishment of a Marcus Lattimore scholarship back in June seemed like the only good news.
The script wasn't writing itself anymore.
So where have you gone, Marcus Lattimore?
The good news is that he hasn't gone anywhere. He's still in Santa Clara. Publicly, the Niners organization is 100% in his corner.
In a late July interview, San Francisco general manager Trent Baalke was adamant that Marcus had not suffered a set-back on the knee rehab: "There's a mental hurdle and a physical hurdle you've got to overcome .. [a]nd he's close. How close? That remains to be seen."
Just four days ago, Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh expressed confidence Marcus would contribute this season - "I know what he’s got inside of him and I know what he’s capable of doing on the football field. We all do." While Coach Harbaugh downplayed the mental aspect raised by Baalke (see the video), he was still noncommittal in just what role Marcus would play.
Still, 49er fans are openly wondering when and if he will be ready for season. And despite Harbaugh's fairly positive press comments, others feel the staff is actually not confident at all.
With significant injuries to Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James, leaving Carlos Hyde as the only big-time backup to Gore, it would seem like a tailor-made time to activate Lattimore - if he is ready, that is.
But on the other hand, the Niners have recently inked short-term contracts with journeyman Alfonso Smith and undrafted rookie Glenn Winston as additional running backs. Whether Smith, Winston and the other RBs not named Gore or Hyde even survive training camp remains to be seen, but one could not be criticized for thinking that these late free agency deals signal that Baalke and Harbaugh must have some concern that Lattimore will not be back for a while.
In any event, ESPN is still projecting he will make the final roster.
For his part, I don't think Marcus has given an interview since early July -- in which he did not talk about his rehab or his hopes for 2014. If our old Number 21 is keeping his thoughts and hopes to himself, we have to respect that. It is a cliche - sure - but only time will tell if Lattimore suits up at Levi's Stadium this fall (Ed. - aka "the Field of Jeans". Really?). Right now, however, all we have to go on is a lot of hope and a lot of cliches.
I know we're all still cheering for you, Marcus.
Keep the faith.
That script hasn't finished writing itself yet.