DUNCAN - His voice drops to an almost conspiratorial level. You have asked the question, "Have you ever messed up?" and Marcus Lattimore, a painfully honest high school star, wants to give you an answer.
Understand, Lattimore - Byrnes's five-star running back who has narrowed his college choice tofive programs, including South Carolina - is viewed as darned near perfect around this town. For good reason, people say.
With nearly 8,000 yards rushing and receiving and 104 touchdowns, plus three Class 4A championships, in a four-year career, he is The State's 2009 high school football player of the year. He also is a two-time Gatorade state player of the year and one of seven finalists for U.S. Army national player of the year.
Yet in other ways, too, Lattimore is the sort of youngster every parent wishes his or her child could be.
He makes good grades (3.24 GPA), signs autographs for every kid (and more than a few adults) who asks, speaks to elementary-school classes and has a smile for everyone. Rebels assistant coach Eddie Cisson tells of seeing Lattimore walk through the locker room after games - picking up trash.
"He's made a difference at Byrnes High School," Cisson said.
So when you ask the 18-year-old local icon for a less-than-exemplary moment from his past, he has to think long and hard.
"About three years ago, I broke something at Walmart," Lattimore said, his voice conveying a mix of amusement and mild embarrassment. "A lamp; I was playing around and I ran into it ... and I didn't tell the manager."
If you are looking for major flaws in Lattimore, be prepared for frustration.
Once upon a time, if only in popular myth, every small town in America had such hometown heroes: clean-cut, clear-eyed athletes who were top students, good citizens and - a word seldom used today to describe potential NFL prospects - humble.
Here in a community that in ways seems a vision of that warm-and-fuzzy past, Lattimore is all that and more.
"Just an unbelievable kid," Byrnes coach Chris Miller said. "You'd think with this much publicity and hype, his head would've blown up and he wouldn't look at you right. But no, he's not that way.
"He's here (at practice and school) every day; when he's hurt, he doesn't want to admit it." Despite national attention, Miller said, "he hasn't changed a bit."
If you live in this community of about 3,000, or the surrounding Welford, Reidsville and Lyman, chances are your pre-teen's wish for his birthday party is an appearance by Lattimore. Chances are, it will happen; he's done at least 30, he said.
"The first time (he was asked), I was surprised," Lattimore said, laughing. "But I enjoy it. When I give (kids) a high-five, they run to their parents and say, 'Marcus just gave me a high-five!' It's crazy, but I like seeing how they react off me."
He sighed. "I just never thought it would be me."
Even the district's S.C. House member knows Lattimore. "He comes from a fine family and grew up in the area," said Rep. Rita Allison, a Byrnes graduate. "I've watched his progress as an outstanding young man and outstanding athlete."
His impact is measured not just in touchdowns, but lives changed. "I've had people come up to me and say, 'Can you have Marcus speak to my son about staying in school?'" said Yolanda Smith, Lattimore's mother.
"Later they'll say, 'My son's report card went from a D to a B just because he knows that's the way Marcus got where he is.'"
Does that make him a throwback to a simpler time? Small-town America is a dying breed, hemmed in by interstates and malls. Kids' heroes are on TV, YouTube and the Internet. Change happens; it's inevitable.
And yes, Lattimore is a modern kid who likes to "chill" with his friends on weekends and listen to hip-hop music. But in some ways, he's an old-school youngster as well.
What happens when you take Lattimore out of an environment that has nurtured and encouraged him to become what he is? The college football world is ready to find out.
As fans clad in Byrnes' blue-and-red colors filled the visitor's lower bowl at Williams-Brice Stadium on Dec. 5, some two hours before the state championship game vs. rival Dorman, Rebels cheerleaders sat munching sandwiches and warding off the chill. Katherine Turner, 25 and in her first year as the group's coach, smiled when the topic turned to Lattimore.
"He's huge; everyone knows him, loves him," she said. "And he's humble; I expected him to be more cocky, but when I met him and said, 'Oh, you're Marcus,' he said, 'Yes, ma'am.'"
Melanie Robinson, a cheerleader, has known Lattimore since second grade. "Our parents are best friends," she said. The relationship extends to the youngsters as well. "He's always there when I need him," she said.
And the city of Duncan, it seems, is there for him. At his 18th birthday party on Oct. 29 at the local Fatz Cafe, more than 50 people showed up: some family and friends, some strangers.
"He had so many come; he didn't realize how much they love him," Robinson said. "He got kind of teary-eyed when everyone talked about their memories of him."
So emotional, his mother said, he could not compose himself enough to blow out the candles. "So all the other kids came up and did it," she said.
Of course, much of Lattimore's popularity, personality aside, is attributable to outstanding plays on the football field. Beyond the statistics - in 2009 he accounted for 36 of Byrnes' mind-boggling 101 touchdowns - he has created memories that will resonate with many for years.
"Against Mauldin or Spartanburg (in the 4A playoffs), he had a run where he got hit then took off to the sideline," said quarterback Chas Dodd, who has played football with Lattimore, and been a close friend, since third grade.
"He barely stayed inbounds; then he put a move I've never seen on a guy. He juked the guy going full speed, and the (tackler) went out of bounds, never touched him" en route to a 67-yard touchdown.
Understand that Byrnes fans are no strangers to high school stardom. During the team's run of success - six state championships in the past eight years - other players have captured the town's imagination, none more so previously than Willy Korn. A nationally recruited quarterback, he led the Rebels to two titles before heading to Clemson in 2007.
"Both (Korn and Lattimore) have outstanding character, good grades, don't mind doing things outside football to be a role model," said Bobby Bentley, who was coach when Korn was at Byrnes before leaving for Presbyterian, then returned to Byrnes as offensive coordinator.
"Marcus is shyer, a little more subdued in interviews. But he's definitely not introverted. He spoke to a middle-school class before the state championship game and gave as good a speech as you could expect."
While Korn was beloved, too, Lattimore projects a different, more approachable air, others say.
"Will was like Tom Cruise walking into a room," said Garry Harper, Byrnes' team chaplain and a USC quarterback from 1978-80. "With Marcus, it's more like walking up to your big brother for the kids. He's a guy that, when you meet him, you fall in love with him."
Nothing, it seems, can change that. Certainly not Byrnes' 28-17 loss to Dorman, a game in which Lattimore scored both Rebels touchdowns and contributed 227 of the team's 389 yards, yet came away dejected he could not do more.
"Yeah, it was tough," he said. "I wanted to win that one, last game ... (but) I think I had a great career at Byrnes, made a lot of lifelong friends. It was a wonderful experience."
For Lattimore, it is time now for appearances in the Shrine Bowl - he's eager for that because his father, Archie Lattimore of Spartanburg High, played in the 1977 game - and the U.S. Army All-American Game. Not to mention the battle for his college services will continue with renewed vigor.
He has trimmed North Carolina from his list, leaving the Gamecocks, Auburn and Georgia - the favorites due to proximity - plus Penn State and Oregon. He says he does not know which school he will pick, but he knows what he's looking for: something similar to what he has enjoyed the past four years.
MOTHER, SON PREPARE FOR NEXT STEP
Unlike her soft-spoken son, Yolanda Smith is a whirlwind who regales visitors with stories of Marcus' youth, his early self-discipline - "from Day One, he would come home from kindergarten, do his letters, watch TV for exactly 30 minutes, go outside and play for exactly 30 minutes, come back inside and read, then come in the kitchen and ask, 'Is it time to eat?'" - and how he, and the family, have responded to the pressures of big-time college recruiting.
She and her husband, Vernon, long ago took over the drudgery part, filing recruiting letters, compiling information and screening phone calls (each of his final five schools has a designated night and hour when it can call), allowing Marcus to enjoy his senior year. She calls the process "hectic and fun.
"When you know pretty much when the ending to something will be" - in this case, National Signing Day in February - "it's kind of like Christmas," she said. "This is why we wrap all the gifts, do all the preparation: In the end, it will be well worth it."
As for this final two-month stretch, "I don't see the pressure being there," she said. "It hasn't been so far. He's a kid once, and no one is going to interrupt that. I want him to focus on finishing Byrnes High School."
And when he goes off to college? At one time, Smith talked about going with her son. Her daughter, Ebony, to whom Marcus also is close, might have stopped that. "She said, 'Momma, you have a home and a husband,'" Smith said. "(She said) 'I can go where Marcus goes and get a masters degree.'"
Ebony, 23, recently finished her undergraduate degree at USC.
As for the football environment, Lattimore figures to be a factor wherever he goes. Harper, who once handed off to Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers, sees elements of Rogers in Lattimore, both on and off the field.
"Right now, (Lattimore) doesn't have a clue how good he is, and George still doesn't (know)," Harper said. "They have different backgrounds, different training grounds, but I see a lot of similarities, with humility being the big factor."
As Harper knows, then-USC coach Jim Carlen often shielded Rogers from the media. That would be difficult for a coach today, but then Lattimore is probably better equipped to handle the modern realities.
Take, for instance, Yolanda's infatuation with Duke and Blue Devils coach David Cutcliffe. That, she said, would have been HER top choice for her son.
"Marcus said, 'Momma, I like Duke, too, but I want to go to the NFL, and they don't have the capability of other schools to get me there,'" she said. "He always gives me a reason why (a school) is not for him."
And what might, in fact, be the school for him? Lattimore insists he does not have a favorite. But he has a vision of what the winner must have.
"I'll try to find the one with (the) most in common to (Byrnes)," he said. "I love it here; this has been the best four years of my life, and I'm going to miss it a lot. So wherever I go, I'm going to try to find something similar, the players' and coaches' camaraderie. That's going to be the school."
Along with that, he said, will be coaches who can help him reach his NFL goal and deal with fans' expectations that come with being a five-star recruit. As good as he is, at Byrnes he was still one of the crowd. That almost certainly will change in college.
"I've been informed of that by so many people," he said. "So I'll be looking for a coach I can talk to about that."
He smiled. "I think I'll be just fine. I think I'm mature enough to handle it."
Before he takes that next step, Lattimore and his family continue to control the things they can, which so far is almost everything.
He plans to announce his decision at his church, Silver Hills United Methodist, on the Sunday before Signing Day. Word is Lattimore will let Miller or Bentley reveal the winning school while he signs the letter of intent.
But Lattimore alone will decide which school that will be.
"When it gets down to the last two, I'll know who those two are," his mother said. "But I'll find out (which one) when everyone else does."
At that moment, the "ball," figuratively speaking, will be in Lattimore's hands. As everyone in his hometown who knows him can tell you, that's where it belongs.
Contact Senior Writer Bob Gillespie at (803) 771-8304.