October 27, 2012 is a day Gamecock fans will never forget.
How could they? It was one of the darkest days in South Carolina sports history.
More than 80,000 fans at Williams-Brice Stadium and a national television audience watched in horror as Gamecock star Marcus Lattimore lay on the field, writhing in pain. They will never forget the look of terror on Lattimore’s face and replays of the gruesome injury, his right knee bent in ways a leg is not meant to bend.
Then came the heart-rending emotion. The look of sadness and despair on the faces of Gamecock fans. The tears streaming down faces as players from both South Carolina and Tennessee knelt in prayer or surrounded one of the nation’s best players, offering condolences and encouragement for what everyone knew was likely a season-ending injury.
The outpouring of love and support as the home crowd rose as one for a standing ovation for a player who would go down as one of the all-time greats at the University of South Carolina.
Though he tries to forget, Lattimore is reminded of those moments every day. He thinks about it when he walks out of his home and heads to work, and again when he arrives at the Long Family Football Operations Center at the university.
But Lattimore, who was inducted into the South Carolina Athletics Hall of Fame Thursday night, does not look back on that day with sadness and regret. He looks back on it as the day his life began. He views the injury as a life-altering event that made him the man he is today. The moment when he began to realize his purpose and God’s calling for his life.
“For the longest time, I blamed, I asked why?” Lattimore said in his hall of fame speech. “It should have been a different way, it could have been a different way. I don’t ask why anymore.
“It didn’t happen to me, it happened for me. Because of that I have been able to impact so many people. I don’t regret anything. This university and what I have been through here made me the man I am today.”
Lattimore, now South Carolina’s Director of Player Development, was one of the greatest players in Gamecock history. As a Freshman All-American, he rushed for 1,197 yards to lead head coach Steve Spurrier’s 2010 team to South Carolina’s first SEC East championship. Over the next two seasons, he helped lead the Gamecocks to consecutive 11-2 seasons. Though his career was cut short by two devastating knee injuries, he racked up 2,677 yards in just 29 games and set the school record for rushing touchdowns (38) and total touchdowns (41). A fourth-round pick by the San Francisco 49ers in 2013, he had to retire in 2014 having never played a game in the NFL.
Lattimore was so good during his freshman season and through the first six games of 2011, he seemed destined to become South Carolina’s second Heisman Trophy winner. But a left knee injury against Mississippi State cut his sophomore season short after just seven games. A year later, he had just returned to form when he suffered the career-ending injury to his right knee against Tennessee.
But there is far more to Marcus Lattimore than the incredible numbers he compiled during his injury-shortened career. It was those injuries and the way he handled the adversity that made him one of South Carolina’s most beloved athletes.
“When you dislocate your right knee on national television for everybody to see, you gotta find some type of meaning if you want to continue to move forward with your life,” Lattimore said before his hall of fame induction. “It was painful and I was suffering, but I say this everywhere I go, suffering is no longer suffering the moment you give it meaning, and the meaning for what I went through was to share it with others, because we are all dealing with something we can’t see, whether it be an invisible element or something physical.
“Adversity is the universal constant. Pain is inevitable, so being able to share advice on how to deal with it, that’s what I love to do.”
After his NFL career ended Lattimore started the Marcus Lattimore Foundation, which supports youth initiatives that emphasize Christian values, character and life-skills development. After a brief stint as head coach at Heathwood Hall prep school in Columbia, he joined Will Muschamp’s staff at South Carolina and began his Beyond Football program, which helps student-athletes deal with adversity and challenges on and off the field.
There is no bigger fan of Lattimore than Muschamp, who sees daily the impact he has on his players.
“Every time I walk by his office, there's a player or two or three or four sitting in his office talking to him, whether it's about adversity, something going on at home, or just talking,” he said. “So many of the things that he has done in our state, in our community, for the University of South Carolina, and promoting the University of South Carolina and the Gamecock brand, and how he represents us in a first-class manner … [I see] just how much he's made a difference in this program as a player [and] as a mentor to a lot of people in this building.”
Senior linebacker T.J. Brunson says Lattimore has had a positive influence on nearly every player in the Gamecock locker room.
“The biggest thing I have gotten from his is resiliency,” he said. “Life isn’t fair, it’s just all about how you react and how you respond to things. Adversity reveals a man to himself, and I think he’s one of those guys that you can see and really understand what that means. He always comes here with a positive attitude and tries to help guys further themselves as people. He’s been a big help to me and to the program in everything.”
Though Lattimore was one of the nation’s most decorated players in high school and a collegiate star at South Carolina, it is his personal strength and remarkable resiliency that have drawn so many people to him. He says that resiliency comes from his mother, Yolanda Smith, who raised nine children despite growing up in an Atlanta housing project and going through two divorces.
“I have a mother who has experienced so much adversity and I saw her experience all this adversity, so genetically it is already in me to be resilient,” he said.
Lattimore now uses the adversity he faced on and off the field to help members of the South Carolina football team and other student-athletes. He counseled many players early this season when the Gamecocks got off to a disappointing 2-3 start, and was with them on the sidelines at Georgia last week when they overcame that adversity to upset the No. 3 Bulldogs. As he reflected on the victory, he called it a “beautiful sight” and a example of how he sees players overcome enormous challenges every day.
“Every week there is a new set of challenges for these guys, not only off the field but on the field,” he said. “They are dealing with so much stress and pressure from all of these different people in their lives. Having someone that they can come to and completely disconnect from the game, I think it is critical and it’s been eye opening for me because you forget how demanding the job is.
“Let’s make no bones about it, what they do is a job. Yeah, it’s fun, they are athletes, but it takes a certain level of commitment to be able to just continue to go through what they go through and put their bodies through. Being that voice they can lean on is special for me.”
Lattimore meets with players every day, helping them with issues on the field, in the classroom and in life. If he can help just one of them, it is worth all the trials and setbacks he endured to get to this point.
“It gives me life, it is my purpose to be able to share with them and to listen,” he said. “Just to listen to them. Everybody needs somebody to listen to them, I truly believe that. And if I can be that person for the rest of my life and continue to do that in some form or fashion, I think I will be OK.”
As Lattimore travels around the state speaking and ministering to youth groups through his foundation, his name and reputation is perhaps just as recognizable and meaningful as when he was making headlines for the Gamecocks. He has become one of the most valuable ambassadors for both the university and the state of South Carolina.
Even former gridiron stars and fellow hall of famers look up to him.
Rashad Faison, another Gamecock great inducted into the hall of fame Thursday night, starred at South Carolina from 1999-2002, setting the school record for unassisted tackles with 247. He had never met Lattimore until the Thursday night. The highlight of the evening for him was finally meeting the headliner of the 2019 class.
“When they told me Marcus was going to be here, I said, what an honor for me,” Faison said. “The way he carries himself, the way he has been a representative for the University of South Carolina and the Gamecocks, what an honor, just to go in beside him. If there was anybody I could go in beside, it would be him.”
Where It All Began
As a prep star at James F. Byrnes High School in Duncan, S.C., Lattimore was one of the most decorated high school players in the country. As a junior, he was the ESPN national player of the year. As a senior, he was a high school All-American, South Carolina’s Mr. Football and the highest rated recruit in the country. When he chose South Carolina over Auburn, it was considered a coup for Spurrier and the Gamecocks, one that helped jumpstart the greatest stretch in Carolina football history.
Lattimore attributes his football success to another man with close ties to the state and university — Bobby Bentley, his high school coach and now an assistant on Muschamp’s South Carolina staff.
“When I was 7 years old growing up in small-town Duncan, S.C. Bobby Bentley was the President,” Lattimore said in his induction speech. “He was Mr. Everything. His example as a man is why I strive to be the person I am today. He set that example a long time ago and without him I wouldn’t be standing on this stage tonight.”
A shy, quiet kid growing up, Lattimore didn’t aspire to be the nation’s best. He just wanted to prove he belonged and earn acceptance from his peers.
“I ran very violently and hard because I wanted to feel accepted,” he said. “For the longest time, I never thought I was good enough, athletically, socially, whatever the case may be. I struggled my whole life with feeling as if I wasn’t good enough, worthy enough.”
Lattimore wasted no time proving his worth at the collegiate level. He rushed for 54 yards and two touchdowns in his South Carolina debut, a 41-13 win over Southern Miss. A week later, he burst onto the national scene with 182 yards rushing and two touchdowns as the Gamecocks beat No. 22 Georgia.
Before that game, senior kicker and team captain Spencer Lanning told Lattimore to “control what you can control.” “That gave me a calming presence and it gave me the confidence to go out there and be myself,” he said.
It was that game that made Lattimore realize he belonged and that he could become one of the nation’s best.
“I knew I could fit in after that,” he said.
Over the next three years, South Carolina won 31 games as Spurrier’s Gamecocks became an SEC contender and a national power. Lattimore joined such stars as Stephen Garcia, Connor Shaw and Alshon Jeffery on offense and a defense led by future pros like Stephon Gilmore, Antonio Allen, D.J. Swearinger, Melvin Ingram and Jadeveon Clowney to put South Carolina on the college football map.
“We were special,” he said. “Our defensive mindset, that ferocious mindset that we had was contagious. More than anything, I have to credit the guys that I played with and the coaches who put me in position to be special. I was very familiar with the scheme before I got here, because it was what I ran in high school. They knew that and they knew my weaknesses, they put me in situations where I could excel, and so did my teammates.”
Playing with so many star players motivated Lattimore and pushed him to be one of the best.
“Their energy was contagious and I just wanted to make sure that I was reciprocating the same thing they were giving to me to put on a good show on Saturday but [to give] relentless effort. And that’s what I prided myself on as a player,” he said.
Looking back on his playing days, Lattimore, 27, reflects not only on his accomplishments on the gridiron but on his experience as a college student, an experience he says changed his life. It’s part of the reason he’s proud to still be affiliated with the university.
“I matured, I became independent for the first time ever in my life,” he said. “I hadn’t been perfect in my life, but when you do things remotely the right way, you do it the right way most of the time, it usually comes back to you in a good way.
“This university has changed my life. I learned so much about myself. And not because of the injuries, obviously that was part of it, but I learned sacrifice and I learned what hard work really means. My love for the game was reignited with Coach Spurrier and I feel like a completely different person now. Looking back on that time, it’s an out-of-body experience, but I’m so glad I went through it because I have developed into a person I kinda like.”
Lattimore was grateful to be honored by the South Carolina Letterman’s Association not only as a tribute to his amazing accomplishments on the field and at the university, but because his new-found status as a USC Hall of Famer now gives him an even greater platform to perform his life’s work.
“I’m going to be able to use it as an extra level of credibility and I’m able to use that when I go and speak and when I go and minister to the youth, which is my passion,” he said. “It’s just … it’s really overwhelming, to be honest with you. It’s an overwhelming feeling that I didn’t expect but I am honored and grateful and so happy to be part of this university.”
Looking back, Lattimore tries not to dwell on that fateful day in October, 2012, but he doesn’t shy away from it either. He welcomes the opportunity to talk about it — if it can help him help someone else.
“It used to sting, it used to sting just thinking about it,” he said. “But now, I can look at it and say it happened for a reason.”