COLUMBIA, S.C. — Marcus Lattimore believes his knee injury was a test he had to pass, for himself and South Carolina. The junior running back tore his ACL while blocking downfield at Mississippi State last October. His mother, Yolanda Smith, rushed to his side and Lattimore's left leg was encased in a temporary brace as he hobbled into the locker room.
It was a devastating loss for the Gamecocks — coach Steve Spurrier announced it the next day with the words, "Our worst fears were realized" — and for the durable Lattimore, who was frightened at first he might not ever again be one of the Southeastern Conference's top rushers.
"I kind of felt like it was a test, a test to see if I was going to break, to see if I'd give up," Lattimore said. "Because there were times I wanted to give up."
Instead, Lattimore ran straight ahead into getting better. He leaned on his family and teammates and spoke with other football players such as Pittsburgh Panthers running back Ray Graham and New Orleans Saints safety Roman Harper about dealing with similar injuries and their recoveries.
"I look down on my phone and see that it's Marcus Lattimore calling," said Graham, the All-Big East Conference tailback who also hurt his ACL last fall.
Lattimore said the advice and the friendly chats helped him focus on returning to the field, something he's ready to do when the Gamecocks open the season at Vanderbilt on Aug. 30.
"It's been a long time," he said.
Lattimore was South Carolina's Mr. Football at Byrnes High in 2009 and turned down Auburn to join Spurrier's Gamecocks in 2010. Lattimore became an almost instant success for the Gamecocks, carrying 37 times for 182 yards and two touchdowns to beat Georgia 17-6 his second career game.
Lattimore became the school's first 1,000-yard rusher in 10 years with 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns as Spurrier's go-to performer on offense and helped the Gamecocks to their first SEC Eastern Division title
Lattimore was on his way to bigger things last year — his 818 yards rushing still led the team despite missing half the season — before his injury. So it's no wonder Lattimore's name has popped up on Heisman Trophy watch lists.