Marcus Lattimore’s professional football career finally will begin this week, and the former South Carolina running back will learn in the next three days if a national media campaign that has been as relentless as his knee rehab has moved him up any NFL draft boards.
The Gamecocks’ all-time leader in touchdowns, who is coming off the complete repair of three ligaments in his right knee, has made appearances on the ESPN feature “Gruden’s QB Camp” and the Dan Patrick Radio Show in the past week to go along with earlier appearances in USA Today and on the NFL Network.
“When (the injury) first happened, I really did ask, ‘Why me?’ and, ‘What if?’ ” Lattimore told Patrick on Tuesday. “But as the days passed, I just realized that everything happens for a reason. I am happy with where I’ve come. I am happy with everything that has happened these last five months. Everything has been real smooth.”
Lattimore is most widely projected to be a fourth-round selection in this weekend’s draft, which means he would have to wait until Saturday to hear his name called. The first round of the NFL Draft will be held Thursday night, and rounds two and three will take place Friday evening. Most of Lattimore’s recent public appearances have been focused on persuading potential employers that he is healthy enough to warrant a higher selection.
“When you get me on your team, there is nothing I have not been through. You are getting a tough, hard-nosed football player,” Lattimore told former NFL coach Jon Gruden during a 30-minute television segment in which the pair watched film of Lattimore’s career and talked about his injuries.
“I feel like I can overcome anything,” Lattimore said. “I feel like I have seen it all. Nothing can ever take the smile off my face because I’ll never take anything for granted again. I will never take walking for granted again because I know what it’s like not to walk.”
Lattimore, who rushed for 2,677 yards in 29 games at South Carolina, addressed durability and health issues with Gruden. He has had major surgeries on both knees in the past 18 months.
“There’s no doubt in my mind I will come back better than I was,” he said. Opponents “will feel everything I felt. They will feel my pain.”
ESPN’s Mel Kiper believes Lattimore could sneak into the third round but is more likely to be a fourth-round pick. Kiper also believes Lattimore will sit out the 2013 season.
“He’s out there trying to get back to 100 percent. He’ll work as hard as anybody possibly can to do it. I think his passion, his desire, his character is all going to help him because you have to have that to rehab the way he needs to to get back to 100 percent,” Kiper said. “He’s going to play football again. He’ll be ready to go in 2014.”
Lattimore believes it will be before then. He will not be cleared to make side-to-side cuts for another two to three weeks but believes he will be fully healthy in four months, he told Patrick.
Gruden began his program by showing highlights of Lattimore taking big hits that did not cause knee injuries, such as the hit by Florida State’s Greg Reid that knocked Lattimore unconscious during the 2010 Chick-fil-A Bowl.
“Aren’t you glad you came down here to see me this morning? I’m showing you get your (behind) knocked off,” Gruden said. “You like this?”
“This ain’t too pleasant right here,” Lattimore replied.
Lattimore fought back tears several times during his interview with Gruden.
“My story relates to everybody sitting out there right now,” he said. “Everybody is going to go through adversity. It’s going to be - how do you get back up? I always say adversity introduces a man to himself. My kids, they are going to watch this one day and they are going to see, my dad never gave up.”
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier made one final pitch for his former player Wednesday.
Professional teams “don’t ask me much, but I have made a point to tell the world, ‘If you have Marcus Lattimore on your team, he makes everybody else better,’ ” Spurrier said. “He is the first guy in the meeting room, in the weight room, in the workouts. He does a little extra. He does everything you ask and then a little more and it just rubs off on your teammates. His influence on the team is really something special.”