One could almost see the same smile, the same fortunate head shake that he always had when discussing how blessed he felt to be able to play the game so well. Even across an ocean, the joy of being healthy and on an NFL roster was transmitted over the phone line.
One year ago today, Marcus Lattimore didn’t know if he would ever play again. It was hard for anyone to think that he would while staring at him on the field at Williams-Brice Stadium, his right knee in tatters, his status as a future NFL tailback looking grim.
Lattimore had worked so hard to return from the torn left ACL he had suffered in 2011, only to see his other knee wrecked in a span of seconds.
But one year later, Lattimore is healthy and happy, spending the week with his teammates in London. The San Francisco 49ers are playing Jacksonville at Wembley Stadium Sunday and Lattimore will be on the sideline in his team-issued gear, just like he has been for all the 49ers’ games this season.
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He doesn’t wear his red and gold No. 38 jersey on the sideline, and he probably won’t get to wear it in a game until next season. That’s OK with him.
“I’m ready to do whatever,” Lattimore said. “They’re taking care of me. That’s the biggest thing, giving me all the time I need, but I’m ready to get out there.”
Lattimore impressed NFL scouts with his quick return to rehab drills, and the 49ers drafted him in the fourth round. Many assumed this season would be like a redshirt year for Lattimore, letting his knee heal and getting him to 100 percent for next season. Plus, the 49ers are stacked at tailback – franchise career leading rusher Frank Gore is playing well and is backed up by Kendall Hunter, Anthony Dixon and LaMichael James.
Lattimore said he knew that he probably wouldn’t play this season, but he feels he’s ready to practice. That possibility will be decided soon.
“They haven’t cleared me yet, but these next two, three weeks, I think they’re going to look at it,” he said. “They really haven’t given me an indication or anything set in stone. I know I’ll most likely get a chance to practice.”
Lattimore is on the 49ers’ Reserve/Non-Football Injury list. By rule, he was not allowed to practice during the first six weeks of the season and that has continued intothe eighth week of the season.
The team has to say that he can practice before Week 11 (Nov. 17). If he begins to practice before then, he can practice for three weeks. At the end of those three weeks, the team has to decide if he will be added to the active roster or left on the Reserve/NFL list for the remainder of the season.
“There’s still a possibility of anything to happen,” Vernon Smith, Lattimore’s stepfather, said. “He just doesn’t really know. I think they may be leaning toward just sitting him down and having him full-go for next year.”
Practicing would be another step in that process. Lattimore is aching to show the team that he will be able to play when called upon. Someday, he could be the replacement for Gore, who he has bonded with because both have gone through the pain and rehabilitation of knee injuries.
“It was frustrating at first, of course,” Lattimore said. “I wanted to be out there, especially when we first started. But I know it’s for the best, and it’s all about the future and longevity. I know that’s the best thing, so I’m not really stressing it. I’m content.”
Lattimore works out every weekday, and he does agility and running back drills three times per week. He’s always looking to retain his quickness and footwork, and does all of it brace-free. He said if he plays, he’ll probably wear a sleeve on his right knee, but he doesn’t need anything while training.
In between, he is learning the playbook and doing his part to aid a stable locker room. The 49ers are aiming for their third straight appearance in the NFC Championship Game and are hoping to take the final step that eluded them last year – a Super Bowl win. Lattimore sees a lot of similarities with his past and current teammates.
“Just a great group of guys,” he said. “Something I’m used to – a team where everybody looks out for each other.”
The future is always on his mind, whether it’s about getting his first touch in an NFL game or some day returning to USC to finish his studies. He is eight classes (about 32 hours) short of his Public Health degree and plans to finish in Columbia when he gets a chance.
He also thinks about that day, one year ago, when everybody at Williams-Brice was silenced in one gruesome blink. As soon as Lattimore hit the ground, his leg bouncing at an unnatural angle, each sideline knew it was bad. In a magnificent show of sportsmanship, opponent Tennessee gathered around Lattimore along with the Gamecocks as Lattimore was tenderly lifted onto a cart and driven out of the stadium.
Even after returning from his previous knee injury, Lattimore nearly lost hope. He knew that this one was much worse.
“I think about that all the time,” he said. “A couple of days after, I looked down at my leg and thought, ‘Is this even possible? Can I even run again? Can I do the things I wanted to do physically?’ ”
Before the second injury, Lattimore had planned on playing his senior year at USC. In the days following it, he knew that he might recover, but his NFL career was going to be hindered.
“No doubt. I was coming back,” Lattimore said. “I wanted to get my degree. That was the main thing. After the injury, I knew that my career got cut short a little bit. So I wanted to get as many years as I could out of the NFL to live my dream.”
Coach Steve Spurrier was behind the decision and wished Lattimore well, knowing how much he had meant to the Gamecocks’ success. Lattimore’s surgery and rehabilitation could be described as near-miraculous.
The two final steps are being allowed to practice, and then to play. Lattimore is bursting to do each, but he has gotten used to waiting. He’ll be as enthusiastic if they tell him he can’t practice as he’ll be when they tell him to suit up for the first time.
“It’s what I always wanted to do growing up, to play in the NFL,” he said. “Right now, I feel like a freshman again.”
Follow Cloninger on Twitter at @DCTheState