He was indestructible until he wasn’t.
In 2010, when Marcus Lattimore’s knee tissue was as blemish-free as his reputation, he carried a football program on his back without so much as a missed step. On Wednesday, bearing scars on both knees thanks to the game that he loved, he retired from the San Francisco 49ers without ever having taken the field in an NFL game.
The 49ers, who selected Lattimore out of South Carolina in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL Draft, were left to wonder what Lattimore might have been. In Columbia, the Gamecocks and their fans were left thinking about all that he had been.
“Obviously,” Gamecocks head coach Steve Spurrier said Wednesday, “I think the big success we have had here between 2010 and ’13 started when we signed Marcus Lattimore.”
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That was on Feb. 3, 2010, when the Duncan native officially agreed to play football for South Carolina. He was considered one of the nation’s best high school running backs and that day hitched himself to a wagon that had proved too tough to pull for basically everyone who had gone before him.
George Rogers won the Heisman Trophy in 1980 for heaven’s sake, but he could never lift his teammates to more than eight wins in any season he played. Lattimore not only pulled the wagon out of the ditch, he drug it all the way to Atlanta and the SEC championship game in his first year at the school.
In the first SEC game of his career, Lattimore carried the ball 37 times and buried Georgia under 182 yards. In the final regular season conference game that season, he carried it 40 times for 212 yards at Florida as the Gamecocks clinched the division title.
Only five times in South Carolina history has a player carried the ball more than 36 times in a game. Three of those times it was Lattimore. (The other two were Rogers and Ron Bass, who is more famous as the real-life sunshine from the 2000 movie hit “Remember the Titans.”)
“He could take over the game,” Spurrier said. “He wasn’t afraid to carry it every time you called his number. Just tremendous effort every play, tremendous effort every play.”
Lattimore finished that remarkable freshman season with 249 carries and 1,197 yards, the third most in school history in each category. He was named national freshman of the year, and, most amazingly of all, the Gamecocks were winning important football games.
It is worth remembering that South Carolina’s all-time winning percentage prior to Lattimore’s arrival was 49.9 percent. Since, it is 74.2. He elevated the level of every player around him and the psyche of an entire program.
It was a heavy load, though.
In 2011, his sophomore season ended in the seventh game of the year when he tore his left ACL while blocking for teammate Bruce Ellington, a player he helped convince to join South Carolina’s football team and who now has a spot on the 49ers roster that Lattimore never could attain. Lattimore rehabilitated himself from that injury as diligently as everyone expected he would and returned with much fanfare for the 2012 season.
He made it to the eighth game that year before a moment came that no South Carolina fan will ever forget. Lattimore was carrying the ball in the second quarter when he was sandwiched between two Tennessee defenders, one of whom struck Lattimore directly on the right knee. The result was immediate and gruesome, as Lattimore collapsed after a 2-yard gain with a wrecked knee. Lattimore’s teammates, and most of Tennessee’s players, gathered around him on the field.
As he was taken off the field on a medical cart that day, Lattimore believed his football career was finished, but within days the school’s doctors began offering hope that he might one day return to the field. On Dec. 12, 2012, Lattimore announced he would make that attempt in the NFL rather than return to college football.
Thanks to various injuries and his early entry into the NFL, Lattimore played in 29 games at South Carolina. Still, he finished as the school’s all-time leader in rushing touchdowns (38) and sixth-leading rusher with 2,677 yards on 555 carries.
Wednesday’s announcement dealt another blow to life’s most tired cliché – that you can have anything you desire if you only want it badly enough. Lattimore wanted nothing more than for that devastating moment against the Volunteers not to be his last as a football player. An entire state wanted it right along with him.
It wasn’t enough.