The young woman was bawling.
An outside hitter on her high school volleyball team, Johna Robbins was playing in a tournament in Australia last summer when she partially tore the ACL in her right knee. She went home to South Carolina feeling like everything – a college scholarship, her senior season, her very identity – was in the balance.
She had slept with a volleyball at the foot of her bed since she was a little girl. The sport was her universe, and her team had a real shot at going to the state finals. No, no, no! She would not have surgery, wipe away her season and let her teammates down, despite all the pleading from her mother to get the knee fixed.
“She’s crying. I’m crying. Dad doesn’t know what to do between the two of us,” Cynthia Robbins recalled.
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Mom couldn’t persuade her teenage daughter, so she went on a desperate maternal mission to find someone who could. Through a mail carrier, Cynthia learned that 49ers running back Marcus Lattimore’s family lived nearby. Google Maps brought mother and daughter – crying, arguing, tears cascading down cheeks – to the curb outside their house.
Cynthia remembers walking up to the home, composing herself for a moment and knocking on the door. Lattimore’s mother, Yolanda Smith, not only opened it, she let them into her family’s life.
“She just embraced us – open arms, everything,” Cynthia said. “They just opened their home to us.”
The episode offers a glimpse of who Lattimore is, who raised him and his stature in his home state.
Despite not having played a snap in the NFL, the one-time Mr. Football for South Carolina and star at the University of South Carolina remains wildly popular, and he and his family have been able to channel both that fame and the ordeal of dealing with two major knee injuries into a foundation that benefits young athletes.
An example: When Lattimore’s former high school team experienced a number of concussions in 2013 offseason, his stepfather, Vernon Smith, raffled one of Lattimore’s rookie playing cards. The proceeds turned into seed money for more than 100 Guardian Caps, which the school’s teams wear over the helmets in practice to soften blows to the head.
Lattimore’s DREAMS foundation also helped provide 340 impact sensors that youth players wear on their helmets and light up when a child has sustained a potentially dangerous blow.
“Me and my wife, we know how important these issues are because we’ve been in the training room a lot these past few years with Marcus,” Smith said. “So we’ve come to have great respect for the sports medicine world. Even now, when he go down to Columbia, we go down and see the athletic trainers and the doctors before we see the coaches. We’ll go down and hang out in the training room.”
The foundation also guides people such as Johna Robbins: young athletes whose self worth has been shattered by major injuries and whose college dreams often pivot on a ligament in their knee. Vernon Smith helps families – some as far away as Ohio – navigate insurance issues, points them to the top rehabilitation centers and advises on how to deal with suddenly skeptical athletics departments.
Lattimore, meanwhile, gives them encouragement. After all, he could teach a Master’s course on the subject of athletes and crushing injuries.
The South Carolina sophomore was the top young tailback in the nation when he tore his left ACL in 2011. He returned to the field the following year and suffered an even more devastating blow to his right knee. Photos taken of him immediately afterward show the running back sitting up and looking incredulously at his mangled knee and lower leg, as if the oddly arranged limb doesn’t belong to him.
Lattimore has not played in a game in the two years since, and he hadn’t even had any football contact until last week when he returned to 49ers practice. There’s a plan in place whereby he could join the 53-man roster later this year, but his future as an NFL player remains in doubt.
Lattimore might have felt sorry for himself immediately after the injury. But he soon began to feel as if he had an obligation. So many people knew him and knew about his injury that he had no choice but to try to come back from it.
“I don’t shy away from it anymore. I used to,” Lattimore said. “I used to want to hide, I used to not want to come out of the house because somebody might ask me about (the knee). But I’ve embraced it. I embraced every moment of it. Because no matter what happens I’m still going to help a lot of people, a lot of athletes.”
Soon after Johna Robbins and her mother arrived at his parents’ home, Lattimore called from California. Johna talked with him and learned that he had been angry, too, that he had cried, too, that there were days he didn’t think he could even get off the sofa much less continue on his current path.
“It was like a beam of light came over my daughter,” Cynthia Robbins said of the conversation
Said Johna: “I needed someone who had been through it. Because I had so many people in my ear that I couldn’t think straight. And none of them had been through it.”
Johna, who is now 18, eventually had surgery to repair her ACL, and she worked out alongside Lattimore and other top athletes at a rehabilitation facility in Greenville during the summer. She’s playing volleyball at Presbyterian. The full scholarship she initially had been offered changed to a half scholarship, but there’s a possibility it will be restored. She is studying to be a pharmacist.
Lattimore and Johna still talk or text or send each other inspirational quotes. She calls him her “knee twin” and she considers him a big brother. One particular message from California arrived at just the right time.
“Because I felt like I was giving up and it wasn’t going to be,” she said. “That’s when I started having doubts about myself about what was going on. Him sending that message when he did kept me going, kept me pushing.”
Lattimore said he knows all about those doubts.
“Not only am I helping her, she’s helping me just as much,” he said. “All the athletes I talk to. They’re helping me more than they even know.”