INDIANAPOLIS As former South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore made his way through a scrum of reporters Friday at Lucas Oil Stadium, the scars of a pair of lost seasons were visible on each of his knees.
The last time he was on a football field, Lattimore was writhing in pain after being sandwiched between two Tennessee defenders last fall. Television replays showed Lattimore’s right knee gruesomely twisting in a way that tore three major ligaments, dislocated the knee and left his future very much in doubt.
Lattimore’s sophomore season in 2011 also was cut short when he tore the ACL in his left knee.
Such a devastating sequence would have prompted many athletes to call it a career or, at least left them weary about taking another hit.
When he plays again – it is not an “if” in his mind – Lattimore vowed he would not be afraid.
“No, not at all,” he said. “I’ve been hit 2,000 times and that happened twice. So not even thinking about it.”
Lattimore’s injuries and comeback attempt have prompted an outpouring of support. Tennessee players joined South Carolina’s team in huddling around Lattimore at Williams-Brice Stadium, and Georgia coach Mark Richt led his team in a prayer for Lattimore.
But it’s more than people feeling sorry for Lattimore, who grew up near Spartanburg, S.C. His humility and good-natured personality have affected people across the globe.
He’s received get-well cards from every corner of the country and from as far away as South America. An elementary school in Kentucky took a picture of its students forming a No. 21 – Lattimore’s jersey number – and mailed it to him.
“The whole school full of students, that really touched me,” Lattimore said. “They say that in the end, it’s not about football, it’s about the person you are. So that touched me.”
But the NFL is a cold business. And at the scouting combine Friday, it was all about football and Lattimore’s health.
Before meeting with the media, Lattimore spent four hours getting checked out by doctors for all 32 teams. Usually, six physicians examine prospects in physicals that last no more than two hours.
“I think it went very well because a lot of guys were surprised by how strong my quads were and how strong my hamstrings were and how tight my ligaments were,” Lattimore said. “I think it went pretty good.”
“They are investing a lot of money into you,” Lattimore added. “So I understand the process and why they have to make sure everything is OK and everything is progressing.”
Renowned sports orthopedic James Andrews has said Lattimore is ahead of the normal recovery time and believes he can play this season.
Former Panthers general manager Bill Polian walked to the stadium Friday morning with Andrews, who raved about Lattimore.
“He said he’s as good a patient as he’s ever had, as good a kid as he’s ever met – bright, active, willing to do anything and everything to succeed,” said Polian, now an ESPN analyst. “Those are all great things. But God made everybody differently. A.P. (Adrian Peterson) is unique.”
Polian said comparisons between Lattimore and Peterson – or any player who has come back from knee surgeries – are unfair because people heal differently. After tearing his ACL in December 2011, Peterson returned last season to rush for 2,097 yards, 9 short of Eric Dickerson’s single-season record.
Peterson also scored 12 touchdowns and averaged six yards per carry.
Lattimore has been rehabbing at Andrews’ facility in Pensacola, Fla., alongside Giants cornerback Terrell Thomas, who is attempting to come back from three ACL tears.
“I have to think about my future, I have to think about long term,” Lattimore said. “Rushing back may not be the best thing to do. If I’m ready, I’m ready.”
NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock said Lattimore likely fell from a late-first round pick to a third-rounder because he probably won’t be productive until 2014.
“It really doesn’t matter where I get drafted because I’m going to do what I do,” Lattimore said. “I’m going to do what I’ve been doing my whole career and that’s just being myself.”
Despite his abbreviated college career, Lattimore owns South Carolina’s all-time touchdowns record with 41 and finished sixth all-time in rushing with 2,677 yards.
Lattimore said when he was injured again, he couldn’t help wondering what might have been – initially, at least.
“The day after it happened, of course, but I don’t think about that anymore,” he said. “It happened for a reason, and the reason was for me to come back and inspire a lot of people.”
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