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On Nov. 2 in Birmingham, Guy teamed for the second time in 13 months with his former boss, noted orthopedic surgeon James Andrews, to fix one of Lattimore's knees. Andrews, a former LSU pole vaulter, repaired Peterson's ACL, as well as that of Robert Griffin III. Andrews and Guy, along with Alabama-based surgeon Lyle Cain, spent more than three hours reconstructing Lattimore's knee and repairing other ligament damage on the outside of the joint. The best news? The preliminary tests had been correct; Lattimore had no nerve damage and no blood-supply damage. He could potentially return to the football field.
By the time of the surgery, Lattimore knew how many people wanted to see him play again. He received get-well wishes from every state and notes from as far away as Brazil and Finland. At an elementary school in Kentucky, students spelled out Lattimore's jersey number—21—on an empty field and sent him the overhead photo. Georgia football coaches had their entire team sign a ball for Lattimore. Clemson players and coaches signed a giant poster that asked God to give Lattimore the "strength, endurance, healing and courage" to recover.
The most encouraging messages came from former Hurricanes. One came from Willis McGahee, who tore his ACL in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 3, 2003, and recovered sufficiently quickly to get drafted No. 23 overall by Buffalo. The other was from Frank Gore, who tore both ACLs at Miami, dropped into the third round in '05, and in '11 broke the 49ers' career rushing record. The NFL vets reassured Lattimore that he, not his knee, would control his future. "They both said the same thing," Lattimore says. " 'It's all in your mind.' "
Lattimore announced in December that he would skip his senior season at South Carolina. Then he relocated to Gulf Breeze, Fla., where he undertook daily rehab sessions at the Andrews Institute and daily strength sessions next door at the Athletes' Performance training center. By then, the defeat he felt on the field that day in October had drained away. It had been replaced by the same determination that had driven Lattimore to break South Carolina's school record for rushing touchdowns even in an injury-shortened three-year career.
To Lattimore's surprise, the rehab on his right knee didn't hurt as much as that on his left knee a year earlier. McGahee and Gore were right. Much of the discomfort in the previous rehab stemmed from the fear of using the repaired knee. Now that Lattimore knew from experience that those exercises would help him, he didn't fear them. After Lattimore had recovery breakthroughs in January—doing box jumps, single-leg squats and running in a pool—he went to a Senior Bowl practice in Mobile and told NFL people he could be ready to play on opening day of the season. In early March, when physical therapist Stephen LaPlante asked Lattimore to catch balls while squatting against a wall for a minute or more, Lattimore didn't worry. And when LaPlante told Lattimore to perform the drill four more times, Lattimore didn't blink. "He won't cut a corner," LaPlante says.
During his first ACL rehab, Lattimore watched Peterson's workouts on YouTube and tried to emulate them. This time, he is working off a rehab protocol written by the same person who designed Peterson's rehab, and Lattimore cites Peterson's recovery as an inspiration.
The specter of Peterson—who rushed for 2,097 yards in 2012, less than 10 months after having his ACL repaired—looms over Lattimore's rehab as well as the rehab of almost every football player coming off ACL reconstruction. Andrews worries that Peterson's unusual recovery has spurred unrealistic goals. "[Peterson's] situation is good for him," Andrews says, "but it could also be bad, because it gives other people the wrong impression that they can do the same thing." The challenge, Andrews says, is pushing the recovering athletes without damaging the healing ligaments. This is especially true for players who suffered an injury as violent as Lattimore's. "You've got to be careful with someone who has had that knee injury—particularly if they're aggressive about it," Andrews says. "They do too much, too fast. I'm constantly back here making sure they don't get too far ahead of Mother Nature."
Lattimore wants to move faster at times, but he has heeded Andrews, Guy, LaPlante and strength coach Russ Orr. That's why he hasn't made Week 1 a hard-and-fast deadline. "I know my body," Lattimore says. "I understand being ready to go and waiting if I have to." Still, former LSU defensive linemen Bennie Logan and Sam Montgomery stood slack-jawed in March as they watched Lattimore push a heavy sled back and forth on a track at Athletes' Performance. Lattimore believes he could have run for scouts at South Carolina's pro day on March 27, but he didn't want to take the risk. He has enough dazzling runs on film to impress scouts, and his job as the draft approaches is to impress NFL team doctors and convince NFL general managers that he is worth the risk of a high draft pick. Those doctors poked and prodded Lattimore at the combine in February, and his knee will undergo more scrutiny by teams as the draft draws closer. It helps that Lattimore has the Andrews label on his surgery.
Lattimore knows NFL people already like him as a human being. That was made obvious by the ovation at his pro day. "You don't do that at pro days," says an NFL team employee who attended. But some general manager will have to decide if Lattimore is worth the investment as a football player after two knee surgeries. That makes predicting where Lattimore will go in the draft nearly impossible. "I can't do anything about it," Lattimore says. "If they like me, they like me. If they don't, they don't."
Lattimore has watched a replay of the injury only twice. "It really didn't feel like me," he says, "because it looked like it hurt." Andrews, meanwhile, saw a replay in early March. "That's the best look I'd gotten at it," Andrews says. "It scared the hell out of me after the fact."