For football players rehabilitating major knee injuries, the process takes the form of a prison term. It even has its own lingo for time served — “your nine months.”
That’s how long those who tear their ACL, like South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore, are sentenced to if they want to return to the football field. It’s sometimes painful, often boring and intermittently scary.
Lattimore’s nine months ended in the middle of July, just in time to get ready for the Gamecocks’ 2012 season.
“I would say around mid-July everything started feeling like I could do it again,” he said Sunday in his first interview since the spring. “We started doing more agility drills, and I was doing it. I wasn’t thinking about cutting on it at all. It was just coming natural again.”
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However, Lattimore has learned, through diligent research, that there’s one final step. After his injury, suffered in October against Mississippi State, the junior from Duncan began to seek the advice of others who had served their time, or were in the process of serving. Those he didn’t know, he looked up on Twitter and asked for their phone numbers.
The list is lengthy: Arkansas running back Knile Davis, Miami Dolphins running back Jonas Gray, Florida defensive lineman Ronald Powell, New Orleans Saints safety Roman Harper, Pittsburgh running back Ray Graham and North Carolina running back Gionvanni Bernard.
“They say the same thing everybody else says, ‘It’s a mind thing,’” Lattimore said. “After your nine months is over with, you have to get it in your mind that you are going to be all right.”
Lattimore’s final hurdle, his first chance to put his mind at ease, will come Wednesday when South Carolina holds its first full-pads scrimmage of the fall.
“Just putting pads on, just getting out of my mind that when I get hit, I am going to be fine, that’s my main thing,” he said. “I am excited about (Wednesday).”
Lattimore returned to the practice field Friday as the Gamecocks began spring drills, and there was little doubt that he would return full strength given the progress that has been made in knee repair surgery. Gone are the days when ligament tears meant the end of a running back’s career.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier was a backup quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers in 1968 when Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers of the Chicago Bears tore his ACL in a game against the 49ers. Sayers never returned at close to his original form, and the injury eventually cost him his career.
Sayers “had an injury very similar to Marcus,” Spurrier said. “The doctors are much more advanced than they were 20 or 30 or 40 years ago. They come back just as strong.”
Knowing that doesn’t make the process easier, said Lattimore, who hated the waiting imposed by the training staff.
“I had to wait to run, had to wait to cut, had to wait to spin, had to wait to do certain things in the weight room,” he said. “It was just real frustrating because I knew I could do it, but I knew it was to my benefit if I just waited. It just feels great to be able to do everything again.”
The waiting turned into reflecting, which turned into renewed appreciation for the body that carried him to 2,015 rushing yards in his first 20 collegiate games.
“In the past, I only got in the cold tub or hot tub if I was sore, but I got in it every day (this summer). I stretched every day,” he said. “I was just doing the little things to make sure I was doing everything possible to strengthen my knee. I really didn’t eat any fried foods this whole summer, ate healthy.”
He understands now, he said, that he’s not guaranteed anything.
“I kind of think of it as a test, a test to see if I was going to break, to see if I was going to give up because there are times I did want to give up, but I feel like God was just testing my faith,” he said. “I got through it.”
And he got through as the same player, he said.
“It’s not going to change my style at all,” he said. “I’m still going to run hard. I’m still going to do what I’ve been doing.”