South Carolina Gamecocks running back Marcus Lattimore is rehabbing at the Athletes' Performance facility located at the Andrews Institute. / JD Mercer, USA TODAY Sports
PENSACOLA, Fla. - Marcus Lattimore shocked his world-renowned surgeon, not only with an unprecedented speedy recovery from a complete knee rebuild but with his first words after the complex November surgery.
The former University of South Carolina star expressed two concerns to James Andrews on Nov. 2 following the 2½-hour surgery to piece together the shredded ligaments of the running back's right knee.
First he wanted to know if they were able to fix all the damage (torn ACL, LCL and PCL) he suffered six days prior in the ninth game of his junior season. They had.
Next, Lattimore wanted to get to work on his environmental science homework, due online that night.
"He said, 'I've got to get my assignment in by midnight tonight,' "recalls Andrews, "I was laughing. I've never had an athlete wake up from major knee surgery and worry about the classroom. That tells you something about the kid, right?"
At the Andrews Institute, the doctor's staff would learn much more about Lattimore. The 21-year-old was determined to turn the second major knee injury of his career into the next great NFL comeback story. Andrews says he's three months ahead of schedule in his recovery and has gained 20 pounds of muscle. The surgeon maintains it's possible Lattimore could play in 2013.
"I want to be an inspiration," Lattimore tells USA TODAY Sports. "To let people know that with hard work, and when you trust in God, you can come back from anything and do anything."
'I know he's not afraid'
As South Carolina won its final three regular season games to finish 11-2, Lattimore weighed his options. If he stayed in school, he could restore his once-booming draft stock. If he declared himself pro eligible, he could finish the semester and spend the next few months at the Andrews Institute and the Athletes' Performance facility, with his agent footing the bill. It could mean less money if and when he was drafted.
In his mind, there was no if.
"I wanted to come down because I knew the reputation they had with guys with knee injuries," Lattimore says. "If I had stayed in school I wouldn't have been able to come down here and get the best treatment in the world and be ready to go."
But Lattimore wasn't thinking football when he awoke following surgery: That online quiz was done 30 minutes before the midnight deadline.
"I don't remember doing it," says Lattimore, grinning beneath a black skull cap covering corn-rowed hair.
By then, Lattimore had ditched a desire to quit the game after tearing an ACL for the second time in little more than a year. His sophomore season ended with a major, yet far less serious knee injury.
"The day I got hurt again, I said, I know I'm done," he says. "Those first two weeks after surgery, it's hurting every day. You can't sleep. You're by yourself a lot. I knew I didn't want to go through that again."
His mother, Yolanda Smith, wanted him to quit too. And still does.
After splitting with her husband when Marcus was 9, Smith worked as a court clerk to support her two sons, a daughter, a niece and a nephew in Duncan, S.C., where Lattimore attended Byrnes High School.
She's been there throughout his football career, helping with everything from picking a college and an agent to rushing to his side on the occasion of each knee injury.
"As a parent I wanted so bad to just say, 'no, enough. You're done,' "she says. "No mother wants to see their child injured in any way. But he just tells me 'mama I'm fine.' And I look in his eyes and know he's not afraid."
A Peterson-like effort
Lattimore steps into a miniature pool on this weekday at the Andrews Institute, where fellow prospects and current NFL players come to rehab or train for the upcoming season. Washington Redskins Robert Griffin III stands in a hot tub 10 feet away stretching after his own pool session.
The NFL offensive rookie of the year teasingly urges on Lattimore: "Flex, Marcus, flex!"
Lattimore describes his time in Pensacola since arriving in mid-December as "the best experience ever."
Andrews says Lattimore's work ethic has been on par with another Andrews' patient, Adrian Peterson. The Minnesota Vikings running back came within nine yards of the single season rushing record after tearing his ACL the previous season.
"He's twice as far along as we ever expected him to be. He's so self motivated," Andrews says of Lattimore. "This weight he's put on has been all muscle, which is absolutely impossible in most cases. It remains to be seen if he can play this season.
"We've had to slow him down in certain activities because he'd get ahead of us. He's one of the finest young men I've ever had the opportunity to help take care of."
Andrews echoed the sentiments of South Carolina coaches who witnessed the first Lattimore rebuild.
"I knew without a doubt that he was going to overcome the first knee injury," says South Carolina co-offensive coordinator Shawn Elliott. "He's got a will power unlike (anyone) I've ever been around. He's a guy who's going to overcome all odds."
At the Institute, he values the advice of NFL players like Griffin, who overcame serious college injuries to prosper in the NFL. Griffin is doing part of his rehab in Florida after suffering multiple knee ligament tears during the playoffs.
Says Lattimore: "Robert Griffin, there's no doubt in his mind he's going to come back from it because he's been through it. He knows what it takes. I feel like I know what it takes.
"This time, I'm progressing faster even though it was a worse injury, because this time I'm not timid to do certain things."
Lattimore received plenty of guidance outside of the Institute as well. By his count, about 15 NFL players who have suffered similar injuries have contacted him to offer encouragement and advice. San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver, a former Gamecock, asked running back Frank Gore to call Lattimore. Denver Broncos offensive tackle Ryan Clady, with whom Lattimore shares an agent, asked running back Willis McGahee to give Lattimore a ring.
"That's something that I'll cherish," Lattimore says.
Projecting toward the draft
Though he won't participate in any drills, Lattimore's combine appearance will be of paramount value to NFL teams considering drafting him. He's projected in the third or fourth round by most draft analysts, but much will depend on his medical diagnosis, says one former NFL general manager.
"I don't think anybody knows yet. You have to see the medical diagnosis," former Washington Redskins and Houston Texans GM Charley Casserly, currently a CBS analyst, says. "The team that picks him is going to be one that doesn't need him. You're probably going to have a running back or depth at running back and you may be looking for a guy a year from now. "
If Lattimore is sweating his draft status, it doesn't show. He has an uncommon calm about him, his trainers say. He keeps football in perspective, and would like to complete his 18 credits needed for a bachelors degree in public health by December, all while maintaining his 3.0 GPA.
Yet he doesn't plan on entering the field at any point. Lattimore, who hopes to join his siblings as first-generation college grads, supposes he'll be a scout, or a coach, or a general manager once it's all over.
"He's the kind of person who's going to have success in life no matter what he does," says Elliott.
For now, Lattimore wants to just run for scouts at his private pro day sometime in April. Lattimore says he weighs 222, up seven pounds from his playing weight and 22 pounds from his lowest weight after surgery. Taking a page from the McGahee script, Lattimore would like to showcase his new body and rebuilt knee by catching some passes, doing sprints, squats and lunges.
Whether he's at half speed, full speed or somewhere in between, he plans on making the grade. Just like that night in the recovery room, with the online quiz that couldn't wait.
How'd that turn out anyway?
"A hundred," Lattimore says.
Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com
Read the original story: Marcus Lattimore way ahead of schedule in bid to play this year