As Marcus Lattimore spun down on the field at Williams-Brice Stadium, his right leg dreadfully injured, Joe Theismann was watching live, and was taken back, like he has been many times before, to Nov. 18, 1985.
“I started getting tweets immediately from people (saying), ‘This injury brings back memories for you I’m sure,’ ” Theismann said. “When I saw him take the shot on the knee, I knew it wasn’t going to be one of those things where somebody was going to report and say, ‘We’ll evaluate and see if he can play the second half.’
“It’s a terrible thing to happen to a young man. My heart goes out to him.”
Theismann understands like only a handful of people in the world what Lattimore went through on that turf and how it will serve as a defining marker in one way or another for the rest of his life.
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“People will look at this moment with Marcus and say, ‘It’s unbelievable what he has accomplished since the injury, or they will look back and say, ‘Darn, if it wasn’t for that injury, he would have been able to do this,’ ” Theismann told The State. “It will be a point of reference in his life.”
Theismann suffered a similarly devastating injury in 1985 when New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor collided with his leg, causing a compound fracture of the tibia and fibula. The gruesomeness of the injury, combined with the fact that it involved two of the game’s most high-profile players and came during a Monday Night Football telecast, etched it forever in the sports landscape.
In celebrating its 25th-anniversary, ESPN deemed that play the 75th-most memorable sports moment in the lifetime of the network, and it has become a reference point for all catastrophic injuries since.
Theismann’s career was ended by that play, but he points out there are significant differences between his situation and Lattimore’s that go beyond the exact nature of the damage. (Lattimore has only ligament damage, according to the school.) First, Lattimore is 21 years old; Theismann was 35 when he was hurt. Also, more than 25 years of medical advancements have been made.
“How many more years I would have had left, I don’t know, but certainly I was toward the end moreso than the beginning,” he said. “Marcus Lattimore, having rehabbed through the injury once already, although this being a very severe one, you know he’s probably going to be a couple years out from being able to do some of the things that he did. The thing that he has on his side, obviously, is the technical advances that are available in medicine today and the other thing is he’s a young man.”
Theismann, an analyst for the NFL Network, doesn’t try to distance himself from that night.
“In my speeches, I refer to it as a changing point in my life,” he said. “I had achieved so much success that I really lost sight of the values that are important in life. To me, it was all about Joe Theismann, it was all about money, it was all about notoriety, it was all about celebrity, when it should have been about the game, when it should have been about my teammates, when it should have been about so many different things.”
When Theismann saw almost all of the South Carolina and Tennessee players gather around Lattimore on the field, he thought it was “one of the single most impressive things that I have seen in college football this year,” he said.
“I think he has an understanding now of how everybody felt about him in the college football family,” Theismann said. “I thought it was a great show of class to appreciate a young man with such great talent.”
And, he thinks, Lattimore will return to the playing field.
“I would not count this young man out from having a shot at a professional football career,” Theismann said. “By no stretch of the imagination do I think that this is the last time we will see him on a football field.”