When South Carolina trainer Clint Haggard reached Lattimore and rolled him over, the knee popped back into place. Guy got to Lattimore a few seconds later and began to evaluate the damage.
The strong of stomach watched the ESPN replay. The rest heeded the advice of play-by-play man Dave Pasch, who suggested that viewers turn away if they didn't want to see something gruesome. It seemed as if the end of Lattimore's football career had just been televised. "I knew it was bad," Lattimore says. "I knew I might have to hang it up."
Exactly five months later, at South Carolina's pro day, Lattimore ran sewing-machine-precise ladder drills and showed off the stability of the surgically repaired knee with two huge stripes of scar tissue. When he finished his workout, the NFL coaches and scouts in attendance applauded. Lattimore remains confident he'll be ready to play for the team that drafts him when the 2013 NFL season begins. The change of outlook came thanks to some serious medical brainpower, buckets of sweat, a little good fortune and a lot of love.
The love came pouring in even as Lattimore lay on the field in tears. Typically when a player gets hurt, some teammates and an opponent or two will approach to offer words of encouragement. When Lattimore went down, South Carolina's entire squad came off its sideline and surrounded him. A few moments later the Vols came off their sideline to join the Gamecocks. "One of the most touching things I've ever seen in my life was the Tennessee players coming up to him," Guy says. "It was the whole freakin' team.... It still gives me chills when I think about it."
Yolanda Smith, Lattimore's mother, hadn't seen the play live. As usual, she'd been taking photos of players' families. She does that to take her mind off what might happen to her son on any given play and typically follows games by watching replays on the video screen. This time, though, there was no replay. Smith looked around and saw everyone in the Gamecocks' family section staring at her. "Go, Yolanda!" she remembers someone saying. The people parted, and Smith ran down to the field.
She couldn't bear to see her youngest in pain. She had worked her entire life to keep all five of her children—including a niece and nephew whom she raised—away from heartache. She had grown up in the Carver Homes projects in Atlanta, surrounded by poverty and drugs. She wanted better for her children. She bounced from Atlanta to the Pacific Northwest with her first husband, a military man. That marriage failed, as did a second, but the family eventually settled into a happy life in the northwest corner of the Palmetto State. "Nobody taught me how to be a parent," Smith says. "I just did the opposite of what I saw."
That includes taking photos of her eyeball and sending it to her young adult children on Friday and Saturday nights with the message, "I see you." Smith ran a tight ship, and Lattimore was the golden child, so well-behaved that he rarely needed discipline. According to his older sister, Eboni White, the worst transgression of Lattimore's childhood involved setting off a firework in the locker room at Byrnes High in Duncan. Lattimore admitted his mistake to his coach and paid penance by running hills. As the nation's No. 1--ranked tailback in 2010, Lattimore quickly impressed college coaches with humility and good manners. At South Carolina his teammates elected him captain. Even players from enemy schools loved Lattimore. "He's just a good guy," Clemson's Swinney says. "Even though he wears a rival's jersey, he's a guy to pull for." Smith had done her job with Marcus. She had prepared him for the world. But neither of them were prepared for this. As Marcus arrived in the training room with Guy, Yolanda wanted to erase her son's anguish; she wanted to trade legs.
Lattimore sobbed that phrase over and over. He couldn't stop crying. Meanwhile, Guy and Haggard asked him if he could feel his toes. NFL running back Robert Edwards suffered a similar injury in 1999 while playing in a beach football game in Hawaii during the week of the Pro Bowl. The knee dislocation had caused nerve damage, and Edwards lost feeling in his foot for a time. Had Lattimore damaged his peroneal nerve or his popliteal artery, his football career would be in serious jeopardy. "Marcus, wiggle your toes," Yolanda remembers telling her son in the training room and after he was taken to the hospital. "Move your feet."
Lattimore's toes worked. His feet worked. To Guy's astonishment, tests during the next few days showed no nerve damage, "which is really shocking, especially the way that he got hit," Guy says. "That's one of the most common ways that you get hit and cause a nerve problem." Tests revealed no damage to the blood supply in his leg either. They showed no cartilage damage. They showed no bone damage. The medical staff wouldn't know for sure until it performed the surgery to repair the ligaments, but it seemed as if Lattimore might have a chance at a full recovery. In the NFL, Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson was running through the league on an ACL repaired only the previous December. With a successful surgery and a grueling rehab, Lattimore's NFL dream might survive.