Rogers, Lattimore locked in as legendary backs
Who’s the best running back in USC history? Those who saw both play say, in terms of program impact, it’s George Rogers and Marcus Lattimore — No. 1 and No. 2, in whatever order — as the best backs and most beloved players in Gamecock
01/06/2013 5:00 AM
12/13/2013 4:31 PM
Garry Harper counts himself lucky — blessed, even — to have witnessed athletic greatness, up close and personal, not once but twice in his 53 years.
From 1978-80, the Florida native started at quarterback for South Carolina, during which time his primary duty was to hand off, pitch or (occasionally) throw to a two-time All-American, three-time 1,000-yard rusher and, in their senior season, the Gamecocks’ Heisman Trophy winner: George Rogers.
Some three decades later, Harper — now living in Duncan and serving since 2000 as team chaplain for perennial powerhouse Byrnes High — the past seven years has watched, pulled for and occasionally ministered to South Carolina’s Mr. Football, a Parade All-American and, in his three abbreviated seasons at USC, the most honored and beloved player since Rogers: Marcus Lattimore.
“They’re just very similar in terms of their impact” on the Gamecocks program, Harper said, then added with a chuckle, “I guess I’m the only guy who’s been this ‘intimate’ with both of them.”
Until recently, that trivia tidbit mostly made for interesting football weekends, with Harper and friends following Lattimore’s charge through USC’s record book in the rushing yardage and touchdowns-scored categories, recalling Rogers’ similar devastation of high-water marks. Those were the sort of comparisons all fans make across generations of great players.
But when Lattimore, following his second season-ending knee injury in two years, announced plans to forego his senior season to enter the NFL draft — pre-injury, he was predicted to be the top running back taken — the comparisons moved to the here-and-now.
There are no more college games for Lattimore; now, his amateur career can be fairly put up alongside Rogers’, their numerical and abstract impacts on USC at last judged.
If you don’t mind an apples-and-oranges conundrum, that is.
“To be honest, being a (former) player, I don’t compare them, never did,” Harper said. “I just had an incredible appreciation to be blessed to play with one and have had some semblance of impact on the other. That’s a rare, unique thing.
“With George, I had the best seat in the house,” he said, laughing. “To have seen both, known both that’s pretty cool.”
THE NUMBERS AND MORE
Numbers-wise, it’s Rogers in a runaway. Over four seasons, the now-54-year-old ran for 5,204 yards — nearly 2,200 more than USC’s career runner-up, Brandon Bennett (3,055). Rogers owns the school’s two best single seasons: 1,894 yards in 1980, 1,681 in 1979. Lattimore’s 1,197 yards as a freshman, his lone full season (13 games), ranks a distant third.
Rogers and Lattimore were both workhorses: Rogers carried 324 and 311 times in 1980 and 1979, 954 total, Lattimore 249 times in 2010, 555 total. While Lattimore’s 2,677 yards rushing ranks sixth in school history, projection of his 92.3 yards-per-game average over a fully-healthy career comes to 4,892 yards.
Lattimore blitzed Rogers’ record for rushing touchdowns (38 vs. Rogers’ 31) in 29 games; Rogers played about a dozen more. Rogers broke the 200-yard barrier three times (a best of 237 vs. Wake Forest in 1978) to Lattimore’s two, topped by 246 against Navy last year.
But as Harper and others point out, those respective numbers came playing in different eras, for teams with different offensive philosophies. USC won 36 of 57 games from 1977-80, Steve Spurrier’s past three teams are 31-9 — 21-8 with Lattimore playing.
“I think as far as effectiveness on the field, (Lattimore) and Rogers are right there,” said Don Barton, 88, a former USC sports information director during the 1950s, former sports editor and author of books on Gamecock football. “George also sat out the second half of some games” because his team was comfortably in control. “The competition had something to do with that; the level of competition Marcus faced (vs. SEC teams) was much better, day in and day out.”
When it comes to legacy, though, it’s not just about numbers. Perhaps the two most moving, fan-adoration moments for USC football are the day Rogers returned from New York City with the Heisman Trophy — and the emotional gathering of hundreds of students, fans and administrators on USC’s Horseshoe on the occasion of Lattimore’s 21st birthday, days after his second injury.
“Marcus stood out as to how he affected his team; he was the heart and soul, they all rallied around him,” Barton said. “George also was very much a team player, always praising his offensive linemen.”
Tommy Suggs, former quarterback and USC’s 39-year radio color commentator, recalls a chilly night in December 1980. “When (Rogers) came home with the Heisman, the whole state shut down,” he said. “I remember, too, coming back from Michigan” after the Gamecocks upset the Wolverines that same year, 17-14, “walking behind George in the airport, 8,000 or 9,000 people, all of them grabbing at him, not wanting to let him go.”
Added Barton: “That (Michigan game) was when the Heisman talk got serious.”
But “When Marcus got hurt this time, that rally for him was, in its own way, as big or bigger. Marcus is such a special person; he reached out to (fans) on and off the field,” Suggs said. “Had Marcus not been hurt, he might’ve won the Heisman, also.”
So while Lattimore trails Bennett, Harold Green, Steve Wadiak and Thomas Dendy in rushing, those who saw both say, in terms of program impact, it’s Rogers-Lattimore — No. 1 and No. 2, in whatever order — in USC history.
“Wadiak was a different era, (and) we played much weaker teams, though he played well against great teams,” Barton said. “Kevin Long was our first 1,000-yard rusher (1975) and did it on a team with a great quarterback (Jeff Grantz) and another 1,000-yard back (Clarence Williams). Harold and Brandon were great backs, too.
“But George is the only back to lead the NCAA and the NFL (in rushing) back-to-back” in 1980 and 1981, “and he was the first overall pick in the draft. Put (a healthy) Marcus in any of those positions, I think he’d have done just as well.”
Bottom line: “Rightfully so, the rest are in their rear-view mirror,” Harper said. “That just emphasizes just how good George and Marcus were and are.”
Both good, but different. Apples and oranges.
EACH TO HIS OWN STYLE
On paper, the two look similar. Rogers, 6-foot-2, weighed (more or less) 220 pounds in 1980; Lattimore is 6-foot, 218. But in 1980, Rogers’ offensive linemen ranged between 240 and 255; USC’s starting line in 2012 went from 278 up to Brandon Shell’s 331.
And Rogers wasn’t just big. “George not only could run over you, he could outrun you,” Harper said. Lattimore’s talent isn’t breakaway speed but smart, deceptive quickness. “Marcus can run over guys because of his low center of gravity, but his forte is getting around guys,” Harper said. “He’s elusive, very quick feet.
“Where they’re most similar is their football instincts. A lot of backs have vision to see the holes, but to get there, quickly — both of them have that.”
Under coach Jim Carlen, Rogers was USC’s weapon of choice. “It was third-and-7, we were probably going off-tackle, and we’d get it,” Suggs said. With Lattimore, especially after his freshman year, Spurrier’s Gamecocks utilized other weapons — quarterbacks Stephen Garcia and Connor Shaw, receiver Alshon Jeffery among them — and Lattimore also was more versatile, able to catch passes out of the backfield.
Too, “we weren’t playing SEC defenses (in 1980), and that’s taking nothing away from George, it was just different — but Marcus, the defenses he ran against were probably better,” Suggs said.
Both players were tough. Lattimore’s return from injury this year — rushing for more than 100 yards in a close opener at Vanderbilt — and his go-to performances in the biggest games (40 carries, for 212 yards, vs. Florida to clinch the SEC East title in 2010) are testaments to his physical and mental strength. Rogers? Stories of his toughness are legendary.
“He rarely was caught behind the line of scrimmage, and he rarely came out of a game,” Harper recalled. “The Georgia game in 1980, his hands were raw, the skin coming off, from all the hits on his hands. The guy was as tough as anyone could be.”
Rogers and Lattimore both had benchmark performances against Georgia. USC won in 1978, again in 1979 (when Rogers gained 152 yards) and narrowly lost to the eventual 1980 national champions, 13-10, when an exhausted Rogers (35 carries, 168 yards) fumbled on a potential game-winning drive. Lattimore led the Gamecocks to a record three straight wins over Georgia, gaining 182 yards on 37 carries in 2010 and averaging 155.7 yards vs. USC’s chief SEC East rival.
“The Georgia game his freshman year, (Lattimore) pounded them,” Suggs said. “Last year at their place, they couldn’t stop him. This year, again, (it was) the same.”
Each player also played in a seemingly ideal offense. “George probably was in the perfect one for him; Marcus was in the right one, the zone read, for him,” Suggs said. “But either one could’ve been successful in the other offensive scheme. Marcus was more flexible as to schemes than George, maybe, but both were great backs.”
More than that: both are viewed as the best ever at USC — even by their Gamecock peers. “Marcus was probably one of the most complete backs in the country,” said Dendy, who played from 1982-85 and now lives Greenville. “He was a college-ready player when he came to USC, and from what I’ve seen, his first year he was pro-ready.
“This guy had an impact on the school, the team and the state like nothing I’ve ever seen, and I was living instate when Rogers played. They’re pretty close, him and Rogers, but I might give Marcus the edge.”
“I think they’re both legends,” Barton said. “They’re John Roche of football, the Michael Roth,” referring to USC’s basketball and baseball icons. “You might call that Gamecock Heaven, or the Mount Rushmore of South Carolina.
“They’ll go down as the people who turned the corner in USC sports.”
THE MEN BEHIND THE FACEMASKS
Your choice: Show up for a USC home game and find Rogers — and his Heisman Trophy — beneath an overhang at Williams-Brice Stadium, posing for photos with fans and autographs in exchange for donations to his George Rogers Foundation, which provides scholarship funds to needy students. Or
Stand in line to get an autograph from Lattimore, who will dazzle you with his 1,000-watt smile and charm you with his soft-spoken, bright-eyed attention. Or maybe show up when he speaks to civic groups, kids in hospitals or hear how, this fall, he phoned a man he had met once, to ask about the man’s friend who’s battling cancer.
For USC fans, it’s a choice they don’t have to make. They can, and do, experience both.
“They’re two of the most humble guys I’ve been around in my life,” Harper said. “They come from two radically different backgrounds, and I have a great appreciation for both. George has done extremely well coming from where he did, surrounding himself with good people. And Marcus has always done that, plus he’s very blessed with a great mom and dad.”
Long-time USC followers know Rogers’ story: How his parents divorced, his father, George Sr., spent time in prison, while his mother raised him and four siblings as best she could in inner-city Atlanta. They know how he moved in with an aunt in Duluth and was discovered by high school coach Cecil Morris and, later, by Carlen.
Lattimore, by contrast, grew up in a nurturing two-parent home in cozy Duncan. “Discovered” would hardly be the right word for Lattimore as an athlete; in the world of social media and 24-7 news, he was on everyone’s radar nationally by his freshman year at Byrnes.
“His breakout game vs. Easley, it was crazy,” Harper said. “You’re watching this freshman, and oh my gosh — it’s unbelievable watching him run. You knew then he was the real deal.”
At South Carolina, both became fan favorites, though Rogers’ fame didn’t take off until his junior year when fellow tailback Johnnie Wright was injured, leaving the running attack in Rogers’ hands. Lattimore was already used to the spotlight after his career at Byrnes, and smoothly stepped into a starting spot, and the spotlight, from Day 1.
“Marcus knows how to manage (fame),” Harper said. “George never was comfortable being the center of attention, whereas Marcus is comfortable because he knows what he can accomplish for others with it.”
Rogers, now a happy father and grandfather, needed time to realize that. “I didn’t like (attention); I’d tell (reporters), ‘Go talk to (tight end) Willie Scott, leave me alone,’ ” he said, laughing now. “Growing up, it was tough; my mom had five kids, got divorced when I was 6 or 7, and she had to raise me, did the best she could.
“Marcus, they took care of him at Byrnes, and his mom” — whom Rogers has met, and respects — “is a good person. And Spurrier knows the ins and outs (of fame); Marcus listens to him, knows he won’t tell you wrong.”
Rogers learned, though. Carlen “was just like my dad, and he made plenty of decisions for me, I didn’t have to say anything.” Rogers later struggled on his own, dealing with fallout from his 1990s drug arrest and regaining fans’ approval. Today, he is known for his booming laugh, sunny disposition and enjoyment of jokes, some at his own expense.
“George had an infectious smile and a loving personality,” Suggs said. “You look at Marcus now, he’s more serious but also one of those people it’s so easy to love and admire and respect. Particularly off the field, people know that and they pull hard for him, not just because he’s a great running back.
“Both endeared themselves to the (USC) faithful. Because of what media is now compared to (1980) Marcus, more than George did, has that same type respect around the country.” When Lattimore was injured Oct. 27 vs. Tennessee, the outpouring nationally, including from such well-known athletes as LeBron James, was massive. The closet comparison, Suggs said, is when Rogers collapsed in the end zone after an 80-yard run vs. Southern Cal, which “got the West Coast press on him, helped him win the Heisman.”
Both players have transcended mere stardom to become USC icons. Fans and fellow players respected other great players, but none match Rogers or Lattimore when it comes to unadulterated love.
For years after Rogers’ USC career, archrival Clemson took great delight in pointing out the big back never scored against the Tigers, who won three of four meetings against his USC teams. Now the Tigers faithful can also say that Lattimore never scored either — though in fairness, he played Clemson once; also, the Gamecocks have won the past four in the series.
Both players were respected by their Upstate foes, though. Clyde Wrenn, who worked in both athletics departments, has nothing but praise for each.
“When people would say he never scored, George would come back with, ‘Yeah, but I ate up a lot of that grass,” between the end zones, Wrenn said, laughing.
As for Lattimore, “the biggest thing Marcus had going for him (was) USC became an established program in the SEC, which gave them a lot more credibility,” Wrenn said. “He’s been playing (against) a lot better teams, in a better conference. He had the good timing to get there when Carolina was at their height.
“He’s not going to outrun people, but he’s a hard-nosed guy. Now, George could run over you or by you. He was bigger than Marcus, but he could run off and leave the (defensive backs), which made him such a threat. Marcus played for teams that beat Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia but until he got there, they weren’t doing that.”
In recent years, Wrenn and Rogers have become close, appearing at fund-raising events, often alongside former Clemson coach Danny Ford, who also counts Rogers as a friend.
“At Clemson, I never watched him, because (as) the offensive line coach, I was on the sidelines talking to my players,” Ford says. “The one game I remember” — 1980, a stunning 27-6 upset of USC — “I’m just glad they didn’t give him the ball as often as they should have.”
Ford hasn’t seen as much of Lattimore, but one play vs. Tennessee stands out. “It wasn’t a big run, but they were going toward the State Fairgrounds (north end zone); it was maybe a 3-yard run, and he shouldn’t have scored against that defense, but somehow he got through,” he said. “That was more exciting to me than a long run, just the second and third effort.”
Still, he said, “I feel like I never really saw what he could do because of the injuries. But he made that big splash right out of high school (as a freshman), and if he’d been able to achieve all they predicted he would, he maybe would’ve been better” than Rogers.
Barton also recalls a relatively obscure moment, this one about Rogers and one that likely only shows up on a Clemson highlight clip. “(The Gamecocks) threw that pass across the field to the sideline, and (Clemson defensive back Willie Underwood) picked it off,” he said. “And George came all the way from across the field, ran (Underwood) down and made the tackle to keep him from scoring.
“That showed you how fast he was.” Not to mention how much he didn’t want to lose to the Tigers.
So it comes down to this: the players themselves. How do they view the one who set the bar at USC, and the one who challenged his spot?
Lattimore hadn’t been born when Rogers performed at USC. Still, when he broke the touchdowns record this season vs. UAB, he paid tribute to his predecessor. “It’s a big accomplishment,” he said. “I’ve met George Rogers and Harold Green, (and) just to be mentioned with them is a great honor.”
Rogers has seen rivals to his throne come and go. Lattimore, though, struck a chord with him. Maybe it’s the 30-odd years removed from the field. Maybe it’s their common traits, the low-key habit both would toss the football to an official after scoring a touchdown. Maybe it’s déjà vu?
“I think Marcus is a great one,” Rogers said. “He’s maybe got more attributes than I had. I might’ve taken it outside and be gone, but he can run up the middle better, caught the ball better, blocked better. I think I was a step faster other than that, he’s everything a running back needs to be.”
But is Rogers still the best ever? “Ain’t no one no better,” he said, laughing. The Heisman Trophy? “I still got that,” he said, laughing again.
He’s joking, of course. Rogers has taken delight in following Lattimore’s — and the Gamecocks’ — success. “On the field, he was electrifying. He’d do something that’d make you say, ‘Whoooo!’
“I had a chance to be around him some, and he’s just a great person all around. I thought he wasn’t real at one time (because) he comes at you with such a pleasant (attitude). He’s just really nice all the time.”
Rogers also was that way — sometimes. “I treat you like you treat me. If you’re nasty to me I’m a country boy. (But) Marcus is nice to everyone.”
Except opponents, of course. “I went to his high school and saw him play, and he was a heck of a running back then,” Rogers said. “No one could catch him, and if they did, they couldn’t tackle him.” In 2011, Rogers was impressed enough to cast a vote for the Heisman (he didn’t say first, second or third place) for Lattimore.
A long time passed — more than 30 years — between their careers, but Rogers says it won’t take that long for the next Rogers or Lattimore to come to USC. “What do you think (Jadeveon) Clowney is doing?” he asked, laughing. “But he’s not a running back, so he won’t break my records.”
Probably no one will. Future Gamecocks teams likely will be balanced or even pass-oriented. “We ran the ball,” Rogers said. “No question about it, people knew that was what we were better at. If you stopped our run game, you probably stopped us.”
Thirty-two years ago, George Rogers ran hard, ran fast, ran all the way to a Heisman Trophy. Thirty-two years later, Marcus Lattimore ran hard and fast, too. Not as far, not as fast — but every bit as hard.
Two generations of South Carolina fans appreciated that and came to love Rogers and Lattimore for their games and their character. Garry Harper sees that love for both his old teammate and his young counterpart. Sees it pretty much every day, he said.
“In Duncan, there’s a big road sign downtown,” he said. “It says, ‘Please pray for Marcus Lattimore.’ It was there the day he got hurt. It’s still there.”
And whenever Harper returns for a USC home game, he drives past signs for George Rogers Boulevard. Harper knows well what went into those two signs.
He expects those signs to be in place a long time. Perhaps even as long as the memories.
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