THE SILENCE HAS perhaps never been more deafening at Williams-Brice Stadium than it was around 1:30 Saturday afternoon. The South Carolina and Tennessee football teams and a stadium full of fans swallowed hard and experienced a heavy heart.
Marcus Lattimore again went down with a crippling knee injury.
When you lose a guy like Marcus, hes such a leader on the team. Everybody loves him. He gets the guys going, USC quarterback Connor Shaw said. Its so unfortunate. No one wishes that on anybody. Prayers are out for him. I know hell be mentally strong, and hopefully he can get back.
For now, the questions surrounding Lattimores injury are mostly without answer. How seriously damaged is the right knee? Can he come back next season? Is his career in jeopardy?
Beyond that hovers the overriding question that will haunt Lattimore, his teammates, his coaches and USC fans for days, weeks and months to come: Why?
Why did this happen to such an exceptionally talented player? Why to one of the teams leaders? Why to perhaps the most respected player on his team? Why? Why? Why?
Hes such a good young man, Steve Spurrier said. Good things are going to happen to Marcus. I dont know exactly where or how, but good things are going to happen for Marcus Lattimore.
Those good things were again beginning to happen for Lattimore, who until Saturday had occasionally looked like his old self through the opening eight weeks of the season. He produced a trio of 100-yard rushing games, but also managed 48 yards the past two weeks in losses to LSU and Florida.
There was some doubt about whether Lattimore had completely regained the form he displayed during his freshman and sophomore years before blowing out his left knee in 2011 against Mississippi State.
His 28-yard, second-quarter burst Saturday through the middle of the Tennessee line and into the end zone was vintage Lattimore. He was well on his way to the 12th 100-yard rushing game of his career when he took a simple handoff from Shaw late in the second quarter.
Tennessee linebacker Herman Lathers hit Lattimore high from behind and defensive back Eric Gordon took him out low from in front. No one questioned that it was a clean hit.
As Lattimore hit the ground, he immediately grabbed his right knee and writhed in pain. It was no scene for those with a queasy stomach.
I saw that his knee was kind of facing the other way, Shaw said, and he was holding it. He just couldnt get his feet off the ground.
The stadium went silent. When the television audience came back from a commercial break, they saw players on both teams on one knee, many with their heads bowed in prayer.
Among the first to crouch behind Lattimore as physicians and athletics trainers attended to him was wide receiver Nick Jones, a teammate of his at Byrnes High. Also immediately at his side was wide receiver Ace Sanders.
After about a 10-minute delay, Lattimore sat up and both teams came to the field to show their support and concern. It was a sign of how much respect Lattimore has earned not only among his teammates but across the SEC and the nation.
Everybodys got a lot of respect for Marcus and what he has done, and nobody likes to see a player get hurt, Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. I think when (our team) saw the severity of it, it just showed the respect that everybody has for each other as athletes.
Within minutes of the injury, Auburn running back Tre Martin, who wears the same No. 21 as Lattimore, tweeted that he would don the number later Saturday in Lattimores honor for Auburns game against Texas A&M.
So sad to see the injury to Marcus Lattimor. Strong kid! tweeted LSU coach Les Miles. We wish him well in recovery. Similar tweets went out from Carolina Panthers linebacker and former Georgia player Thomas Davis as well as Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III.
On the field, members of the Tennessee defensive unit one by one walked past and patted Lattimore on the back, shoulder pads and head. Then several USC players did the same as Lattimore pulled a towel over his face.
As he was removed from the field on a cart to a standing ovation from the crowd, Lattimore continued to plant his face in his hands and beneath the towel. There is no way to know what was racing through Lattimores mind, but he certainly must have thought of the six months of rehabilitation he endured after the injury to his other knee.
That injury occurred 377 days ago. Then over about a 270-day period, Lattimore dedicated himself to getting back this season and returning to the form that made him a Heisman Trophy hopeful.
To a teammate, Lattimore was considered one of the teams hardest workers. He had long ago established himself as a team leader, at once both a model athlete and citizen. He also took on the unofficial role of team spokesman.
So, of course, when Lattimore addressed the team Friday night, every one of his teammates listened. His message was to play every game like it was your last.